Channel 4: Careful, You’re Damaging Trust

Channel 4: Careful, You're Damaging TrustWe all know that the Web is all about Trust, don’t we … and those companies that do not prove that they’re trustworthy will lose out.

While writing the piece about the shocking state of DRM and the Big Brother stream, it struck me that beyond the trust that was being lost through their insistence of using DRM-restricted content, they were also losing the trust of their paying customers another way.

Here’s a word in your shell like Channel 4.

When people sign up for the Celebrity Big Brother Season Pass, they understand that they’re paying for access to a live stream of the ‘action’ (as far as that goes) – and that’s what they’re lead to believe.

We viewers understand the rules. There’s an understanding that there’ll be a delay to avoid ‘rude’ words going out. Eventually the paying punters also understand that other conversations will be blanked out with sound effects, even when it’s completely clear that there’s no need for it – it’s designed to create intrigue.

What is deeply wrong however is repeating the previous hours footage between the announcement of the name of the contestant leaving the house, and their actual leaving.

It’s just wrong. The end result is that it makes me think less of Channel 4 – definitely not a good idea when they’re betting so much of their future on digital delivery.

People who pay for the pass are paying for that ‘insiders view of the house’. They hope to see what the general TV viewing public can’t.

When people have paid for it, not letting them have access to what is behind the broadcast footage is wrong.

‘The IT Crowd’ Comedy Premiers Online: Channel 4 First

Channel 4 Debuts 'The IT Crowd' Comedy Series OnlineIn a significant new development, Channel 4 will be allowing their viewers to watch their new comedy program, ‘The IT Crowd’ online and on-demand in advance of their TV broadcast.

The new series, which stars Richard Ayoade from digital-lifestyles fave, Nathan Barley, centres around three people working in the IT department of a large firm.

Channel 4 Debuts 'The IT Crowd' Comedy Series OnlineThe online debut is a first for a terrestrial broadcaster in the UK and apes a similar strategy employed by US network NBC, which launched the US version of The Office online last year.

The first episode is scheduled to air on Channel 4 on Friday, February 3rd, but surfers have been able to view the entire show, on-demand, through the C4 Website since yesterday.

Channel 4 Debuts 'The IT Crowd' Comedy Series OnlineChannel 4 are saying that this is the first time that they’ve premiered a full episode of a new series, adding that they find it “particularly exciting ” to be airing such a “high profile and apposite programme.”

The content is free to view, with Channel 4 bods seeing the online offering as a way of extending a “buzz” around the show and “enhancing the marketing activity.”

Channel 4 Debuts 'The IT Crowd' Comedy Series OnlineThe program has already received substantial online coverage already with sites like MSN, Yahoo! and Wanadoo running features, and Channel 4 are hoping that the coverage will help in pull in viewers.

We haven’t had time to watch the program yet (we’re too busy slaving over a hot keyboard, goddamnit!), but we reckon the EFF sticker on the laptops was an encouraging touch.

BBC Spooks Dares to Combine Drama and Interactivity

As more people take up digital television, whether through Freeview, Sky or other means, the enhanced viewing experience becomes the norm rather than the exception.  For instance enhanced sport broadcasts, such as BBC coverage of both Wimbledon and the Olympics, offer viewers the opportunity to tailor the broadcast programming to their interests by enabling them to watch events that would not otherwise be available.  Likewise Sky’s fenhanced football allows viewers to choose the commentators and camera angles.  News multi-screen offers similar flexibility in navigating news content. Yet interactive drama programmes are often regarded as the holy grail of enhanced television.  The scripted linear narrative is seen as a barrier to interactivity.  So when producers of the Five soap Family Affairs announced that they planned to broadcast an interactive episode in May 2004, pundits were intrigued.  Theirs was the Big Brother version of interactivity – viewers were asked to vote, by phone,  on the outcome of a love triangle.  The phone vote generated extra income for the broadcaster and new viewers for the programme.  On the record, the producers were delighted to offer a television first.  However, when asked about the interactive episode off the record, a very senior executive involved at all stages of development and production said at the time,  “Never again”.  It turns out that accommodating even such a limited element of uncertainty in the narrative posed great difficulty for future storylining and production schedules.

