The thinking man's game show, and the face of Channel 4 in Britain, having been the first programme aired on the channel in 1982 and running ever since. Two contestants face off in a series of Letters and Numbers Rounds, each hoping to score more points than the other. Every round is timed to 30 seconds, with a big clock ticking down behind the contestants. It was a companion to Fifteen to One until that show's demise. It was paired with Deal or No Deal for a whole decade, but following that show's demise, Countdown's companion is now a revived Fifteen to One.
Countdown is based on a French game much more straightforwardly titled The Numbers and Letters (Des chiffres et des lettres). There is also an Australian version titled Letters and Numbers, to avoid confusion with the Australian program titled Countdown, a music video show (see below).
In January 2012, the stars of the panel comedy show 8 Out of 10 Cats did an Affectionate Parody of Countdown for the Channel 4 Mashup event, which mixed one show with another for one night of hilarity. It was titled — wait for it — 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. It proved so popular that it eventually became a series in its own right (and in fact has more or less replaced the original 8 Out of 10 Cats completely), premiering in July 2013.
The rounds are as follows, with the first two repeated several times:
- Letters Round: Nine random letters are drawn, one at a time, with the player requesting either a vowel or consonant on each draw. Once all the letters are on the board, the players try to form the longest single word they can. Only the longer valid word scores: one point per letter, or 18 for using all nine. Currently played 10 times per episode.
- Numbers Round: The player requests anywhere from zero to four "large numbers" (25, 50, 75, or 100) chosen at random, and enough "small numbers" (two each of 1 through 10) are drawn to give six altogether. A random three-digit number is generated, and the players must use the four basic math operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to get as close to it as they can. Only the player closer to the number scores, provided their calculations are correct: 10 points for hitting it exactly, 7 for being 1-5 away, 5 for being 6-10 away. Currently played four times per episode.
- Conundrum: Always played as the final round of each episode. The players are shown a collection of nine letters, and the first to buzz-in and rearrange the letters into a single word scores 10 points. If the scores are tied after this round, additional Conundrums are played until the tie is broken. When the scores differ by 10 points or less going into this round, it is called a "Crucial Countdown Conundrum."
A "Teatime Teaser" is played for the home audience at each commercial break, in which a set of short words is displayed and the host reads a cryptic clue to a single word that can be anagrammed from them. The solution is given at the start of the next segment. (E.g. SAD MOODY with a clue of "We'll all be sad and moody when this arrives" leads to DOOMSDAY.)
No relation to the 1968 Robert Altman film, the Australian music shownote , the American news show Countdown with Keith Olbermann, or the weekly comic series that was later re-titled Countdown to Final Crisis.
This show provides examples of:
- Alliterative Name:
- The Countdown Conundrum. It becomes a "Crucial Countdown Conundrum" if the players' scores differ by 10 or less.
- The Teatime Teaser that bridges each commercial break.
- And Your Reward Is Clothes: Or, as befits the game, books: the grand prize is a dictionary. Not just any dictionary, though, but the full 23-volume leather-bound complete Oxford English Dictionary. It's so huge, it actually causes problems for some winners because it takes up so much space.
- The winner of series 31, David Acton, refused to accept the leather-bound dictionary because of his strict veganism. He chose to receive the dictionary on CD instead, giving the significant difference in value to charity.
- When a champion loses, the challenger who beat him/her receives a teapot shaped like the show's 30-second time clock.
- Artificial Stupidity: The computer which generates the target numbers during the Numbers Round has a habit of throwing out ludicrously easy ones from time to time, usually requiring only two or three of the six numbers on the board. Here's an example. Contestants sometimes try to be clever in these situations, but most of the time this trick backfires and gives the opponent a chance at some easy points.
- Audience Participation: If neither player can solve the Conundrum, the host asks if anyone in the audience has the answer and picks someone to call it out.
- Blinking Lights of Victory: The set flashes when one of the contestants gets a nine-letter word.
- Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: In play since Anne Robinson took over as host in June 2021, giving the show the combination of blonde (Rachel), brunette (Susie) and redhead (Anne).
- Bonus Round: Occasionally seen on 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. So far, bonus rounds have included a pub quiz, penalty shoot out, and drawing a life model.
- Bonus Space: A variant. Any valid nine-letter word in the Letters Round scores 18 points.
- Brainy Brunette: Carol Vorderman. Also Susie Dent in Dictionary Corner.
- Catchphrase: Several, used by the various hosts to start the clock: "Stand by," "Clock time," "And here's the countdown clock," and sometimes just "Countdown."
- Corpsing: Richard Whiteley loses it while telling a joke once; amazing how he can even make a bad joke funny.
- Crossover: Being as iconic as it is, the game has appeared in other shows as part of some kind of task notably to embarrass Ant and Dec on Saturday Night Takeaway, and as a shopping budget task on Big Brother.
- A more straightforward crossover happened with 8 Out of 10 Cats as part of Channel 4's "mash-up" night in 2012. The format proved so popular that it has developed into a series in its own right.
- Cute Kittens: Jimmy actually brings eight kittens in during one round to distract the contestants. It works, but he also spends the round literally herding cats when they escape from their baskets.
- Didn't Think This Through: The above-mentioned "kitten incident" in one episode of the 8 Out of 10 Cats crossover , lampshaded when they point out that Jimmy didn't think it through.
