Countdown (game show)

From Academic Kids

For other meanings of the term countdown, see Countdown (disambiguation).

Countdown is a British game show, presented by Richard Whiteley with the assistance of Carol Vorderman, and shown daily on Channel 4. It was the very first programme aired by that station when it was launched on November 2 1982, and is one of the longest running game shows in the world, with over 3,800 episodes.



Countdown is based on the French game show Des Chiffres et Des Lettres (Digits and Letters). It was originally broadcast in the Yorkshire Television ITV region as Calendar CountdownCalendar being that region's local news magazine show which was, at the time, fronted by Whiteley. The programme was seen by Cecil Korer, who had been appointed Head of Light Entertainment at the soon-to-be-launched Channel 4. Korer quickly entered into negotiations with the French format owners to bring the show to a wider audience, with the result that Countdown became the first show to be aired on Channel 4 when the station launched at 4.45pm on 2 November 1982. Yorkshire Television, now part of the Granada Television group, still makes Countdown for Channel Four. Since the new Granada Productions company structure came into force on 1 November 2004, the show has been credited as a Granada Yorkshire production.

Originally, Richard was assisted by not one but four "hostesses" - Vorderman, Kathy Hytner, Dr Linda Barrett and Beverley Isherwood. This arrangement was much-mocked, with critics quick to point out that four regulars were surplus to requirements, and Barratt and Isherwood were axed at the end of 1983. Hytner remained with the show until 1987, being replaced first by Karen Loughlin and then by Lucy Summers, but neither of these were popular with viewers, so in 1989 Carol Vorderman became the sole hostess, and remains so to this day. The other main change in the programme's format came in 2001, when it expanded from its traditional 30-minute slot to 45 minutes, with two commercial breaks instead of one.

As well as the regular presenters, each episode has a guest from the world of light entertainment in "Dictionary Corner", who provides additional entertainment before the first commercial break of each programme. These entertainments take various forms and have included jokes, show business anecdotes, poems, puzzles and magic tricks.

At the time of writing (early 2005) the programme is broadcast from 3.15pm to 4.00pm every weekday, with each programme repeated in the early hours of the morning about two and a half days later. Probably as a result of its timeslot, the show is most popular amongst the elderly and students, both groups being well represented in the mix of contestants.

In 2001, Countdown introduced the teatime teaser -- an eight-(originally seven-)letter anagram similar to the conundrum, set as a puzzle for the viewers over the commercial break (the goal presumably being to minimise channel hopping). Whiteley gives an (often punning) clue to the answer just before the break.

Countdown, like most of the "old guard" of British game shows, is never so much about winning prizes as simply competing (and possibly showing off to the nation how smart you are). The current prize fund tends to be a board game and other assorted items for every contestant (and even this is significantly more generous than the prizes available when the show started) and a full Oxford English Dictionary for the series winner.

Whiteley's banter with the contestants will occasionally sound uncomfortable, sometimes even to foot-in-mouth proportion (such as referring to himself and guest adjudicator Richard Stilgoe as "a pair of Dicks"), however, it has become legendary for its pun content. It is still not certain how much of this content is written professionally and how much is written by Whiteley himself, but this has led to him being described by many as the "Pun King".

The show is probably best known in America for its appearance in the 2002 Hugh Grant movie About a Boy.

In July 2004 it was announced that both Whiteley and Vorderman have extended their contracts to present the show until 2009.


In each episode, two contestants compete in a mixture of letters, numbers and conundrum rounds. In the preliminary rounds of each series, the winning contestant stays on to face a new challenger in the next show. If a contestant wins eight times in a row, they become an "octavian" (or "octochamp") and must retire, though their high score means they are almost guaranteed a quarter-final place. Eventually the series shifts into a knock-out mode, with the eight highest-scoring players from the preliminary rounds facing off through three rounds to decide the series champion.

Letters rounds

Most of the game's rounds are "letters rounds"; one contestant selects nine letters from two randomly-shuffled piles of vowels and consonants (the distributions of letters in which are designed to roughly reflect that in the English language, in much the same way as Scrabble tiles). The ability to choose between vowel or consonant allows a moderate degree of control for the selecting contestant, though since the rules stipulate a minimum of three vowels and four consonants, there are in fact only two letters over which this control can be exercised. Until 1995, only a minimum of three vowels was stipulated, meaning that a contestant who had built up a lead could then prevent the other player from catching up by choosing an excessive number of vowels. The vast majority of contestants "played fair", but an outbreak of such tactical play led to the imposition of the current rule.