BBC Spooks InteractiveMore recently the BBC has claimed to offer yet another enhanced drama first with interactive Spooks.  The third series of this successful spy drama began transmission on BBC1 Monday 11 October.   Unlike Family Affairs’ tentative foray into interactivity, viewers will not be voting on Spooks storylines.  (If they could, they’d most certainly vote to keep Tom Quinn, the main character played by Matthew Macfadyen who exits the show in Episode 3.)  Instead immediately after the programme, digital viewers are invited to find out if they have what it takes to make it as a spy.  Led by Harry Pearce (a crossover character from the television series portrayed by Peter Firth), participants take a series of scored tests that examine essential espionage skills such as memory, reaction and observation.  From Episode 6 viewers will be able to participate in a mission that was written by Steve Bailie, an experienced writer of television drama.  “The aim,” Sophie Walpole BBC’s Head of Interactive Drama & Entertainment told us, “is to offer fans a deeper relationship with both the programme and its characters.”  In addition, Walpole pointed out,  “fans will get something back – they’ll get to know a little about themselves.” 

According to the BBC, the number of unique users for the Spooks Website during the second series “ran into the hundreds of thousands.”  The decision to develop and produce the interactive platform was taken because the producers had such a strong proposal.  According to Walpole, “ The BBC is always looking at ways to develop its content.  But Spooks was not singled out for development in this way.  The producers had a really good proposition.”  She continued, “ The inspiration and vision of Andrew Whitehouse (the producer of Spooks’ interactive content) was incredible.  We had a great producer with a great idea.”  The enhanced TV elements are intended to complement the revamped Website so that, although the site also offers a spy training academy, the experiences are completely different. “The Spooks superfan who goes to both the Website and the interactive elements will not feel like they’ve had a similar experience,” said Walpole.  Figures for new users of the Website or users of the enhanced television platform after transmission of the first episode are not yet available.

When asked how technology affected the development of enhanced television in general, Walpole stated that while it is technically possible, the BBC opted not to transmit enhanced Spooks via broadband because they wanted it to be seen by as many viewers as possible.  “Although they continue to grow, broadband audiences are still small.”  Looking to the future Walpole said she was certain that the BBC would make this type of rich content available to broadband users, possibly as soon as next year.

From what I’ve seen so far, the BBC has reason to be proud of interactive Spooks.  By recognising that interactive drama doesn’t necessarily infer gimmicky phone votes (aka viewer extortion) or ceding control of the narrative to the audience, they deftly avoided the traps that frustrated at least one Family Affairs executive.  The production values on Spooks are really very high indeed.  And the spy training modules transmitted after Episode 1 were good fun.  Most importantly, they lend themselves quite nicely to a shared experience – an element of the interactive experience that  is essential for television audiences.  The aim of providing a way for fans to develop a closer relationship with the programme is definitely achieved.  If the enhanced Spooks disappoints at all, it is that the enhancements are extremely limited.  The spy training takes approximately 30 minutes to complete – that’s a bit too long.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to navigate through the game; participants must start at the beginning and move through to the end to get scores.  Also, the training modules will be repeated after Episodes 2 through 5 and the narrative mission transmitted after Episode 6 will be repeated after Episodes 7 through 10.  While this offers viewers the opportunity to practice their skills it means that, in effect, there are only 2 unique enhancements throughout the 10-week run.  That’s a great shame because they’ve done such a good job of creating enhanced Spooks that I really would have liked more!

In the UK, Episodes 3 – 10 of Spooks will be broadcast Mondays at 21.00 on BBC1.  Episodes are repeated on Saturdays at 21.10 on BBC3 followed by an advance transmission of the next episode at 22.10.  The interactive elements are broadcast immediately after transmission on both channels.

BBC Sppoks site

Roobarb and Custard in the 21st Century

Roobarb & Custard30-something nostalgics, rejoice: a new series of Roobarb and Custard is in production. IP owners and new series Executive Producers, A+B Productions have started work at Monster Animation Studios in Dublin. To be distributed by Celador, Roobarb and Custard Too uses hand-drawn and hand-animated cells coupled with modern production processes to produce a cartoon that is faithful to the original series.

