I’m sure that when you were a kid, you were just like me – you watched your favourite TV shows and you thought to yourself “wow, one day maybe I can create such wonderful things, just like Greg Dyke, Michael Grade and Adam Crozier!” Well, my friend, that’s exactly what we’re going to do today, with a game that lets the player slip into the shoes of a television executive – it’s Fastback’s 1990 ZX Spectrum director-general-em-up Telly Wise!
You know what’s not telly wise? Using a microwave oven instead of a television. You’re only going to get cookery shows, for one thing.
So, Telly Wise thrusts you into the role of television station director, and it’s up to you to make the tough decisions that will make or break your channel. The first step is to decide which TV channel you want to take control of. There don’t appear to be any differences between them, so I went with Pie TV, because everyone loves pie and I’m hoping this will subliminally influence my potential viewership into watching my programming.
Then you have to choose a presenter. Just one presenter for your entire channel, mind you, so make sure to pick one with the herculean amount of stamina required to front an entire day’s worth of programming, seven days a week. No, I’m kidding, just like the channels themselves there doesn’t seem to be any difference between the presenters, so pick whichever one you’re least repulsed by because you’ll be seeing their face a lot.
From this line-up of grotesques, it’s obvious that Telly Wise isn’t going to be a serious game and it’s taking the route of what you’d (very) loosely describe as “parody.” Specifically, it’s a parody of British TV, so anyone from outside this sceptered isle is very unlikely to recognise most of the “jokes” contained within. For instance, these presenters are parodies of Bob Monkhouse, Bruce Forsyth, Esther Rantzen and Chris Tarrant. If you’re reading this and you’re not British, I’d be very surprised if you knew who any of these people were.
In the end, I plumped for Bruce Forcefield. Not only is his head shaped like a wellington boot, but his hair looks almost exactly like a cartoon pie crust, making him the perfect spokesman for Pie TV.
Now comes the serious business of putting together a televisual line-up that’ll keep you at the top of the ratings. You’ve got £200,000 to spend on programmes, one from each category, and once you buy them you’re stuck with them for an entire year so you’d best make your choices wisely.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that all the available shows are in the same parodical vein as the hosts – by which I mean they’re not particularly funny, on the whole. For example, the available soap operas are parodies of Neighbours, EastEnders, a combination of Dallas and Dynasty (I guess?) and Crossroads. It makes sense that “Drossroads” would be the cheapest of the bunch as Crossroads was infamous for having almost no production values, but I’ll be purchasing “Neighbores” in an attempt to capture the oft-discussed “lazy students watching daytime TV” market.
The news programmes are definitely the weakest in terms of their parody names. I grant that it’s difficult to makes puns on the names of news programmes, but changing Newsnight to Newsday seems especially lazy when it could have at least been Newsfright, a show where they round up that week’s scare stories from the Daily Mail. News at Ben might feel like a very poor reworking of News at Ten, but that’s only until you imagine News at Ben being a show where each night the newsreader travels to the home of someone called Ben, smashes down their front door and bellows that day’s headlines at them through a megaphone.
There are a couple of decent ones in the game show category, though. Name that Tuna has a pleasing air of absurdity to it, Spankety Spank sounds like an utterly filthy BDSM endurance test and Celebrity Swears? I’m amazed that’s not an actual TV show. I’m sure a gameshow where members of the public have to guess which washed-up soap star or former boy-band member is screaming obscenities at them from behind a curtain would be a huge hit.
Unfortunately I misjudged just how many shows I needed to buy and spent all my money on Neighbores and a bootleg Blackadder called Weakbladder, causing Pie TV to fall into financial ruin before they’d ever aired a single show. It’s entirely my fault for assuming a ZX Spectrum management game would include a “hey, you’re about to go bankrupt” warning. It does not.