The contestants then have thirty seconds to find the longest word they can using some or all of the letters (with no reuse). Only words in the Oxford English Dictionary are permitted, the ultimate arbiter being the "guardian of the dictionaries"; this role was originally filled by a number of different lexicographers supplied by the OUP, but in recent years has become synonymous with Susie Dent, who takes only very occasional breaks from the job. As well as ruling on the admissibility or otherwise of words, the lexicographer (assisted by the celebrity guest, who sits next to them) points out any long or particularly interesting words that the contestants missed. As in Scrabble, proper names, hyphenates and abbreviations are not permitted. Where there are variant UK and US spellings of a word, only the UK spelling is permitted. Because the distribution of the letters in the Countdown tile set approximately reflect their frequency in the English language, some words which are made up mostly or entirely of common letters are frequently seen. One of the most famous is "leotards", whose frequent appearance has become a running joke on the show, and even appears on the letters board behind Carol in the programme's opening titles. (The anagrams "lodestar" and "delators" are also permitted and sometimes offered as alternatives.) Others include "tangelo" and its plural, variations on "painter"/"pointer"/"repaint" and the nine-letter anagrams "relations" and "orientals".

Only the contestant who found the longer of the two words scores any points (both score in the event of a tie), the number of points being equal to the number of letters in the word (doubled for the rare nine-letter words).

Numbers rounds

For the numbers round, a set of numbers are laid out face-down on a board -- the top row always consists of the four "large numbers" 25, 50, 75 and 100, while the other rows are filled with multiple copies of the numbers 1 to 10. Six numbers are chosen (the ability to choose one or more "from the top" gives the same sort of partial control as the vowel/consonant split in the letters game). The contestants attempt to combine these numbers to reach the three-digit target randomly generated by the resident computer, CECIL (Countdown Electronic Calculator In Leeds), using the basic arithmetical operations of multiplication, division, addition and subtraction (brackets are also allowed, but are rarely explicitly referred to as such).

Ten points are scored for an exact solution, seven for being within five of the target number in either direction, five for a response within ten of the target, and none otherwise. Similarly to the letters rounds, if one contestant is closer than the other, only that contestant scores. These rounds highlight Vorderman's famous prowess at mental arithmetic, since it falls to her to provide a solution if both contestants fail (though even she is occasionally stumped).


The final round of each show is the "Countdown Conundrum" -- a scrambled nine-letter word is revealed, and ten points go to the first contestant to buzz in and correctly identify it (with, as in all the other rounds, a thirty second time limit). Players are allowed only one attempt each to answer, so if an incorrect answer is given, the other player has all the remaining time to themselves. Whiteley is fond of referring to this round as a "crucial Countdown Conundrum" in situations where the ten points could be decisive. If the game ends in a dead heat, an additional conundrum is used to break the tie.

The Clock

The centrepiece of the Countdown set is a large analogue clock situated between the two contestants. The clock has only a second hand, which counts down the time allotted in each round, with lights illuminating in a trail behind the hand as time progresses. Accompanying the clock are the famous Countdown "Chimes", a 30-second jingle composed by Alan Hawkshaw that plays while the contestants think. The clock is stopped by a player buzzing to answer the Conundrum, restarting if their answer is incorrect. The fact that all rounds have a time limit of only thirty seconds means that during the game, the left-hand side of the clock face is never used (although television viewers never see the clock being reset between rounds, so are left to ponder which half of the clock face this is done on).

For the original pilot programme, the format specified 45 seconds for each round (as in the original French version Des Chiffres et Des Lettres), however, it very quickly became obvious that this seemed to take an age to pass in the studio, as well as causing the show to drag somewhat. The decision was made immediately after the show that the final format would cut this to the now-familiar 30 seconds.

Order of rounds

In the original 30-minute format, the rounds were arranged as follows:

  1. Letters
  2. Letters
  3. Letters
  4. Numbers
  5. Letters
  6. Letters
  7. Letters
  8. Numbers
  9. Conundrum

At this time, Grand Finals were special extended 45-minute editions, with the format:

  1. Letters
  2. Letters
  3. Numbers
  4. Letters
  5. Letters
  6. Numbers
  7. Conundrum
  8. Letters
  9. Letters
  10. Numbers
  11. Letters
  12. Letters
  13. Numbers
  14. Conundrum

The current 45-minute format runs:

  1. Letters
  2. Letters
  3. Letters
  4. Letters
  5. Numbers
  6. Letters
  7. Letters
  8. Letters
  9. Letters
  10. Numbers
  11. Letters
  12. Letters
  13. Letters
  14. Numbers
  15. Conundrum

with no change for Grand Finals.

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