Hardcore R&C fans will be relieved to hear that there is no dodgy computer graphics work in the new version, and that the classic look has not been messed around with. Having done a side-by-side comparison with an early animation sample, I was very impressed by the R&C Too, and was keen to find out how they managed to recreate the distinctive look of the original. Adam Sharp, co-founder of A+B Productions told us “We’re using innovative ways to bring back the classic feel the original hand drawn series had.”

I spoke to Gerard O’Rourke at Monster Animation Studios about the painstaking process that A+B and Monster went through to get the correct look and feel: “Everything is hand-drawn. It’s then traditionally scanned into a computer and digitised. It’s then animated by hand, using a graphics tablet and is then rendered using a combination of Photoshop and Painter to achieve that marker pen feel. From there it’s composited together in After Effects – and then it’s over to post production to do the sound.”

And how did they reproduce the wobbly lines? “They recreate the drawing a number of times – when it’s played back if gives you the wobbly lines. Because you have to replicate the drawing a number of times, you have to do extra and copy them and offset them,” Gerard told us.

“The old version was done in the 70s, and you’ve probably heard the stories of them getting unemployed brickies and everyone they could find to work on Roobarb and Custard – and the reason they had that look that the markers had run out was because the markers had run out! They didn’t use animators all the time, but it did create its own feel and look – and we’ve been trying to increase the production values but not lose the charm of the programme.”

What about people who may be worried that it’s just a Flash update?

“We don’t want people to think that it’s a Flash project, because Flash can tend to be very flat and internet-based, but it is a great animating tool. But it really is only a tool like Word and Excel. It’s how you use it afterwards – take the different functions out of it and then use them with your own techniques and methods. We’ve taken all our software to its limits and used all the libraries and tools that we could get.”

Gerard seems very pleased with amount of care that A+B have been putting in to the new series: “Richard Bryers is narrating the series again, he’s doing all the voices. Grange Caveley, creator and writer has written all the new scripts.”

“It’s very much Roobarb and Custard 1974.”

Monster Animation

If you just can’t wait for the new version of Roobarb and Custard, here’s a selection of can-buy products from Amazon
DVD: Roobarb And Custard – The Complete Roobarb And Custard [1974]
VHS: Roobarb And Custard

Dan and Dusty – an Unlikely Example of TV Interactivity

Dan and Dusty is ITV1’s latest occupant for the post-pub Friday night slot – thirteen weeks of bands, interviews and stand up designed to appeal to young drunk people. This time however, ITV have fronted the show with two puppets rather than the usual talentless presenter. I suppose they’re cheaper and the headlines in 3AM Girls will be less embarrassing.

Anyway, what has this got to do with convergence? That’s right – ITV have realised that young, drunk people who like music and comedy also like mobile phones … and mobile phones equal money.

Viewers can interact with the programme with their mobile phone in a number of ways. They can send text messages to the show’s agony aunt for live advice on “In Confidence”, and enter competitions for prizes. It should come as no surprise to Digital Lifestyles readers that there are wallpapers and ringtones to download as well.

The mobile service is provided by Mobileway and Watertrace. Bernadette Lyons, the managing director Mobileway UK, said: “By providing mobile services to a show that looks set to have all the qualities of a cult success, Watertrace and Mobileway are helping ITV create a truly interactive proposition for viewers.”MobileWay

Dan and Dusty

BBC Fightbox Review – The Creation of a New Genre?

By Heidi Jacoby-Ackland

After all the hype, the BBC’s virtually-virtual gameshow Fightbox [Preview] finally premiered Monday night on BBC3.  Four contestants brought their self-created virtual warriors to the arena to do battle in elimination and combat competitions against the shows computer-generated opponents – all in a studio with a “Real Life” audience.  Without a doubt, the first night’s episode was a tentative start to the series.  The contestants seemed nervous, perhaps awed by playing a computer game in front of a live audience, and the presenters weren’t especially gregarious either.  But it was just the first of 20 episodes and Fightbox hints at good things to come.  It had flashes of how’d-they-do-that wizardry and, most important of all, it grasped the possibility of cross-platform interactive programme making with both computer-generated pincers. 

