Countdown Game Show – Rules And History

Countdown is an iconic game show that is loved in households all over the UK. Popular for combining English-language anagrams and numeracy challenges, the show remains a hit with players of all ages due to its educational gameplay that can sharpen the mind of contestants and viewers alike. 

Rules of Countdown

In each episode of Countdown, two contestants compete against each other to score the maximum score possible across three types of rounds, letters rounds, numbers rounds and finally the Countdown Conundrum. Unlike other shows, Countdown contestants do not play for money, but the winning contestant is allowed to play again in the next episode. 

Letters round

In these rounds, a contestant will pick letters from two face-down stacks of either vowels or consonants until 9 letters have been chosen. When all letters have been chosen, there must be at least three vowels and four consonants on the board. 

Next, the two contestants have 30 seconds to form the longest word possible using only the letters given, with none of the letters appearing more than the amount of times they are shown. Players must write down the words that they think of, in the case that they both choose to play the same word. 

Once the 30 second timer has run out, the host of the show will ask each of the contestants to declare the word length they would like to play, starting with the contestant who chose the letters on the board. The contestant who has made the longest valid word will score 1 point per letter, however if a 9-letter word has been created, they will score 18 points.

In the case that each contestant has used valid identical words or words of equal length, both of the contestants will score points. Furthermore, when the same word has been played by both players, they must show each other their written words as proof that they match. 

Any contestant that inaccurately declares their word length will score 0 points even if the word is valid. Each letters round will end with the experts from Dictionary Corner informing the participants and the viewer of the longest words and/or unusual words that could have been formed using the letters given.  

Numbers round

Each number round follows two letter Rounds, with a contestantchoosing the numbers on the board to be used. In this round, the chosen contestant must choose 6 of 24 face-down and shuffled number tiles that are arranged into two groups (small numbers from 1 – 10 and large numbers of 25, 50, 75 & 100).

To do so, they must declare how many large numbers they wish to use, between 0 and 4, and the remaining number of small numbers to reach 6 in total will be chosen at random. 

Next, a three-digit target number will be calculated and shown on the screen of an electronic machine (“CECIL”) and the contestants have a total of 30 seconds to use the determined numbers to make a calculation that lands on or is as close to the target number as possible. When making their calculation, contestants do not have to use all of the 6 numbers and are only allowed to use the four basic operations of mathematics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Division can only be applied where there is no remainder and each number can only be used as many times as it appears. As in the letters round, both contestants must declare their best result and if they both claim the same number, they should show each other their written work before discussing their calculations.

Only the contestant who has got closest to the target will score points and points are scored in the following way. 

  • 10 to 6 points away from target: 5 points
  • 5 to 1 point away from target: 7 points
  • Achieve target number: 10 points

Both contestants will score if they both prove they can land on the same scorable number and if no contestant can reach the target, the game’s assistant will be called upon to provide a solution. 

Countdown Conundrum

For the game’s final round, both contestants will be shown a 9-letter anagram at the same time that needs to be rearranged to form a new word. For this round, again players have a total of 30 seconds to answer and the first to buzz in and answer correctly will earn themself 10 points.

In addition, each player is only allowed 1 guess at the Countdown Conundrum. If neither contestant is unable to solve the word, the presenter will ask the audience if anybody knows the answer.

In the event that the game is tied after this round, players will play an additional Conundrum (or multiple Conundrums) until one player gains the additional points needed to win. Once the game has ended, the loser will go home with a goody bag while the winner will receive a special teapot and the chance to return for the next edition of the show.

If a player is able to win 8 times in a row, they will be declared an Octochamp and forced to retire from the show.

Broadcasting history of Countdown

Due to its popularity in the UK, the main series of Countdown has been running since 1982 in addition to having many special series and episodes since 1989.

