Letters And Numbers Embraces A Low-Tech Vision

TV production is heavily dependent on technology, but that doesn't always show up on the screen. SBS's new quiz show Letters And Numbers takes a deliberately low-tech approach.

Letters And Numbers, which is now showing weekdays on SBS1 at 6pm, is based on a French quiz show which has been running since 1965. Many Lifehacker readers might be familiar with it from its UK version, Countdown, which has been on air since 1982.

As the Australian name suggests, contestants have to make the longest word they can from a selection of letters in 30 seconds, then use a random selection of numbers to assemble a sum close as possible to a given target in the same time limit. As such, it involves rather more skill than Deal Or No Deal, but doesn't draw on specialist general knowledge in the manner of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The show is hosted by veteran newsreader Richard Morecroft, with lexicographer David Astle checking words and mathematician Lily Serna assisting with the number puzzles.

While the show has only just started, I got an inside look at the whole process when I took part as a contestant late last week. (And no, I'm not going to say how well I performed: You'll have to wait until that episode goes to air in late September.) Like any TV production, filming takes longer than you'd expect and there's lots of sitting around. But it was during the sitting around that it became clear what a generally low-tech aesthetic was being applied.

The Aussie incarnation has all the accoutrements you'd expect from the digital age. There's an official website where you can watch previous editions and apply to be a contestant, and a Facebook fan page. Contestant co-ordination was also a heavily email-driven process, as you'd expect.

On screen, however, the only evidence of computerisation is the device used to generate the random number target. While there are web resources around that can be used to work out solutions to the number problems or solve the letters game, neither was being deployed here. Nor was the set digitally enhanced: The selected letters are pulled from a pile of physical tiles, and the solutions to the number problems are written out on a blackboard (a model also used in the UK).

The format can take a more techy approach. The French version now uses computerised screens to display words and number calculations, and (one assumes) also double-checks possibilities using computerised systems. As far as I could see, there was none of that going on with the local edition: it relies on the lexical skills of Astle and the numeric skills of Serna, with Morecroft skilfully blending the whole thing together.

The dedicated geek part of me thinks the whole thing could be done in a more high-tech format, but the whole thing works so well as it is it seems unnecessary to disturb it. And if you want to exercise your brain at the end of the day, it definitely beats watching the commercial news programs which are its main rivals.

Letters And Numbers

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    I've also noticed that Richard Morecroft is starting the countdown clock by himself.

    Why, Oh, Why does David Astle say "dictionARY"???

    Call me cynical, but I have to doubt the "lexical skills" of Astle: It's quite obvious he gets assistance with the letters; he's the only one on the show with an earpiece.

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