What's the winning formula, then?

How can we best televise the National Lottery? Jim Loach looks at some of the foreign formats that have hit the jackpot
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The Independent Online
The BBC's 15-minute National Lottery Live programme is expected to undergo a revamp in March. And the task of giving it a new look seems to be the number one lunchtime topic for light entertainment producers around the country. They've been looking to lottery shows abroad in the search for a successful format that will overcome the difficulties posed by the current programme.

Since the lottery was launched in Britain, producers have come to realise that it poses special problems for television. Because we can't see the jackpot winner at the end of the programme, the lottery is essentially a show without a punchline - a big let-down. The main event - the ecstatic winner discovering the moment of truth - takes place in a living room well away from the camera's lens.

Another problem is that the viewing millions are essentially only interested in the answer to one question: "Have I won?" That's the reason people tune in to the programme in the first place. But drawing the numbers amounts to only about one minute's worth of television.

So what should be done with the rest of the time, and will anyone be interested anyway? For the simple fact is that most of us don't win a bean. The collective sigh over yet another useless ticket is far greater than the sound of popping champagne corks.And there's no one more likely to complain than someone who's just lost hard-earned cash.

There are more than 160 lotteries worldwide, and most have a television programme connected to them. Some have tried to get around the difficulties posed by the lottery by making the draw a no-frills programme.

In France, for example, the lottery machine is put in a darkened studio by itself and surrounded with dry-ice - there are no guests and no presenters. The programme lasts barely 90 seconds.

In Germany, the "Lotto Fairy" introduces a bizarre-looking machine, which spends eight minutes drawing the numbers to the strained sounds of Woolworths-type music. And Ireland, which has two draws a week, adopts a similar approach, with the air-time actually being paid for by the lottery organisers.

These programmes reduce the lottery to its bare bones - the draw. But a short, sharp programme is unlikely to find favour with the BBC. For one thing, Alan Yentob wants to attract viewers to BBC1 for longer than a few minutes. For another, I understand that the lottery organisers Camelot have insisted on a bigger television spectacle than just drawing the numbers.

Many countries that shorten the lottery draw on television, have the advantage of being able to also run a scratch-card game show.

In France, scratch-cards offer players an instant win and the chance to appear in a television show called Le Millionaire, in which they can win up to £112,000.

Ireland has Winning Streak, which operates on a similar principle. Its finale gives one punter the opportunity to spin a wheel which gives prizes of up to £250,000. One contestant won that top prize this Christmas, and Winning Streak is regularly one of the top three rated programmes in Ireland.

The BBC isn't able to make a programme like this yet, because scratch-cards will not be introduced here until the spring. When they are, a new show is sure to follow, and may well follow the path set by the Irish model.

In the meantime, the alternative is to build a show around the lottery draw that viewers will watch for other reasons than just to find out the winning numbers.

Holland, Spain and Italy all have successful programmes that achieve this. Spain has the biggest lottery in the world featured every year on El Gordo in which schoolchildren sing out the winning numbers, as wooden balls fall from a huge golden cage.

Although it has been given much publicity here, it is the sheer scale of the draw that brings Spain to a standstill (this year it paid out £840m), rather than the television show itself. In addition, it is only an annual show, and probably too big to be sustained for 52 weeks a year.

What the Spanish do every week is to transmit a half-hour game show to coincide with the drawing of the winning numbers. These are drawn live by five short-skirted women, who do little else except smile a lot and parade the numbers in front of the audience.

The BBC may have some difficulty selling this option to sceptical viewers, but might take a look at the game show that follows the draw. It is a top-rated programme on the state-run channel in Spain, and features contestants who pick a series of numbers, with the chance of winning up to £2,000. Giving out cash, it seems, is the winning formula.

Handing out money is also the motor behind Holland's Staatsloterij, which is increasingly seen by many light entertainment producers here as a model for the British Lottery. The Dutch version is a glitzy, studio-based affair, in which the lottery numbersare drawn at intervals throughout the show, and contestants compete for other cash prizes in a series of studio games.

It is hugely popular. The lottery numbers act as the magnet to the programme, but what keeps the viewers glued to the show is the sight of the winners. Giving out cash to winners on screen allows the programme to come to a climax, and gives the show somedramatic element. Winning, after all, is what it's all about.