Which is better - celebrity or civilian contestants?
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
The reboot of THE WEAKEST LINK with all-celebrity contestants has re-ignited the debate about what is better for game shows – famous faces or people we can relate to?
TV shows with celebrity-only contestants are nothing new - from What’s My Line to Blankety-Blank to I’m a Celebrity, Strictly and The Wheel. However there is an increasing trend of formats originally designed for regular folk – let’s call them civilians – being cast with famous(ish) faces, either in alternating runs or as replacements.
Do celebrity versions rate better than the civilian originals? It’s debatable. Celeb versions tend to run in more primetime slots, with bigger budgets for production and marketing, and live audiences. So they may attract higher audience figures than the original while scoring a lower percentage share for the slot.
But broadcasters still opt for celebrities as a safer bet. The liveliest civilians at audition can become white-eyed and monosyllabic in studio. Whereas a celebrity used to cameras, mics, make-up, delays and retakes can usually be relied on to deliver.
Today’s audiences are wired by drama and reality to expect a compelling narrative – i.e. story driven by characters – in everything they watch. And they find it in game shows with characters, like the Chasers or the Egg Heads. By contrast the recent first run of Moneyball, with its rapid turnover of civilians identified only by the flimsiest of bios (Name, Rank, What would you Do with the Money), showed how little we as viewers invest in contestants adrift from any kind of dramatic context.
And of course you can insult a celebrity! In retrospectives of The Weakest Link, comments made by the host about contestants’ appearance, age, background, employment, IQ etc. can feel very much of their time (OK, they make you wince). Much safer for one Celebrity to diss another than for a highly-paid TV personality to lay into a single mum.
So what are the arguments against?
In many quizzes the stake is the prize money. As games guru David Bodycombe reminds me, celebrity contestants can actually win cash. For example in Schlag den Star (celebrity spin-off of German game show Schlag deb Raab) and in the Dutch celebrity version of The Mole. But more often than not, the regular format is tweaked to allow celebrities to play for ‘charity’.
OK, cash for charities can be a stake too. But however worthy the cause, viewers are less invested emotionally in charity prizes than in seeing people like themselves win a life-changing amount of cash. And it can seriously undermine the format, as in Celebrity Apprentice where the central premise of the original - getting a job with the Host - is entirely absent.
And then: What If They Lose? A Celebrity episode of The Chase was recently accused by a tabloid for going soft on a celeb, alleging the production were trying to avoid the Celeb from failing to win any cash for their good cause. A 2020 episode on ABC's Millionaire saw celebrity contestant Nikki Glazer let off her Final Answer at $16,000 and allowed to give another one, which was correct. And there has a persistent rumour that some big-money quizzes guarantee in advance a minimum donation to the charities being played for, even if the celebrities walk away with little or nothing on camera.
Whatever the case, stake and jeopardy in ‘charity’ shows are often messy and ill-defined, in a genre where clear-cut outcomes offer the greatest satisfaction to viewers.
Charity aside, Celebrities have different motivations for appearing. Comedians particularly are looking for an opportunity to Do Their Thing. As a young AP on a panel game, I remember the shock I felt in the Green Room when I saw the producer casually feeding the comedians questions – and some answers –from the show we were about to record. Only later did I learn that the comics needed time to create or rework material off the back of the quiz content in order to deliver what they’d been booked to do. Make us laugh.
But does your civilian-designed format have the right spaces in the right places to let them do that? The ‘take your time’ pacing of Millionaire, and the ‘couples-arguing’ dynamic of Money Drop give professional performers room to work in. But for other formats, where it’s all about the host, or rapid-fire questions, or the prize, it can be a problem.
Of course Celebrities rarely match their image. Some, like Alan Davies for example, are far more knowledgeable than they appear. Others, no I won’t name names, are far less. When your format is predicated on the broad general knowledge of your civilian contestants, and you have calibrated 100 questions accordingly, it is hard to adapt the show to reality-show hunks without visibly dumbing down the show. Especially if you want them to win money for charity!
That is assuming you have lots of celebrities to hand. Celebrity-designed formats like The Wheel churn through Celebrities. Luckily, in the UK there is a symbiotic relationship between TV and the tabloids. TV creates minor ‘personalities’ on digital reality shows, the tabloids give them undeserved attention, they became famous enough to be booked as ‘celebrity’ guests, and their off-screen antics deliver stories that sell tabloids. The cycle continues till the celebrity falls down of their own accord, or the tabloids push them. Meanwhile UK producers have a ready supply of celebrities to populate game and reality shows, insecure enough about their status to do just about anything on screen.
Compare this to countries with small populations and no celebrity culture, where it is logistically impossible to fill up 8 new slots daily or even weekly on shows like The Weakest Link with famous faces. I visited a delightful production of Splash! in Belgium, where one of the celebrity divers was a well-known fitness instructor, along with her son, who wandered in during her interview and was booked for looking fantastic in trunks. Actually, it worked fine!
So what’s the answer?
First, many of today’s civilian contestants are effectively semi-pro. We tend to watch only our favourite game shows, so we don’t notice the contestants pop up in different formats. Many quizzers study part- or full-time, Greg Wallace recently revealed in a Radio Times interview that any civilian hoping to win MasterChef had to study the technical process by which the show is actually made, and the personal tastes, likes and dislikes of the judges. Being a great cook is not enough. Many Bookers have a blacklist of ‘pro’ contestants to avoid unbalancing a show, or giving away too much cash, as well as their own ‘safe bets’ they can drop into a weak middle-of-the-run episode.
Second, celebrities can benefit financially by taking part in a 'charity' version, even if they can't win cash. Not only may they be paid a significant appearance fee, but the appearance itself can revive stalled careers, lead to lucrative advertising and endorsement deals, and boost ticket sales on tour, etc.
So the line between professional celebrity and amateur civilian is already blurry. From the production point of view, both are there primarily to entertain. Both are cast and prepped, to a lesser or greater extent, to provide that entertainment. The art and craft lies in choosing the right civilian format to adapt for celebrities, without (a) subverting it so much that is ceases to function properly, and (b) damaging the status and ratings of the original.
In the past, The Weakest Link has ridden both horses beautifully, so it will interesting to see if the UK reboot leads to a new civilian version (the US reboot has had no problems with regular contestants).
Perhaps the best example of all is 8 out of 10 Cats does Countdown. The celebrity version has run effortlessly alongside the civilian version since 2012, with the comedian contestants extracting a surprising degree of entertainment from the nerdy original.
But then in both versions, Countdown is not about money, its gentle pacing and built-in chat leaves plenty of room to play, and its cleverly simple rounds gives celebrity contestants a chance to show how smart they are, not how stupid.
Which is a pretty good template.
For more about The Weakest Link, check out this special edition of TV SHOW AND TELL, the podcast I co-host with David Bodycombe