TV’s Final Answer?

January 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


REGIS PHILBIN: Now, join us, from New York, for night 35 of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” (Applause)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And join they do, by the millions, tuning in for the rush that comes from watching someone try to win a million dollars.

REGIS PHILBIN:Thank you, Thank you very much everybody.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, hosted by Regis Philbin, set off the current quiz show craze last summer, and the show has been a ratings phenomenon for the network. (Applause) Noting ABC’s success, the other major networks quickly followed suit.

CHUCK WOOLERY: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “Greed.”

ANNOUNCER: And now, the biggest game show to ever hit prime time, “Winning Lines.”

MAURY POVICH: Let’s get started and make television history with tonight’s return of “21.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now nearly every night of the week viewers can turn into Fox, CBS, NBC or ABC to watch contestants go for big money. Not since early television have so many game shows aired on prime-time. Michael Davies is executive producer of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

MICHAEL DAVIES: You know, it’s no surprise that people are interested in this program. You know, everybody said beforehand, “oh, a prime time quiz show? Are you crazy? What do you mean, a quiz show in prime time?” But people forget that in the 1950’s, I mean, this is a foundation of American television.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Programs like “21” were standard fare in those days.

SPOKESMAN: And you win. (Applause)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The show premiered in 1956 and was wildly popular until word got out that a winning contestant, Charles Van Doren, knew the questions ahead of time. The show went off the air in 1958. Critics said viewers’ trust in game shows was shattered by the “21” fix. Maybe, but now, 42 years later, “21” is back, joining the lineup of “Millionaire” and the other quiz shows.

MAURY POVICH: And she has just won… $100,000.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As in the 50’s, they’re still cheap to produce and bring big profits for their networks. Some of the new shows ask tough questions like the old ones did.

JIMMY KIMMEL: Common to the Sumerians, Babylonians, an Assyrians, what form of temple was built as a pyramidal brick tower with receding tiers? Dave.

DAVE: Ziggurat.

JIMMY KIMMEL: That’s correct. Good. Wow.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But in general, the questions on the new shows are easier than in the past.

REGIS PHILBIN: Which of the following is a type of Mexican hat – soprano, sombrero, espresso …

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In November, an I.R.S. employee, John Carpenter, won “millionaire’s” jackpot answering the question, “which U.S. President appeared on the TV show ‘Laugh In’?” Last night, though, Dan Blonsky, an attorney from Miami, going for a million dollars, answered a more old-fashioned kind of question, “what is the distance from the earth to the sun?

DAN BLONSKY: I’m pretty sure it’s 93. So I’m going to make that my final answer.

REGIS PHILBIN: Let me repeat this: is that your final answer?

DAN BLONSKY: This is my final answer.

REGIS PHILBIN: You just won $1 million!

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nearly 34 million people were watching last night as Blonsky won his pot of gold.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for more we turn to Ben Stein who is host of Comedy Central’sWin Ben Stein’s Money, whom we just saw. The show won five daytime Emmys last year. David Bianculli, a TV critic for the New York Daily News and National Public Radio — he’s the author of “Teleliteracy, Taking Television Seriously,” and “Dictionary of Teleliteracy.” And Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television there. Ben Stein, why are quiz shows back? What brought you? What inspired you to do one, for example?

BEN STEIN: Well, I was inspired to do it because it was a steady job and it looked like it might help me pay my mortgage.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s a good reason.

BEN STEIN: But actually, the reasons they’re back are somewhat similar to that, because there’s a certain steadiness to the idea that if you answer a question with the right answer, you win money. Precision in answering, knowledge, and money are big factors in human society. I think that’s part of it. The second part of it is television today is so slobby, derivative and such a mess that for a show to come on that offers some exactitude– the order of battle at Trafalgar for example– that is something that people can sink their teeth into and say, this is real, just like a baseball game is real or a football game is real.

And just like a baseball game or football game, boxing match, there’s real drama in a game show. Someone wins and someone loses, and it’s heartbreaking when people lose. They feel terrible. I can tell you from having dealt with them every day for a long time now. They feel terrible. The winner feels great. There’s real exultation, real despair.

The drama is real. And also, people like money. This is a basic constant of human life ever since there have been humans and money. People like money. The happiness people feel when they get money, the happiness people feel in the audience when they feel they have a chance to do the same if they’re ever on TV, that’s real. And I guess also it’s the only interactive TV show that’s on. The people in the audience feel they’re playing along and they’re interacting with the show in a way that the Internet has yet to catch up with.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: David Bianculli, do you think those are the considerations, and if so, why didn’t it happen sooner if it seems so obvious?

DAVID BIANCULLI: Well, the genre was dead for like, you know, 30, 40 years, and network TV didn’t want to touch it because of the old scandal. So they bring it back, and they brought it back with the right show that had already worked in other countries. And the genius to “Millionaire,” I think, the added genius, is that in most quiz shows you’re rooting for someone versus somebody else. There has to be a loser. In Millionaire, the winner and the loser are the same person. You actually develop a rooting interest because it’s one contestant at a time once they get going. And that I think allows for a real sense of identification and connection.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Thompson, do you I have anything to add to all these reasons for the success and the popularity of the shows?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Yeah. I think it was a miracle they didn’t think of this sooner. They’re cheap. They’ve worked twice before. They were huge in radio, huge again in the mid-1950’s. And we’ve had a 40-year detox period in which if anybody was tired of them, they certainly had time to get over it.

