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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.