First, the good points.  The set is fantastic.  Unlike Time Commanders’ set, this one works exceptionally well, managing to look both futuristic and ancient at the same time.  For instance, the contestants are seated in cage-like pods that rise above the arena floor giving them a birds-eye view of the virtual action.  Yet references to Gladiator (the TV sport/gameshow from the early 1990’s) as well as its classical Roman inspiration are clearly evident too.  Next, the camera-work.  Top marks for wow-factor here on two counts.  First, Fightbox is (or claims to be) the first programme in which free-held cameras are used to combine both real and virtual images simultaneously.  To my eye, there didn’t seem to be any hiccups or glitches and I certainly couldn’t see the “seams.”  Second, there were some really fantastic camera angles that helped bring the best from the virtual graphics.  For example, there were a couple of over-the-shoulder shots (right) of the contestants which showed them in their pod displaying their computer monitor action in the foreground, in the middle-ground the virtual arena action and finally the real arena and audience action in the background.  In another, there was a low shot from the arena floor looking up through one of the virtual challenges, the helix.  Both these shots, amongst others, helped to create depth of vision, contributing a sense of scale and density to the action.  At no point did the huge arena appear to be empty even though, in the “Real World” it was.  (In reality, the studio audience watched the gaming on a massive screen.)  I ought to mention the graphics too.  Although gamers’ expectations are always increasing, visually the graphics in Fightbox are fairly good.  There was a consistency between the studio lighting and the graphics which was so good that virtual shadows were created which matched the real ones.  Now that’s attention to detail!

With the good comes the bad.  There were Cheerleaders. Cheerleaders?  I can, almost, see the reference point since the MC repeatedly called Fightbox “a new sport”.  However, as any occasional viewer of American Football will testify, the Fightbox ladies’ efforts were half-hearted by comparison.  And what’s with The Weakest Link-style ridiculing of the losing contestants that the cheerleaders and the presenters indulged in?  That is unnecessary – The Weakest Link is so over. 

Although it was the beginning of a new show, I’m not sure about the choice of presenters.  Trevor Nelson is great as the host of music-related programmes but he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in gaming, as his comments in this weeks’ Radio Times attest.  As for Lisa Snowdon, I’m afraid I find it very difficult indeed to forget the LA Pool Party colonic irrigation episode.  But maybe that’s just me.  There was one moment when Lisa attempted to react to one of the Sentients, which was truly awful – she was wooden and the timing was out-of-synch. 

Finally, to be perfectly honest, there are some problems with the Fightbox game itself.  First, the contests are exceptionally simple.  On the one hand, simplicity is necessary since it would be tedious in the extreme if the whole episode were spent explaining the object of the tests to the audience.  However, I anticipated contests with a bit more action and was, a bit, disappointed by what was delivered.  I sure hope there’s more on offer on the PC/console game.  Also, the Sentients’ movements seemed more technically developed than contestants’ warriors.  Although the contestants had time to practice with their warriors before the TV episodes were filmed, their warriors didn’t seem nearly as agile as the Sentients.  I’m not suggesting that the game is one-sided, because it isn’t.  It simply looks like the Sentients can execute more moves with greater accuracy.  Also, when a Sentient and a contestant warrior went virtual toe-to-virtual toe, the fight action seemed a bit slow – as though there was a lag-time between the contestant’s command and the warrior’s action.  Either that or the editing wasn’t as fast-paced as viewers have come to expect from action sequences.  But all these problems are minor and thoroughly fixable in future versions.

Fightbox also highlights a few conundrums that content-makers may face.  My main questions are about the concept of image ownership.  If Madonna can be sued for drawing inspiration from photographs that she freely admits to admire and a past athlete can file a similar suit against a telephone listings company, when does homage become theft?  In respect of Fightbox, this question is particularly relevant in two separate instances.  First, two of the Sentients bear striking resemblances to pre-existing characters:  Kodiak is a lot like Wolf from Gladiator (he even did the signature haunchy growl pose) while Nail seems to be a combination of the monsters from the films Alien and Predator (the MC described her as a predator).  Second, what about the contestant-generated characters?  One of the contestants from last night’s episode frankly described her warrior as inspired by Tank Girl.  And there was a frankly acknowledged resemblance.  Undoubtedly there are other competitors whose warriors were similarly inspired by pre-existing content.  In the high-stakes world of international rights are the creators of Fightbox treading the boundary between inspiration and imitation?  How, if at all, will this affect the sales and distribution of Fightbox to other territories?