Secondly, there’s something to do with the great American dream. You know, one reinvents oneself. One goes from pauper to aristocracy. The difference is here instead of the old notion that Ben Franklin talked about that you did it through a generation of hard work and following the virtues and so forth, here in the 50’s you could do it over the course of a couple of weeks. In the case of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, we’ve bypassed the entire length it takes to achieve the American dream and compressed it into 20 minutes.


BEN STEIN: This is sort of replicating. What’s happening on Millionaire and Greed and other shows where the prizes are huge, not like our tiny little prizes, is what’s happening in Internet stocks, what’s happening in the stock market. Americans don’t want to wait years or a generation to get rich anymore. They see everybody else getting rich overnight. TV says, look, you may not get in on the Internet boom, but we’re going to get you in on something that will make you rich overnight. And this sort of plays to not only the love of money, but the love of very quick money.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Ben Stein, you think they do… I mean, these shows really do reflect America at this certain point in our history?

BEN STEIN: Oh, precisely they reflect America at this point in history, and I think the people at the networks are doing all they can to kill the quiz show boom, because some of the latest shows that have just gone on are so poor and move so slowly, but I think if we can get back to the simple basics, ask a question, get the answer, yes, no, money, yes, no, these things could last a very long time.

DAVID BIANCULLI: But the networks aren’t doing anything differently with this than they did with the western and they did with the variety show. Once you get an early one that’s successful and they realize that there’s gold in them thar hills, they all run, they all do inferior versions that the audience finally rejects. There were so many westerns on TV 40 years ago that it almost strangled the form, but when the dust cleared, the old best ones, the Gun Smokes and the Bonanza survived. I think that will happen with this boom, too.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Thompson, what do you think the shows reflect about American culture, especially looking at them in comparison with the quiz shows of the 50’s?

ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, there’s two major differences between the quiz shows of the 50’s and the quiz shows today. Number one, is the pacing. These things are incredibly fast. It’s as though the quiz show has been redesigned for the generation that learned to count with these surrealistic ladybugs on Sesame Street — then with ER and MTV. And secondly is the degree of difficulty. Now, I’m talking here about the primetime shows. It used to be back in the 50’s you had to answer complex questions, specific answers, sometimes 14 parts. Now you get it, if you kind of retain some of the arcane knowledge that society has flung up against you. In many ways, these are every little school kid’s dream come true. The questions are incredibly simple, you get multiple choice, and on Who Wants to be a Millionaire at least, you’re allowed the cheat three times by looking at someone else’s paper, calling a friend or whatever.

But all of that combines, I think, to another big thing, which is really the biggest story about these new primetime quiz shows, and that is just when we thought we were away from the network era, just when we thought that the kids were off in their room watching their own cable channels and the parents were watching something else, when the era where we all watched the same thing, Lucy having her baby, who shot J.R., whatever, this silly little quiz show and Regis Philbin drag us right back into the 20th century, indeed right back into the 1950’s, we’ve got generations once again gathering around the electronic heart — little kids, grandmothers, parents, watching the same thing at the same time.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: David Bianculli, the shows that… the network shows have gotten some criticism, haven’t they, for being — including mostly white men, white male host, white men contestants, overwhelmingly?

DAVID BIANCULLI: Yeah. Millionaire specifically, and it is trying to refine its process so that it can get more minorities and women. It’s not being exclusionary; it’s just sort of the lay of the land how that’s worked out to date.

BEN STEIN: On Win Ben Stein’s money, I have found generally speaking that we can get people of any ethnic background any age any sex if they’re smart and alert, they can beat me. I am endlessly urging the producers to get more nonwhite, more women, more Hispanics. There’s… This really has to happen. We have to include more people. As Bill Clinton says… Might say, we have to have game shows that look like America.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Ben Stein, how are you guarding against corruption of the process?

BEN STEIN: It’s insane how careful they are in my show. They don’t even let me out of my dressing room for most of the day. I’m not allowed to have a phone. I don’t have any windows. I have a bodyguard who screens everyone who comes in and out. They’re incredibly careful about it. I mean, I think they’re excessively careful about it. I think they’re doing the same on all the shows. The thing that would kill this goose which is laying the golden egg is if there were a corruption scandal about it. I think everybody’s going do be very, very careful.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Robert Thompson, how long is this likely to last?

ROBERT THOMPSON: I think the expiration date on a carton of game show is probably not too far in the future. They’re never going to completely go away, but I think there’ll be a sense in which the networks will ride this wave until it crashes into the shore, and each time another one of these comes on, it dilutes our interest. Also, we have to remember that unlike a lot of other dramas, once you tire of any one of these programs, there’s nothing you can do to fix it. They’re so similar. They’re so formulaic. And it’s what makes them so fun and or so appealing in the beginning, but it’s also what is their own downfall. That’s where shows like Win Ben Stein’s Money, I think, are something completely different. That show could conceivably go on forever. I should also point out that…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly, I want to ask both Ben Stein and David Bianculli, Ben Stein first just quickly, how long do you think this phenomenon can last?

BEN STEIN: I think the network boom for Millionaire will last forever — for Greed forever, and for the others I’m in the sure.


DAVID BIANCULLI: I think with Ben’s show, the fact that he’s only offering $5,000 makes his show safe from any corruption scandal. So he’s okay. I think Millionaire has a free pass for years, but I think the others are going to come and go pretty quickly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you all three very much.