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Sale of the Century
Brain Fest '89

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Wheel of misfortune

Brain Fest '89 - Contesting the start-of-the-art 'Sale of the Century'
Written by Sian Watkins
"The Age", Melbourne - 26 Jan 1989, pp. 1 & 16.

The Travelodge in St. Kilda Road has been packed with brain power in recent weeks. Twenty-seven brains - crammed with all sorts of information that can be whipped to the fore faster than a Tony Barber smile - have been air-freighted to Melbourne by the Nine Network for Sale of the Century's $150,000 world championships.

There are nine American, nine New Zealanders and nine Brits to compete against the Aussie team....and when they haven't been taping programs or visiting South Gippsland's penguins and big fibreglass worm (on the way to Phillip Island) or watching the Windies at the MCG (Americans called cricket 'baseball with valium') they assemble in the Travelodge bar and play - yep, you guessed it - Trivial Pursuit. Either that or they talk about the interpretaions of new dictionaries, or Kings, or what actress appeared with so-and-so in the 1946 remake of...

Grundys, the makers of Sale, have placed a $30 daily bar limit on each contestant, but that hasn't dampened spirits at all. These overseas contestants are enjoying themselves immensely, even if they're up against that formidable Australian Cary Young (former world champion), tougher questions than they're accustomed to at home and the renowned lightning speed responses of the Australians with those cardiac-massage buzzers.

It's the third world championship' (not to be confused with the international team challenges that have been run since 1985) that Nine has staged. The first, in early 1987, was won by Young, David Bock won it last year. Young is back again this year, although he'll no doubt be pushed by the Champion of Champions, Gerard Fanning, the 'Footscray Flash' who won about $240,000 in cash and prizes on the show last year.

Those out here for a three-week all-expenses-paid brain-fest were selected on the basis of their performances in overseas game shows (Grundys made a Sale of the Century for NBC in America) and auditions. Three weeks of intense taping will turn into six weeks of Sale, which begin this week with the Americans thrashing it out for a spot in the finals. One of the 36 contestants will go home with $100,000 in cash and prizes, plus a $50,000 Holden.

Executive producer Martin Rhodes says the internationals lend a nice flavour to the program - "a champions event like this is a good way to start the year... it does seem to go down very well with audiences". So well, obviously, that one of the Americans, John Gose, who's made several trips to the Sale set is nearly always recognised when he steps off the jet at Tullamarine.

It's interesting to discover, following conversations with these visiting overseas games experts, that our version of Sale could well be the crème de la crème of game shows - relatively tough questions, top prizes (and loads of cash, more importantly) and no taxes.

In America, for example - that nation of boisterous free enterprise - total prize values offered on the three or four game shows are far smaller (with piddling or non-existent cash jackpots) and winnings are then taxed (at 30 to 35 per cent) on top of that.

So if you win $60,000 cash, you pay $20,000 in tax, and if you win goods to the value of $60,000 you pay $20,000 tax. Which often leads to the ludicrous situation of winners foregoing prizes (Tom O'Brien didn't mind saying no to the enormous porcelain dog - anyone wanna buy a china dog?) or even dipping into their own pockets to pay tax on goods whose retail value can rarely be recouped through an ad in the classifieds.

And in England, apart from Mastermind and the pub competitions sponsored by breweries, they really have only Going For Gold, a BBC quiz program made in English but open to European contestants - which means that the questions are relatively simple to give Europeans (English not being their first language) more of a chance. These used to be an English Sale of the Century. It ran for about 14 years and was hosted by Nicholas Parsons. Rhodes, a former Londoner, remembers it offering a Mini-Minor as top prize.

English competitor Terri Mangan (she's an actress, which means she does a lot of waitressing) in fact was too smart in her auditions for Going For Gold. They put her on file and that's how Grundys got in touch with her. She's a smart cookie - got a degree from the London School of Economics - but her drawback is a lack of TV experience. She's had a few test runs on the set and has watched the others in action, although she's still in awe of people like Young.

It has been said that one of the strengths of Sale, something that's kept it going going for nearly nine years, is the huge variety of people who not only face the cameras each night but take home the loot. "That's the appeal of the show," says Rhodes. "you've got a truck driver versus a solicitor verss a nurse versus a schoolboy."

You've got the same variety in these 1989 championships Melbourne solicitor Denise Bourke (who speciallises in public liability and insurance work and who's just returned to work after maternity leave) will face the incredibly long-haired Christchurch university student Phil Anderson.

Anderson, with a degree in computer science and now pursuing another in psychology, wears ghastly and garish tie-dye T-shirts and no shoes ("No," he says grinning, "New Zealand university students don't all dress like me") and appears to be a tremendously happy person. He fought for the University of Canterbury in New Zealand's University Challenge (it lost the final) and introduced himself to Kiwi viewers like this: "Hi, I'm Phil Anderson, and I'm an eternal disappointment to my mother."

The bright-eyed and questioning Bourke cleaned up last year - she took home two cars (both were sold) and prizes to the value of $140,000 and came second in the Champion of Champions contest. The most treasured prize was a trip to France, which she'll take with her husband (and not the kids) later this year. She always used to watch Sale when home with the kids, much to the disgust of her husband. It drove her husband mad but anything, he said, was preferable to Derryn Hinch.