I picked my shows again, properly this time, and arrived here at the game’s main menu. This is where you’ll orchestrate your rise to TV domination, or more accurately where you’ll do whatever you can to bring in that sweet advertising revenue. What can you do from this menu? Well, the main thing is to set your schedule with the first option on the list.
You schedule works on a weekly basis, but you only have to set one day’s worth of programming, with eight slots to be filled, starting at 8AM and ending at 10PM. It’s a simply matter of assigning each show to a time slot, and you can place them wherever you like. Want your breakfast show to start at ten PM in order to get a head-start on your rival’s breakfast programming? You can do that. Show your Blackadder knock-off in an inappropriate ten AM time slot? You can do that too. The thing is, I never figured out whether doing that was a good idea or not – it’s certainly not clear whether putting a breakfast show on early in the morning causes it to get higher rating or anything like that. The game’s instructions only offer the very vague “select the best times to show the various types of programme,” with no indication of what those best times might be.
As for the percentages, that’s basically how good your show is. The shining golden star in Pie TV’s 1990 line-up is clearly Neighbores, although this will not last forever.
Here’s each channel’s schedule for the coming week. I tried to place my shows in time-slots that felt mostly appropriate, although I should have probably moved the breakfast show earlier into the day. As for all the numbers, once again I assume that’s how good your show is, or at least how much of the audience it’s going to get compared to the other channels’ offerings. Neighbores is miles ahead of the competition in the 10AM slot and Weakbladder could well bring in plenty of late-night viewers, but all we can do now is hit “Watch TV” and see what happens.
Once you do start watching that week’s TV, I hope you’ve settled down in a comfortable chair and stocked up on food and water, because you’re in for a long wait before you regain any semblance of control. How it works is that for each time slot, your presenter will introduce the show – complete with Bruce Forsyth’s trademark patter in this case, which will again be mystifying to any from outside the UK unless the BBC have secretly been broadcasting old episodes of The Generation Game around the globe.
Halfway through each show an advert will play, often for another ZX Spectrum game. In this case it’s an ad for horse betting simulator Classic Punter, although I’ve got not idea what “be a hunter” is supposed to mean in this situation. Head down to your nearest computer game vendor and shoot them with a bow and arrow made from twigs and vines?
Then the second half of the programme is “shown,” and I should make it clear that you don’t ever actually see any television programmes during this part of the game. All that happens is that the game redraws the screen to show the “genre” icon for that show, it’s not like there’s a little pixellated Rowan Atkinson that appears whenever Weakbladder is on, more’s the pity. No, it’s just the same icons every time and a selection of ads in the middle of each show that very quickly become very repetitive.
The ratings are in, and during the first week Pie TV have fared… not well. Weakbladder did okay, but I felt for sure that Neighbores was going to set the charts alight. I mean, it did, but not for Pie TV. It seems that the other channels can have the same shows as you, which is kinda weird – there are four shows in each category and four channels, so you’d think each channel would have completely different programmes.
Once that’s done and you’re told how much money you made from that week’s advertisers, it’s back to the main menu to repeat the whole process again. That’s almost all there is to Telly Wise – you set your schedule and hope that you’ve put enough of the right programmes in the right place to bring in the advertising money. It’s a very simple set-up, and not an especially engaging one. There are a couple of other things you can do, though.
You can make your own shows! Okay, it’s far less interesting than it sounds, but it does mean you’re not stuck with just the shows you bought at the start of the year. Each show you make is a one-off that can only be shown in the week that you made it, (unlike the other shows which are available every week,) and of course making shows costs money so if you create your own televisual masterpiece every week it’ll usually cost you more money than you make back.
Creating a show is just as bare-bones a procedure as every other aspect of Telly Wise. You pick a genre, and then choose a director, a filming location, a “TV personality” and an actor, all famous names replaces with weak puns. That said, I quite like the idea of Roger Less as Roger Moore’s alternate-universe counterpart. Obviously the better the options you select the more money it costs, so it’s up to you whether you want a Hollywood epic or something that looks like it should appear on ITV3.