- Dumb Blonde: Completely averted with Rachel Riley, who replaced Carol Vorderman as the co-host as of 2009. She studied mathematics at Oxford and can usually work out an exact solution for the numbers round if neither of the contestants can get it. On the rare occasions that she can't figure one out on the spot, she works on it either during a commercial break or at home.
- Early Installment Weirdness: the basic format hasn't changed that much since the show started on Channel 4, but there have been some peripheral changes which make watching anniversary repeats a bit strange. For example the existence of several female assistants instead of one (who essentially acts as co-presenter now), the extending of the show from half an hour to three quarters, no Susie Dent as resident lexicographer with her own "origins of words" featurette, no "Teatime Teaser" book-ending the commercial breaks, and (in the first episode) the fact that things did seem a lot more awkward.
- Before Channel 4 there was also an earlier incarnation, Calendar Countdown which was shown only on Yorkshire Television as an offshoot of regional news programme Calendar. If the pilot (kicking around YouTube somewhere) is anything to go by, the format was a lot different, with rounds not making it into the more famous Channel 4 incarnation and the clock ran for 45 seconds.
- End of an Age: On Carol Vorderman's last show (12 December 2008), the final conundrum was ERA CLOSES (CASSEROLE).
- Fun with Acronyms: CECIL is the Countdown Electronic Computer In Leeds. (Unfortunately, it is now somewhat of a Non-Indicative Name, given how the program has since moved from what used to be YTV, to the ex-Granada studio block in Manchester, and most recently to the new MediaCityUK complex across the river in Salford.)
- Game Show Host: Richard Whiteley is the most well-known.note He was replaced after his passing in 2005 by Des Lynam, who turned the desk over to Des O'Connor in 2007. Jeff Stelling was the next host, starting in 2009; he left at the end of 2011 and was replaced with Nick Hewer (yes, that Nick Hewer) at the start of 2012. Anne Robinson, host of The Weakest Link (and a Dictionary Corner guest in 1987), succeeded Hewer after he left in June 2021. Jimmy Carr naturally hosts 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown.
- Golden Snitch: Invoked in one of the 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown editions, where the team of Bob Mortimer and Lee Mack (trailing 54-0) seemingly arbitrarily persuade host Jimmy Carr (with some help from Joe Wilkinson) to make the final conundrum worth 100 points. They still manage to lose the conundrum anyway. Similarly, just because Jon Richardson wanted to finish a show with the most points of any Countdown player ever, Jimmy made the conundrum of one episode worth over 800 points (the difference between his lifetime total and that of the all-time leader).
- Hidden Depths: One episode had the contestants write poems for a guest appearance by John Cooper Clarke. Johnny Vegas' poem got a standing ovation from most of the panel, including Clarke himself.
- Home Game: Several, including a DVD version.
- Hotter and Sexier: The 8 Out of 10 Cats version naturally features much more ribald humour and uncensored profanity.
- Impossible Pickle Jar: During one of the countdowns in 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Jimmy pulled out an enormous jar of pickles from under the desk and attempted to open it, using an assortment of increasingly unlikely tools. In the dying seconds, Rachel walked over and opened it for him, causing him to comment "I loosened that".
- Lovely Assistant: Carol Vorderman up to 2008, Rachel Riley since 2009 note . In some seasons of 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Rachel got her own Lovely Assistant in the shape of Joe Wilkinson.
- Fabio and his cohorts are a male example- their collective job is to bring the prizes in and out while wearing very little clothing, and then smile and wave to the audience.
- Luck-Based Mission: Even with the Scrabble-like distribution of letters, forming long words can be tricky. Likewise, not all Numbers Rounds have an exact solution.
- Meaningful Name: Two people named Des have hosted the show, and there are two 'Des' in the title of the original French show, Des Chiffres et Des Lettres.
- Number of the Beast: Occasionally 666 will come up as the target sum in the numbers round. This has been shown to disturb members of the audience, as well as some of the players.
- Pungeon Master: Richard Whiteley.
- Running Gag: On the 8 Out of 10 Cats edition, Nick Helm's frighteningly aggressive crush on Susie Dent.
- Serious Business: If the two players are within 10 points of each other for the final Conundrum, it becomes a Crucial Countdown Conundrum, and the lights dim to emphasize.
- Ship Tease: Considering how much Richard and Carol seemed to get along on-air, this isn't surprising. To a lesser extent, Des O' and Carol.
- Significant Anagram: Words score one point per letter in the Letters Round, or 18 points for using all nine, and the Conundrum (always a nine-letter anagram) is worth 10.
- Studio Audience: Used to have one until 2020, when the COVID-19 Pandemic forced it to begin filming without one when it returned. It was later announced that this change would become permanent.
- Take That!: When Preston North End got relegated from the Championship, a producer who was a Blackpool fan assembled the Conundrum "PNECRISIS".
- Think Music: About as iconic in the UK as the Final Jeopardy! music is in America, to the point that people who never even watch the show will start humming it as a hint that you need to hurry up and make a decision). Have a listen.
- Timed Mission: All rounds last 30 seconds.
- Unintentionally Unwinnable: The numbers round sometimes generates a target that is impossible to reach with the six chosen numbers. If such a feat occurs, then closest to the number wins the points.