Has Fightbox given a glimpse into a new way of thinking about entertainment programmes?  I think so.  Despite its faults, Fightbox is a good concept.  Although costly and time-consuming to develop, it is clear that every aspect and angle of Fightbox was considered in the creation of the end-products – vital if a consistent feeling of quality is to achieved and maintained across the platforms. From the development of overall visual aesthetic to the interplay between the online game and the television programme, Fightbox provides a clear example of the benefits of “through-development.”  Rather than being a web-based game with a TV bolt-on (such as the peculiarly addictive Celebdac) or a TV programme with an after-the-fact web presence (such as just about every other TV programme) Fightbox is the first programme I know of in which the platforms are truly inter-dependent.  Its makers, Bomb Productions and Ricochet Digital, have every reason to be proud.  Fightbox is very likely to become a reference point for future entertainment developers.  I’ll be tuning in again tonight.

Buy the FightBox game at Amazon UK on PC, PS2 or GBA

BBC FightBox

Bomb Productions

Ricochet Digital

Preview: BBC FightBox – Let the Fighting Commence

By Heidi Jacoby-Ackland

Program your Tivo now. Fightbox, the BBC’s new cross-platform interactive programme, is coming to a TV near you.  Robot Wars meets The Sims-on-performance-enhancing-drugs, the BBC publicity machine is very keen to emphasise that Fightbox is a TV first.  What, exactly, is Fightbox though?  Is it the logical future of entertainment?  In development for nearly four years at a reported cost of £3-4 million, Fightbox was conceived from start to finish to cross from the net to television and then into the PC/PlayStation 2/Game Boy Advanced game environments.  Early indications for Fightbox are fairly positive and the promotional trails look fantastic. 

Initially launched online a few months ago, gamers were drawn in their thousands to the Fightbox downloadable kit for creating their own warriors from a variety of different parts: arms, legs, weaponry, hair colour and even tattoos.  Contestants “trained” their self-created warriors on their own PC’s before downloading a set of qualifying battles to practice controlling their creation and gaining a score – the higher the score the stronger the warrior.  Then the best scoring virtual warriors (and their real creators) were invited to take part in the production of a television programme.  According to the BBC, approximately 200,000 people registered their warriors and uploaded scores in the six-week qualifying period.  As a demonstration of the interest in the game, apparently clans have emerged in the online community although they can’t play each other. Yet.  It’s all gone a bit D&D. 

The nay-sayers complain that the PC controls are, well, hard to control.  There’s a rumour that the television production had to be put back a week because the software still had some glitches.  And, although the BBC claims that twenty percent of the gamers were women, there’s a rumour that the Fightbox producers were so desperate to attract women that an online appeal was made especially to female gamers.  Nonetheless, there’s a low hum of anticipation in the gaming community.  Those gamers whose warriors made it to the television round report that the controls are better and the virtual studio experience was wicked.  They claim that, as with all the best computer games, practice was key to their success.  In the 30-minute television programmes, filmed as-live in front of a studio-audience, the virtual warriors have been transformed by the magic of computer graphics and a new type of filming into, um, virtual warriors in a real arena with real hosts (Trevor Nelson and Lisa Snowdon).  The contestant warriors fight the Sentients (the virtual equivalent of the House Robots in Robot Wars) then, finally, go on to fight each other to find a winner.  It’s a knock-out competition until just one of the audience-created warriors is left.  And for those who participated the ultimate prize was on offer.  No, not a million quid record contract for singing out-of-tune but the chance to have their warrior return as a Sentient in the next (yet-to-be-commissioned) series.  The final champion may not get rich from Fightbox but he (or she) will get the satisfaction of directly creating a part of the game’s future.

