Setting aside the rather more philosophical question of why one round of an established quiz show should carry less weight for a moment, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find out just how powerful (or not) missing vowels really is. To answer, I did what any statistician would do, and looked for the data. Through a combination of question editor David Bodycombe's own records (thanks David!), episode summaries at Mastermind champion Dave Clark's blog (thanks Dave!), and my own trawling through old episodes on YouTube (thanks Dav- I mean thanks me!), I put together what I'm pretty sure is the only comprehensive dataset of regular series Only Connect scoring in the universe. With it I'm able to look at all sorts of fun Only Connect-related questions (some of which will follow in later posts) including whether or not the missing vowels round is particularly important.
First things first, what about all these come-from-behind victories I've heard so much about? It turns out that they're not that common after all. In 99 episodes over the first seven series there have been just 14 occasions where a team losing after the walls have gone on to win - and two of those were on a tie-break. What's more, these turnarounds are seldom particularly dramatic. Of the 14, five were carried out by teams who were losing by just one point after the walls, while four were by a team trailing by two. The biggest deficit that's ever been overturned in missing vowels is four points; you can score more than that in one question in the earlier rounds.
Continuing our journey into the unremarkable let's have a look at how many points are scored on average in each of the four rounds. This should give us a very rough impression of how each round contributes to a team's performance. Check out the fancy table below.
|Average (combined) points scored per|
Only Connect episode, series 1-7.
It seems, then, that while missing vowels is an important part of the show it's nowhere near as make-or-break as the Internet (or at least the vocal parts of it) would have you believe. On average you'll see a turnaround once in seven shows, or roughly twice a series - the rest of the time you may as well not bother with the final round at all; the outcome would be the same. Moreover, when it does happen, it'll more than likely be a lead of only one or two points that's overturned, which for a relatively large part of a show seems pretty reasonable to me.
So why has this myth persisted? The most likely reason is that while the first three rounds take a relatively long time, missing vowels seldom lasts more than two minutes. Points are therefore scored at a much quicker rate than earlier in the show giving the impression that the round as a whole is cheap. The walls, meanwhile, have their points 'disguised'; they're only added for both teams at the very end of the round.
One final observation is that there seems little reason why a team leading before missing vowels might be expected to go on to lose. After all, a team who are better over the first three rounds are, one might expect, likely to be better in the last one as well. Pleasingly, this hypothesis is borne out by the data: there's a (statistically) significant association between a team's performance in missing vowels and their lead before it.