I opted for the comedy genre and decided to make Space Bastards, a grim and gritty reboot of Red Dwarf where Lister swears a lot and Rimmer has to eat babies to maintain his hologram projector. People are still into grim and gritty reboots, right?
I guess they are! Space Bastards is number one with a bullet. If only it didn’t cost me so much to produce this masterpiece, I’d show it every week.
Whatever flaws Telly Wise may have, it did allow me to produce a movie called Vampire Vixens, directed by Spielberg and starring Marlon Brando and Terry Wogan. Hang on, that’s actually a terrible thing, because now I and presumably everyone who reads this will be filled with bitter disappointment that such a cinematic masterpiece does not actually exist.
Oh, and if you’re feeling lazy you can also buy an extra programme for the week rather than making one yourself, but where’s the fun in that? Options include “Star Jaws,” which had bloody well better be about a vicious space-faring shark. That one always seems to bring the viewers in, so maybe that’s exactly what it’s about.
The only other thing you have to deal with in Telly Wise is the occasional piece of news that pops up at the end of the week. Sometimes it’s good news, like winning a bunch of money at an awards ceremony. Hurrah! Now Space Bastards can be renewed for a second series!
Sometimes it’s bad news, like Neighbores losing two of its biggest stars and thus reducing its potential ratings. During my time playing Telly Wise, I got this exact message three or four times. Neighbores was once my number one banker, but by the end of the year the Neighbores cast consisted of two extras and a decorative fern and nobody was tuning in to watch that.
I also once got fined for showing swearing before the watershed. I‘m not one hundred percent certain, but that might have been because I bought a bootleg RoboCop and aired it at ten in the morning.
However, during the vast majority of weeks, nothing happens. Okay, that’s two good things about Telly Wise: Vampire Vixens and this screenshot of a deformed simulacrum of Bruce Forsyth saying “everything is cool.”
And so goes Telly Wise, in the same repeating cycle of maybe making or buying a show, setting your schedule and waiting for the ratings report. It’s a shame, because I think there’s a decent concept in here somewhere, but after playing it for a couple of hours I’ve come to the conclusion that Telly Wise just isn’t much fun. There are a few reasons for this. This first is that is it slow. Very, very slow. Giant-tortoise-crawling-through-treacle slow. Put it this way, I spent most of my time playing Telly Wise with the emulator’s speed increased by 500% and it still felt too slow. Part of this is down to the hardware, because it takes a lot of time for the Spectrum to redraw each screen every time a new show or advert comes up. However, when you’re actually watching that week’s TV you’ll quickly be yearning for a way to skip the entire thing and get straight to the results. It’s not like you can do anything once you’ve hit go on that week’s schedule – there’s no way to influence the outcome at that point, so you’re stuck watching the information creep onto the screen with agonising torpor.
Then there’s the general feeling that the game is incomprehensible. I never felt like I had a decent idea of what I was doing, and no sense that my decisions were having much impact one way or the other. I was generally managing to make money, but I still have no idea what determines the ad revenue I’d receive. Some weeks I’d have three or four shows in the top ten but get less money than if I only had one or two success. As for what my overall goal was, I had no idea about that, either. The game’s instructions certainly didn’t tell me, and as far as I can tell you just have to keep going for as long as you can without the grim spectre of bankruptcy kicking you off the airwaves.
In the end, I played as far as the beginning of the second year. It was time to buy that year’s batch of shows, but unfortunately I hadn’t made enough money to afford a full complement of programmes for the coming year and so my game was over. I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t have carried on playing even if I did have enough money to buy all the best programmes and run Space Bastards every week. There’s just not enough to do in Telly Wise to keep it interesting, and so my career as a television executive comes to an end. Now if you’re excuse me, I’m off to find the people responsible for the CGI Peter Cushing in Star Wars: Rogue One to see if they can get Brando and Wogan together and make Vampire Vixens a reality.
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