When we asked, the BBC spokeswoman refused either to anticipate viewing figures for Fightbox or even to elaborate on what would constitute a successful outcome to this cross-platform interactive experiment.  But it is not inconceivable that the programme could bomb as a television show while, at the same time, creating an enormous buzz for the game itself, either online or at the shop.  Then what???  Having already spent the equivalent of some countries’ GDPs on development, it would be imprudent for the BBC to completely bale on the TV programme after just one series even if the ratings are poor.  After all, the most costly and time-consuming bit of creating Fightbox, the development, is already done and dusted.  Aside from the new Sentient, most of the future content will come from the audience who, in true interactive style, are not voting for a winner but creating the characters and altering the outcomes.  The online kit is still available for download at the FightBox site.  Although it is too late to qualify for Series One, now would be a good time to start practicing for Series Two.

BBC FightBox

Amazon – Buy the FightBox game on PC, PS2 or GBA

Fightbox Ltd is a joint-venture between Bomb Productions and Ricochet DigitalFightbox, the TV programme, airs on BBC3 at 19.30 from 13-17 October and continues in that slot for three weeks thereafter.  [Episodes will be repeated on BBC3 the following morning at 3.30 and are due to run on BBC2 in November.]  Fightbox, the PC/PS2/GMA games, are due for release on 7 November.

Review – BBC Time Commanders

Time Commanders – A Great Idea Poorly Executed

By Heidi Jacoby-Ackland


Take an award-winning PC-based war gaming program, adapt it for an educational television game show and what do you get – a missed opportunity.  Time Commanders, the BBC’s attempt to capitalise on the popularity of computer gaming to reach the elusive young-ish male audience, started it’s run on BBC2 on 4 September.  The concept is both adventurous and appealing in that it attempts to bring the excitement of computer gaming to television.  And it’s educational in the way that BBC programming has to be in the run up to Charter Review.  Yet Time Commanders is hugely disappointing and so undeniably missable that the BBC hasn’t even made a webpage for it – the sure sign that the Corporation doesn’t believe in a programme.  From the very start the opportunity to entice avid gamers to partake in a television programme seemingly conceived just for them was squandered.  What went wrong?   


Developed utilizing the acclaimed and popular computer games engine Total War, the second episode of Time Commanders challenged a team of four National Trust co-workers from, if I recall correctly, Lyme Park to a virtual re-enactment of the Battle of Watling Road in which the Romans fought against British insurgents in AD 60.  The team, divided into two “generals” and two “lieutenants,” squabbled and floundered as they attempted to command the vastly outnumbered Roman Army against the computer- generated Iceni and Trinobantes clans commanded by Boudica – soon to be portrayed on British television by Alex Kingston (of ER fame) in an ITV1 historical drama.  The sad thing about Time Commanders is that it’s a game show in which the dramatic tension of the game got lost in development.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely a battle has at least two opposing sides.  Total War may be a man-versus-pc game but it isn’t a spectator sport!  The great thing about Robot Wars (in a strange way, Time Commanders’ closest TV ancestor in both concept and target audience) is that the audience is introduced to both teams, gets to know each machine, hear both strategies, watch the battle, enjoy thrill of victory and the agony of defeat simultaneously.  Robot Wars had two protagonists  (three if you count the “house” robots) which the audience could champion.  By comparison, Time Commanders is utterly tedious because the opponent, the computer game engine, has no real presence.  Unless you support the contestants, there’s no one to root for; no side to take.  Had Time Commanders been developed as multi-player, like Ghost Recon for instance, these problems would disappear entirely.  Aside from slightly amusing in-fighting within the Roman team – or perhaps because of it – there was no doubt that this team was going to lose their battle.  Whereas, of course, we know that the Romans defeated Boudica’s crew.  When the outcome is a given, the journey has to have jeopardy.  If the Roman team had been playing for something other than pride there might be something to see here.  Perhaps a league in which the ultimate champion gets to fight a really, really big battle at the end of the series?  But there’s nothing even remotely interesting about watching a team of people bicker while they, in turn, watch a large computer game kick their collective ass.  The Roman team utterly failed to respond to the computer game, but that’s down to another of Time Commanders failures – poor player selection.


