New York — Krypton is the planet from which Superman hails, the place where Marlon Brando dwelt. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it is also "a colorless relatively inert gaseous element found in air."
Now it is also a mysterious "factor" on ABC: "The Krypton Factor" (ABC, starting this Friday, 8:30-9 p.m., for four additional Fridays, check local listings).
When ABC screened the premiere episode for me, I had been convinced by the cryptic ABC promotion that "The Krypton Factor" would turn out to be some sort of gimmicky science-fiction miniseries.
Then the tape started playing and I was excited by what seemed to me a highly innovative idea: The format was what appeared to be phony game show, with Dick Clark as host and four rather unlikely mature contestants required to do tasks that involved some skill and being asked reasonably intelligent questions.
As I watched them compete, first manipulating electronic vehicles on a screen , then recalling specific aspects in a scene from "The Lone Ranger," I anxiously awaited the beginning of a story line, impressed by the unusual creativity of the producers.
Then they started running an obstacle course, and I knew my dreams of innovative programming were simply self-delusion. Suddenly the half-hour was up and a winner was declared. There was to be no other story line, no plot, no innovation.
What I had seen was all I would get. And what I had seen was another game show -- unusual mainly in the fact that some of the questions required a bit of expertise or knowledge and the fact that it was scheduled to be aired in prime evening time.
I asked to see the final, fifth episode but was informed that nothing other than the first was available for previewing. So, since this game show is an Alan Landsburg Production and he is listed as one of the executive producers, I arranged to talk to Landsburg in Hollywood, home of most game shows. Mr. Landsburg's production company is also involved with "Those Amazing Animals" and "That's Incredible." He also has two movie specials coming up on ABC and CBS within a few months -- "A Long Way Home" and "Bill."
It turns out that "The Krypton Factor" has been a very successful show on Granada Television in England for the past five years. "Some of the show is taken directly from the English model," explained Mr. Landsburg. "One of the creators of the British show came over to work with us, and he recently told me that he now prefers the American version. In some segments we've increased the point scoring so that the smarter you are, the better chance you have of winning , even if you score highly in the physical (an eccentric obstacle course) segments."
Might there be copyright problems with the word Krypton, generally recognized as the planet of Superman's origins?
"Well, it has the same name in England. And we never actually mention Superman in the show -- although the show is intended to be a kind of pun on the existence of a superperson. We never say Superman although we do say superperson. As of this moment (one week before the premiere) we are still discussing the use of the word."
But in any event, it is a fact that krypton is a word in the dictionary with no reference to Superman. Mr. Landsburg laughed. "Questions like this make lawyers very wealthy."
The grand prize in the American game is $50,000 in gold. How does that compare with the British grand prize?
"Our feeling is that a large prize is part of the American way. In England the winner gets only a symbolic K. That's all. Not even a T-shirt with the K on it.
"We felt that there should be a reward for effort -- a little more than nominal, a little less than huge, so that it won't be great enough to inspire attempts at rigging."
That brings up another question: When major prime-time game shows were removed from prime-time programming about 20 years ago, it was the alleged rigging of games such as "The $64,000 Question" which caused the demise. Are precautions being taken to see that this doesn't happen again?
"We are fanatical about the purity of the program. We would gain nothing by rigging. It is an open competition with only the physical part taped beforehand."
Mr. Landsburg is reluctant to call "The Krypton Factor" a game show "because it really doesn't fit the modern tradition of the game show. It stresses knowledge -- something the American public hasn't seen much of on TV."
Will the show be picked up by ABC for fall viewing?
"The general idea is that these five segments are a trial run. We hope the show will find an audience for itself so we are planning to produce another 16 programs -- three more sets of four contests with the fifth pitting the winners against each other. At the end of the 20th show, all grand prize winners will compete against each other in the 21st show. But all this depends upon the response being good for this first series."
Isn't the promotion for this kind of show a bit obscure?
"ABC wants to do it kind of cryptically, not clearly identifying the show as a game show. They hope the audience will find it for itself. After all, it is not a generic game show -- there are elements of information and sports in it as well. If the audience doesn't play along, we fail. . . ."
So if you have been a bit puzzled by the ABC promotion which enticingly calls the show "a new television experience," stressing the fact that "four Americans just like you face the ultimate challenge . . . and you will too," you are hereby forewarned. It is not a science fiction show.
If you decide to watch it anyway -- and it does make pleasant diversion for a half hour -- don't expect to see any astounding supermen from the planet Krypton. "The Krypton Factor" is a harmless mix of "Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes" and "Information, Please." And the biggest puzzle it presents is: Why have the British made it one of their favorite shows for the past five years?