Game shows go ape
TV networks exploit lottery mentality and ruthless competition to hike
It was perhaps the seminal moment in the short history of television's new breed of game shows.
While helping his team build up to a jackpot of $1 million on the Fox network's "Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge," wild-haired Curtis accepted $10,000 in cash to try to "terminate" his teammate Janice. Whoever answered the next question first would take the other's share of the pot. The loser would go home with nothing.
In two simple words, Janice summed up the compelling social experiment producers and programmers have begun as they catch the game-show wave.
With the runaway ratings success of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," networks are clamoring for their own high-stakes contests involving everyday people. Judging by some of the shows currently in development, however, contestants will soon be laying much more on the line than cash.
Of course, there will be lots of money. The game-show business has suddenly become a table at which a million-dollar jackpot seems like penny ante. But producers say the possibility of striking it rich is merely an incentive for contestants to expose their own instincts - bad or good.
"Game shows have always been about greed," says Bob Boden, executive producer of "Greed." "It's just that they have never called themselves 'Greed.' "
Some have suggested that Mr. Boden's show be renamed "Who Wants to Stab You in the Back." On it, teams of five complete strangers work together, answering trivia questions in the hopes of building a team cache of more than $2 million. At the end of most rounds, though, contestants can challenge one another, wagering their entire cut in the process. A cutthroat approach would see one person walk away with all of the loot.
It's a concept that Deborah Crown, an ethics professor at the University of Alabama, calls contradictory to modern notions of adulthood and teamwork.
"If you look at the concept of maturity in our society, that's heavily loaded with being able to see things from others' points of view, being able to have care and concerns for others," Dr. Crown explains. "One of the elements that's essential for a team to operate effectively is that they have to be able to trust the other people on the team."
'Play nice' values in conflict
Robert Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, N.Y., says "Greed" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" represent opposing viewpoints of television's traditional "play-nice" values.
Dr. Thompson says that "Millionaire," with its "lifelines" of assistance from audience members and friends is really about one person "competing against the elusiveness of the American Dream."
"Greed," on the other hand, turns those values on end.
"If you're worried that people will become what they watch, then I think there is a serious value judgment here," Thompson says. "A lot of these things are portraying parts of the human spirit that are by far not our most admirable ones, but in fact they are really going for the id, for the things that are darkest in us."
On the other hand, says Thompson, if you consider shows such as these to fit the definition of art, they give us a vicarious thrill even when they threaten our perceptions of how the world should work.
"If they cringe and they watch it, that's OK," Boden of "Greed" replies. "We have created an environment where - I won't say greed is good - but where greed is an acceptable device to play a game."
On CBS's "Survivor" - a docu-soap-cum-game show currently in development - the lines between artificiality and reality will be even harder to discern.
The program is a cross between "Gilligan's Island" and "Lord of the Flies." This spring, 16 competitors will be "marooned" on a deserted island off the coast of Borneo. Ten camera crews will follow their attempts to build shelter, find food, and get along. Again, however, there is a cutthroat twist:At the end of every three-day episode, one member will be voted off the island. The last person to "survive" becomes a millionaire.
"It's just a challenge to imagine that the rules of modern society are suddenly removed," says "Survivor" executive producer Mark Burnett. "It doesn't matter if you're a CEO today. On that island, everybody starts off equal. It's not very often in life that can occur."
It is the removal of those rules, however, that worries Syracuse's Robert Thompson. "By taking it away from this nice, soft sort of Swiss Family Robinson and saying, 'OK, whoever's last wins a million dollars' turns it into a fight to the finish," he says. "Very Darwinian."
Ironically, Burnett is the same man behind Discovery Channel's successful Eco-Challenge races, in which teamwork is paramount. (Eco-Challenge teams are disqualified if they do not finish the race with their teams intact.) For his part, however, Burnett sees no contradiction between the two events.
"[In Eco-Challenge], very ordinary people finish because of their compassion for each other, and it's not a battle of muscle," stresses Burnett. "To win 'Survivor,' you'd better be compassionate, open-minded, and a team player because otherwise, you'll be kicked off."
The key to that dynamic, he says, is the fact that the voting will take place by secret ballot (although the audience will know the precise results). Burnett says that an open vote would allow a bully to dominate.
By keeping the vote secret, and by arranging for some staples of island life to "miraculously" wash ashore, the producers of "Survivor" are hoping to allay any concerns about the competition becoming some sort of primal endgame.
"There is no way I am going to drop 16 Americans off on an island and leave them because I truly believe that you would end up with 'Lord of the Flies,' " he explains. "I try to keep it authentic, but I'm not willing to risk people's lives to achieve that."
'Getting close to the money'
Without any real risk to the competitors' safety, though, will the show still live up to the network's adventure-oriented billing?
Probably not, says filmmaker and adventurer David Breashears. "Adventure is defined by what's at stake," says Mr. Breashears, co-director and expedition leader for the Imax movie "Everest." "What are they really surviving? It seems that what you have to survive is staying on that team and getting close to the money."
Breashears says the "Survivor" scenario and group dynamic bear no resemblance to the expeditions he and his peers have undertaken.
"No, not at all. Expeditions are autocratic. And at a certain point, you cut the umbilical cord, whether it's ease of retreat, communications, whatever," he continues. "When I look at the adventures of [Sir Ernest] Shackleton and others from polar and Arctic exploration, people survived because they stayed together."
Nevertheless, just because "Survivor" might seem a bit contrived to Breashears the climber does not mean that Breashears the filmmaker will not be watching.
"There is something about our common humanity that is going to be illuminated through the trials and tribulations of these people and the selections they make. So I'm not willing to dismiss it as 'Oh, it's not an adventure,' because I think that is a bit of the hook. It could be quite interesting."
He probably will not be the only one. CBS received almost 6,000 video applications to participate in "Survivor" - almost three times what the producers had expected.
If the audience displays anywhere near the same enthusiasm, Burnett expects his show will be fodder for water-cooler conversation across the country, with people debating weekly who goes, who stays, and why.
That was precisely the reaction "Greed" viewers had when Curtis "terminated" Janice a few weeks ago on his way to winning more than $400,000. Of course, Curtis had his reasons. He later explained that Janice had seemed weak in the previous rounds, and he feared she would bring down the team.
But under the rules of the latest wave of game shows, the answer to her plaintive cry of "Why me?" could have just as easily been "Why not?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society