Let’s face it, this team of players last “oohed” and “aahed” over Pong because Tetris was too complicated for them.  Given warrior details via Mortal Kombat-style on-screen information, the players couldn’t assimilate the information in order to develop a battle strategy.  Apart from one timid team member, this group was overwhelmed by the computer graphics and were simply unable to translate the images so that they could effectively guide their army.  It is hard, no IMPOSSIBLE, to believe that a team of eight-year olds would not have had a better result than this troubled foursome whose only achievement was to drive home the significance of chain-of-command and channels-of-communication in a war scenario.  (Oh, and they confirmed the common logic that you should never listen to the loudest person in a meeting.)  Surely Time Commanders would have been more fun to watch and potentially more educational if the production team had chosen better players.  Perhaps they could have invited a team of historians to take on a team of Xbox addicts? Ex-military versus school kids?  In the multi-player scenario, relevant pairings that offer even greater appeal to the target audience are easy to ponder.  What pc war gamer do you know who spends his weekends touring the stately country home where Pride and Prejudice was filmed? 


And, speaking of locations, the set.  Here’s where the budget really pinched.  Meant to look like a modern war room instead it was about as hi-tech as my grandfather’s garage.  The “Generals” had a large table with blocks that represented the armies on the battlefield and croupier-type sticks (at least I think that’s what they’re called) to move the blocks around as the battle developed.  But as they shouted confused orders to the “Lieutenants” who, in turn, relayed them to two unnamed people who seemed to be the only people directly interfacing with the game, the battle commenced and the massive board was altogether forgotten.  If a second screen which showed a battle overview was outside the budget, then why not devote the upper left corner of the game screen, like games have had since Space Invaders?  And who were the two people running the computers? They weren’t part of the Roman team – and a good thing too!  But if the game technology is so complicated that regular contestants can’t run it, then what is the point of having it at all?


Who’s the actual star of the programme?  Perhaps the best feature of Time Commanders is the expert commentary from the balcony.  Like younger, less bitter versions of those Muppets, Statler and Waldorf, the experts’ discussion of the players’ strategies – or lack thereof – based on available historical evidence and weapons expertise, is both clever and fun.  At the end of the programme the experts showed the Roman team what they could have done to beat the computer, imparting the educational bit of the programme with enthusiasm and wit.  We learned how the Roman Army, outnumbered 6 to 1, defeated Boudica and her collected clans.  (Or, at least we learned about the historical speculation, which isn’t quite the same thing but is intriguing and informative nonetheless.)  But when the best part of a game show is not the game, you’ve got to ask some serious questions.  Could the problem be the technology itself?  If computer technology was at the core of Time Commanders’ development, then why was it so absent from the programme? 


British indy producer Lion Television developed Time Commanders based on Creative Assembly’s award-winning war strategy engine Total War.  By all accounts, the Total War series of games is outstanding.  In fact, although it is still officially in development, Rome: Total War has already won quite a few prestigious awards.  To my eye, the sample graphics on the website look ten thousand times better than anything I saw in this episode of Time Commanders.  Presumably Lion used an older “working” model, perhaps from one of the earlier products in the Total War franchise, to develop their programme.  If the average television programme takes approximately 18 months to two years from development to transmission, then the graphics technology Lion used was likely to be out-dated before the programme even got commissioned.  While they were developing and producing Time Commanders, technology was marching forward.  If you’ll pardon two consecutive puns, Lion was fighting a losing battle.  In both television and gaming, good visuals are essential.  But this programme was as let down by the graphics as it was by the contestants.  Is the tv commissioning process just too slow to meet the expectations of the computer gaming community?  Or do we not yet have the visual grammar necessary to make filmed computer games look exciting?  How do you film a programme like Time Commanders?  I’m not sure the programme’s director knew and, I confess, I’m not sure I know either.  Camerawork is important, but the traditional multi-camera game show style used here didn’t seem to work.  Based on this episode, I’d speculate that a new kind of programme making style might need to be invented otherwise the viewer will never feel close to the game’s action.  And that’s a great shame because the developers are onto something good with Time Commanders. 


It’s only a matter of time before a canny telly production company teams up with an even more canny game company in the concurrent development of a computer game for television.  Strategy games are, by their very nature, the most obvious contenders for success if they can be developed properly.  There’s big money to be made here: enormous global format markets, merchandising, film rights, etc.  The profit potential alone makes it dead cert that Time Commanders is the first of a new breed of television programmes.  Although the end result is not particularly satisfying or successful in this instance, kudos are due to Lion and Creative Assembly for being the first to recognise an opportunity and go for it.  Time Commanders 2.0 will be fantastic.