Monday, April 14, 2008

The Kids Are All Right

Designing gameshows isn't easy. The BBC has run up a long list of Saturday night shows that clearly had the core of a decent idea, but somehow needed a bit of tweaking. And now they've got another one.

The Kids Are All Right is an early evening, adults-verus-kids quiz show. Perfectly good starting point. In fact, it's conceivable that somebody started off by saying "Why don't we do a game show with a team of adults taking on a team of kids?"

However, there's a very good reason why you can't make that show. As I understand it, there are limits on the value of prizes that kids can compete for. And there are good reasons for that - nobody really wants to saddle an eight-year-old with the knowledge that he just cost his family £100,000 by getting a question wrong. So if you had the kids competing for the prizes, the prize value would have to be pitifully low. And that's not on.

So what they've ended up with is a sort of cross between Are You Smarter Than A 10 Year Old (the UK version of Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader, retitled for obvious reasons), and the daytime quiz show Eggheads. The premise of Eggheads is simple. Every day, a team of contestants take on a team of past champions from other quiz shows. The prize money rolls over every day until a team of contestants actually wins, which doesn't happen that often. The champions play for pride (which presumably means they get paid the same appearance fee whether they win or lose).

Now, Eggheads largely works. The house team are so spectacularly good - they racked up a 74-game winning streak last year - that the contestants are automatically the underdogs, and so you want to see them win. It's simple.

The problem with The Kids Are All Right is that it's putting a team of children in the same position, and no matter how clever they are (very, we're assured), they're still kids. Why would I root for a team of adults to beat them? That doesn't make any sense. A couple of the older kids have figured this out and have a tentative stab at playing the bad guy, but realistically, you're not going to get that from a nine-year-old, who quite understandably looks more concerned about getting the questions right.

In practice, judging from the first episode, most of the questions seem to be basic general knowledge or observation tests. The adults shouldn't have much of an advantage, but it also means that the kids don't get the opportunity to look smarter. However, the final round - which determines whether the adults get any money - is heavily weighted in the kids' favour. It's an elimination quiz where you win by eliminating all of your opponents. But as the kids outnumber the adults by seven to four, they really ought to win most weeks.

This sums up the problem with the show; the kids only need the numbers advantage because they wouldn't be dominant on a level playing field, and if they're not crushingly dominant, why on earth would I want to see a team of adults beat them?

Our host, the increasingly ubiquitous John Barrowman, seems equally perplexed about how he should be playing this. He explicitly wants the contestants to win. He can't be that harsh to a nine-year-old boy. But at times, he lapses into theatrical flourishes as if the kids were unstoppable foes. And yet they seem like more or less normal kids.

There's something to this idea; it feels like the concept ought to work with a bit of tweaking. Perhaps the answer is that we should be rooting for the kids, and the contestants should be the implicit bad guys. If you approach it that way, it kind of works; it just doesn't seem to be the show they think they're making.