Main series

  • As of 2024, there have been 89 seasons of Countdown, with an additional season to be released later in the year. 
  • There have been a total of 8,305 episodes broadcast to date.
  • All of Countdown’s seasons have been broadcast on Channel 4. 
  • Countdown has had 7 official main hosts at various points throughout the show’s history, Richard Whiteley, Des Lynam, Des O’Connor, Jeff Stelling, Nick Hewer, Anne Robinson and Colin Murray.
YearsSeasonTotal episodesBroadcasterMain host(s)
1982 – 1982127Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1983 – 1983253Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1983 – 1983352Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1984 – 1984452Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1984 – 1984550Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1985 – 1985654Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1985 – 1985750Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1986 – 1986859Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1986 – 1986947Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1986 – 19861050Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1987 – 19871150Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1987 – 19871250Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1987 – 19871350Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1987 – 19871463Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1988 – 19881550Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1988 – 19881655Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1989 – 19891755Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1989 – 19891870Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1990 – 19901965Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1990 – 19902065Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1991 – 19912165Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1991 – 19912265Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1991 – 19922365Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1992 – 19922465Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1993 – 19932565Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1993 – 19932665Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1994 – 19942765Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1994 – 19942865Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1995 – 19952965Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1995 – 19953065Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1996 – 19963165Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1996 – 19963265Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1996 – 19963360Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1996 – 19973465Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1997 – 19973565Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1997 – 19973665Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1997 – 19973760Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1997 – 199838130Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1998 – 199839130Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1998 – 199940130Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1999 – 199941121Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1999 – 200042124Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2000 – 200043114Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2000 – 200144131Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2001 – 20014543Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2001 – 20014667Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2002 – 200247127Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2002 – 200248110Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003 – 200349122Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003 – 200350103Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004 – 200451114Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004 – 200452112Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2005 – 200553119Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2005 – 200654153Channel 4Des Lynam
2006 – 200655150Channel 4Des Lynam
2007 – 200756120Channel 4Des O’Connor
2007 – 200757126Channel 4Des O’Connor
2008 – 200858119Channel 4Des O’Connor
2008 – 200859105Channel 4Des O’Connor
2009 – 200960111Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2009 – 200961110Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2010 – 201062110Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2010 – 201063115Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2011 – 201164100Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2011 – 201165120Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2012 – 201266119Channel 4Nick Hewer
2012 – 20126797Channel 4Nick Hewer
2013 – 201368107Channel 4Nick Hewer
2013 – 201369118Channel 4Nick Hewer
2014 – 201470107Channel 4Nick Hewer
2014 – 201471110Channel 4Nick Hewer
2015 – 201572100Channel 4Nick Hewer
2015 – 201573121Channel 4Nick Hewer
2016 – 201674107Channel 4Nick Hewer
2016 – 201675109Channel 4Nick Hewer
2017 – 201776121Channel 4Nick Hewer
2017 – 201777122Channel 4Nick Hewer
2018 – 201878117Channel 4Nick Hewer
2018 – 201879126Channel 4Nick Hewer
2019 – 201980128Channel 4Nick Hewer
2019 – 201981124Channel 4Nick Hewer
2020 – 202082182Channel 4Nick Hewer and Colin Murray
2021 – 202183125Channel 4Nick Hewer and Colin Murray
2021 – 202184128Channel 4Anne Robinson
2022 – 202285120Channel 4Anne Robinson
2022 – 202286135Channel 4Anne Robinson, Colin Murray, Les Dennis, Jenny Eclair and guest hosts
2023 – 202387129Channel 4Colin Murray
2023 – 202388126Channel 4Colin Murray
2024 – 202489129Channel 4Colin Murray
2024 – 202490TBAChannel 4Colin Murray

Special series and episodes

  • As of 2024, there have been 2 Masters seasons, 2 Celebrity seasons and several other special episodes of Countdown.
  • In total, this amounts to 163 episodes from 1989 to the end of 2020.
  • In addition to these, many spin-off episodes have been created based upon the Countdown format.  
YearsName*SeasonTotal episodesBroadcasterMain host(s)
1989 – 1990Masters152Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1990 – 1991Masters252Channel 4Richard Whiteley
1997Christmas SpecialN/A1Channel 4William G. Stewart
1998 – 1998Celebrity18Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Husband & WifeN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Replayed Series 40 FinalN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003High Scoring LosersN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Maths TeachersN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003SolicitorsN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003ClergymenN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Scrabble MastersN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Replayed Series 31 FinalN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Champions of Champions IX & XN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Police OfficersN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003High Scoring Losers IIN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2003Series 47 & 48 ChampionsN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004PublicansN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004Father & DaughterN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004Replayed Series 35 FinalN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004Replayed Series 39 FinalN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004AficionadosN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004Replayed Series 37 FinalN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004Mother & SonN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004StarletsN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2004BrothersN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2005Cabaret EntertainersN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2005StarletsN/A1Channel 4Richard Whiteley
2010Series 60 & 61 ChampionsN/A1Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2010High Scoring Losers IIIN/A1Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2010Young StarsN/A1Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2010Replayed Series 59 FinalN/A1Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2011Deciding SpecialN/A1Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2011Female FinalistsN/A1Channel 4Jeff Stelling
2012Sister & BrotherN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2012Series 64 & 65 ChampionsN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2012Female WinnersN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2012Husband & WifeN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2012Male FinalistsN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2013LovebirdsN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2014Battle of the BobbysN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2014Senior FemalesN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2014Battle of the Mc’sN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2015SistersN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2015Law & OrderN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2015VeteransN/A1Channel 4Nick Hewer
2019 – 2020Celebrity26Channel 4Nick Hewer
2020Battle of BingleyN/A1Channel 4Colin Murray
2020Series 63 & 69 ChampionsN/A1Channel 4Colin Murray
2020All-time greatsN/A1Channel 4Colin Murray
(*Excludes spin-offs)

Countdown FAQ

What is 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown?

  • 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown is a spin-off TV comedy game show hosted by comedian Jimmy Carr.
  • Based on the Countdown format, the show also stars Susie Dent, Rachel Riley, Jon Richardson, Joe Wilkinson and previously Sean Lock. 
  • As of 2024, it has aired for 25 seasons and 157 episodes in total.

Where to watch Countdown?

Since its being introduced to UK Television in 1982, Countdown has been constantly available to watch on Channel 4 to the present day. However in Wales specifically, it was available on S4C until 2010.

What is the Countdown theme?

The Countdown “Chimes” theme music was composed by Alan Hawkshaw, who also produced a number of other famous theme tunes. In 1996, he was commissioned to rework the music to add extra intensity, however hundreds of complaints led to his original theme being reinstated after just 12 episodes.