The American Sale of the Century saved Tom O'Brien. He went on a record-winning 11-night streak in the Los Angeles Burbank studios about 18 months ago and took home about $175,000 in cash and prizes (they clamped down after he left - ruled an eight-night winning maximum). He'd come to California to be a writer six months earlier and had terrible trouble finding work. He was dead broke when he went to Sale.

The win led to further good things. O'Brien, who came to Melbourne for last year's world championships, returned home and was accepted into the Writers' Guild of America following his penning of a TV pilot series for Home Box Office. The trouble was that two wekks after he finished it, American scriptwriters went on their five-month 1988 strike. He basically lived off his Sale winnings during this period. And now, he groans, the actors are talking of striking.

O'Brien, who used to monitor television programs for a network, said he had a wonderful time on the quiz program. "I loved being on camera. I suppose it was because I didn't wear my glasses. I couldn't see the camera. I couldn't see the presenter - the audience was just a blur. Oh, it was great fun."

And where do they pick up their information? Well, game-show players tend to be curious people, voracious readers, crossword-puzzle players and insatiable consumers of all sorts of information. They read footnotes, cereal packets, the labels on sauce bottles. This lot don't read encyclopaedias (though they have their doubts about others) but Bourke and O'Brien do recommend newspapers.

If Bourke's not careful, she'll still be in her dressing-gown at 11 reading the paper and O'Brien morning ritual is a 6 am start for a two hour stampede through the papers. "They're a very important avenue for gleaning information." he says.

Rhodes says, however, that a lot of us have mounds of information upstairs - "a lot of us have got very good filing systems - we just don't seem to have the same recall ability, to be able to track it down as easily or as quickly as these people."

O'Brien says the assemblies in the Travelodge bar have really been a lot of fun. "For people like us, it's so exciting to come across so many others who like quizzes, who like answering questions. You don't often come across people who constantly want to learn new things. There's a real hunger for knowledge here."

It struck Mangan the other night, at the bar, with evryone there trying to match that dastardly Trivial Pursuit. She introduced a movie quiz, but was piqued because O'Brien and the other Americans were too good. Her special subject would have to be literature, but "then you see some people like Cary Young and what's frightening is that they know everything".

O'Brien says it's a thing of beauty to see the real experts in action - "they can be phenomenally good - what you're seeing is state-of-the-art Sale of the Century.

"Yes," says Mangan eagerly. "The anticipation of some is incredible. You only have to say 'Who Am I? I was born in 1689...' and they know - just like that. You sort of start worrying about people like that."

Wheel of misfortune
Written by Robert Fidgeon
'My Say' segment of the 'Guide', "Herald Sun", Melbourne - 31 Dec 2003, p. 7.

ROB Elliott's six-year run as host of Wheel of Fortune puts him up there among the elite of TV. Make no mistake, Elliott's efforts have been exceptional, given he works in a business that measures success in multiples of 13 weeks.

It's why his contribution should not go unrecognised after Seven's decision last week to dump him.

Let's not forget that when Elliott debuted as host of Wheel in January 1997, Seven's managerial inepitude had reduced the show to a basket-case.

In an effort to breathe new life into the show, the network, under Garry Rice, had axed longtime host John Burgess and replaced him with Tony Barber. Viewers screamed "no" and the ratings plunged further. In came Elliott to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the shadow of long-serving letter-turner Adriana Xenides hung heavily over the show.

She had been absent for Elliott's debut because of ill-health, so for six months he worked alongside Kerrie Friend, before Xenides returned, only to depart again with further health issues. Sophie Faulkiner stepped in at this point.

Elliott pulled the basket-case together and has given the show six years that it arguably didn't deserve after Seven's executives did their best to destroy it.

Wheel is no ratings smash these days, but it's been running 22 years without a break, for heaven's sake. That it's still on air speaks volumes for the format and the man at the helm.

This year Nine brought in Larry Emdur and another veteran, The Price Is Right, to knock off Wheel, but the old girl wouldn't lie down and die. So what's Elliott's crime, given he has been dumped when the show remains a winner? An ability to rub a TV executive or two up the wrong way, I suspect. He's never been backward in saying what he thinks, but that's hardly a crime.

Elliott could rightly feel disappointed at the lack of opportunities offered him by a network that finds endless projects and constant rewards for people such as Andrew Daddo.

Now, before you start yelling, I'm not knocking Daddo, I'm simply making the point that if Elliott's performance over the past six years isn't good enough, how does the network measure the abilities of Daddo, Roy and HG (I swear they must have pictures of someone at Seven) and several others.

Elliott has always had more TV skills than Seven has allowed him to display. A late-evening talk show with Elliott would be light years in front of crap such as The Chat Room.

A reworked Deal or No Deal is to move into the 5.30pm slot before the news, with the "new" Wheel at 5pm.

One would have thought there'd be far more pressing product problems than Wheel that need addressing at Seven.

For starters, someone could sit down with Deal host Andrew O'Keefe and find out why he hasn't learnt how to inject pace or colour into the show.

And Elliott's eyes must glaze over when he reads where Roy and H.G. are now going to commentate on the Australian Open tennis.

Has Seven totally lost its marbles?

It takes a special talent to keep the wheels turning - not to mention the letters - after 22 years. Let's hope Seven gets the choice right.

Happy New Year.