Whether it’s Big Brother, The Voice, The Bachelor, Australia’s Got Talent or Survivor, we live in the age of the globally franchised television show. If it works in Denmark, Bulgaria and the USA then our local TV networks are keen to capitalise on a home grown version. That’s the familiar and horribly predictable modus operandi of the commercial networks but it seems SBS is not entirely shy of a bit of copycat action.
The broadcaster recently premiered a Saturday night panel show, titled Celebrity Letters & Numbers, best described as a kind of poverty row version of the long running UK programs Countdown and 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. Compered by a freshly coiffured Michael Hing, the show is an ultra low budget clone of 8 Out Of Ten Cats, complete with a similar set and theme music. Whether it’s a franchise deal I’m not sure but SBS previously ran a Letters & Numbers style show with Richard Morecoft.
Each week the program features three ‘celebrity guests’, plucked from the cabal of local comedians who seem to monopolise every TV panel show and the occasional Uber Eats advert – the likes of Hamish Blake, Matt Okine, Merrick Watts, Jennifer Wong and Aaron Chen. Michael Hing does his Jimmy Carr best to hold the show together but the laughs are strained and the rivalry contrived. Special mention should be made of the set itself, an elongated design to allow for social distancing fronted by what looks like an endless roll of flame red shag pile carpet. The SBS props department obviously got a great deal at the local Rugs R Us clearance sale.
It’s hard to fathom just why SBS chose to produce this lame imitation, especially as they have run seemingly endless seasons of the British original. On Saturday night Celebrity Letters & Numbers is followed just an hour later by the UK’s 8 Out Of Ten Cats, a show that probably has ten times the budget and a host of writers and production staff. It’s also renowned for its offbeat and ribald humour, packed with more double entendre than a Carry On movie. By comparison the SBS version is expletive free and almost antiseptically polite. Maybe they are pitching for a broader family audience at its earlier timeslot.
Thank God for SBS, they broadcast some great content and their local programming is restricted by a very lean budget. Surely however, they could have come up with at least an original idea for a panel show rather than a Dolly the Sheep copy of this well worn format. You have to question whether this programming decision is a renaissance of the old cultural cringe which dominated the first decades of Australian TV.
Much of our content then was originally imported from the US and the UK and those programs which were locally produced were often shameless copies of successful overseas shows. The early ‘tonight show’ and entertainment programs often brought in US comperes like Bob Dyer, Don Lane and Delo and Daly, in preference to our local talent. There were however some unique and highly original Australian programs and perhaps the producers at SBS could look to these for their future inspiration.
Who, of a certain generation, could not remember the immortal Cabbage Quiz on Channel 9, compered by the great Desmond Tester. Children were awarded prizes for correct answers but laden with cabbages when they answered incorrectly. If they dropped the lot, cabbages and prizes, they went home empty handed – suitably penalised for their lack of knowledge.
An SBS remake could well be hilarious, with the usual grab bag of jaded comics compelled to juggle lettuces, cabbages, watermelons and a variety of oversized fruit and vegetables whenever they blew an answer. No actual prizes awarded but if anybody dropped their entire bundle, an ebullient Michael Hing could reprise a wonderful sight gag from the late Sean Loch on Countdown by tipping a full tray of kitty litter (complete with fake poos) over them. Now that’s entertainment!
Meanwhile if you are totally bored and disillusioned with local television content, can I suggest the 24/7 webcam of two peregrine falcons raising a family of three very young chicks, high up on the window ledge of a Melbourne skyscraper. Last time I looked in there were over 1400 people watching, a number which could well give Celebrity Letters & Numbers on SBS a ratings thrashing.