A million dollars? Yes, please!
By BRIDGET MAHONEY
"Is that your final answer?"
No doubt everyone has heard that expression in some form; it's the most recent catch phrase to take over the nation. Besides the overwhelming popularity of its source, ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," those five words refer to the nationwide hunger to make a million big ones instantly. It's not just one TV quiz show, but a whole slew of them, plus their numerous Internet spin-off sweepstakes, that have taken over primetime. Every network's got one. While ABC treasures its trend-setting quiz show, Fox took the idea and added a ruthless twist to create "Greed: The Series"; NBC brought back "Twenty-One," which suffered a scandal in the 1950s and CBS introduced "Winning Lines."
The dramatic question
It's 8 p.m. Tuesday night on ABC. The familiar voice of Regis Philbin invites the audience, both in the studio and watching at home, to another episode of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" After showing clips from the previous episode, he welcomes back Patty from Wisconsin, who will begin at the $4,000 mark.
Centered in the futuristically designed stage area, Regis and Patty sit in two elevated chairs with computer screens attached. With a metallic gray tie to contrast with his black shirt and jacket, Regis fits in with the dramatic environment. On the other hand, Patty looks like she could be anyone's next door neighbor. The camera pans to her boyfriend sitting in the audience. Dressed comfortably, he is a bright-eyed man sitting on the edge of his seat and grinning widely at the mention of his name.
"It's time to play `Who Wants To Be A Millionaire'!" booms Regis. Even though the rules are well-known, he reminds the contestant that she still has her three lifelines left: the 50-50, asking the audience and phoning a friend. As the stage dims, lights flash around in an arc and stop in the center. Melodramatic music sounding like the thump of a beating heart silences the audience.
"On what date is Abraham Lincoln's actual birthday? Is it: a) February 12, b) February 14, c) February 18 or d) February 22?" the host asks.
Hey, I know the answer
An interesting point of difference between the quiz shows of the 1950s and those of today is the questions' degree of difficulty. Some argue that the questions now are nowhere near as hard as they used to be, which they say is a reflection on the intelligence of the general public.
"There really has been a dumbing down. In the old days, we had arcane and esoteric stuff. It was designed to make the audience gape," said 73-year old Herbert Stempel, who appeared on "Twenty-One" in the 1950s, in a recent Washington Post interview.
But perhaps the fact that they can answer the questions effortlessly is the greater draw for today's audience. These shows make the common person feel smart; now who wouldn't want that?
After pondering the question for a few moments, Patty makes a request: "I'd like to use a lifeline. I'd like to ask the audience."
Within seconds, the top right corner of the TV screen displays a graph revealing that 53 percent of the audience chose answer "a." Patty decides to use that answer.
"Is that your final answer?"
"Yes, that's my final answer."
"Yeah. They did it!" Regis bursts out with his characteristic smile, revealing a set of sparkling white teeth.
A calming presence
"I really like Regis," said American studies professor Susan Ohmer. "He's down to earth. I think, sometimes, the guests seem arrogant. I like the host."
A key element in the quiz show phenomenon is the appeal of the host. For that reason, recognizable names such as Chuck Woolery from "The Love Connection," Maury Povich from "The Maury Povich Show" and Dick Clark from "American Bandstand" are used as hosts to draw in an audience for "Greed," "Twenty-One" and "Winning Lines" respectively. Such personalities add a sense of familiarity to the dramatic ups and downs of these games.
After a few more correctly answered questions, with the help of lifeline or two, Regis pauses the game to chat with Patty about her millionaire dreams.
"So what do you plan on doing with your money, Patty?" Regis asked.
"I'd like to go to Las Vegas and double my money with my winnings," she said, the flush in her cheeks and wide smile giving away the thrill of such a prospect.
Some argue that these shows demonstrate the latest version of the American Dream. No longer is persevering the long road to fortune the popular ideal. Now it is taking a shortcut to the top of the economic ladder in one swift stroke of luck. And the rapid rise of the Internet and its technology is one of the culprits, critics say.
"You see this [especially] with people coming out of college," Ohmer said. "They just want to join a big Internet company and make money. In that sense, it's not good. Their odds aren't great."
Since the Internet has become a staple of work, schools and the home, people feel that they can also take part in this strike-it-rich business. The "Who" in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" means virtually anyone.
The contestants on these quiz shows support this concept; they don't look or act like movie stars. They have their quirks and flaws, whether it is an obnoxious laugh or a fashion sense dating back to the 1970s. But that's where the appeal lies; the show's audience can relate to them.
"The key is, the show has heart. You're rooting for the people on the show," said Michael Davies, executive producer of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," in a New York Times interview.
This was the attraction of the quiz shows in the 1950s as well. With only a few exceptions, the contestants on these programs, such as "The $64,000 Question," "Tic-Tac-Dough" and "Twenty-One," were all versions of the working class persona. Herbert Stempel, a veteran from Queens working and attending city college, exemplified this persona.
In 1958, after losing his title as defending champion on "Twenty-One" to Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University professor and member of the esteemed Van Doren family, Stempel revealed that the show was fixed. He claimed that the producers controlled who did or did not continue by giving them answers. Because Stempel continued to win, his "unbeatable" quality had made him unpopular and thus, unprofitable, so the producers brought in the refreshing noble man, Van Doren.
After Stempel's allegations were insufficiently investigated by a New York grand jury, the House of Representatives special subcommittee on legislative oversight confirmed the allegations. Van Doren confessed that he was also provided with the questions before his appearances on each show. He justified his participation in the fraud on the grounds that he believed he was strengthening the value of education and the intellect through his celebrity. By his example, he argued he had made learning fun and accessible to the TV generation.
For younger generations who did not witness the "Twenty-One" scandal, Robert Redford's 1994 film, "Quiz Show," recreated that event, as well as some of the ruthless inner workings of the quiz show phenomenon. Ultimately, it demonstrated the quiz show was about ratings and profitability for the sponsors.
After the height of quiz show popularity in 1958, the genre declined as a consequence of the scandals. Yet, the genre is back in full throttle today, and many wonder, "Why now?"
NBC's rebirth of "Twenty-One" is especially risky. But, according to Ohmer, "They think that people have forgotten. TV tends to recycle, as movies do."
This rebirth raises the question of just how much of quiz show history has been recycled. Are the shows as authentic as they seem or are they fixed as well?
"I hope not," said Ohmer. "In the '50s, they were fixed because the sponsors wanted to control the contestants."
In some cases, that is still true. Fox's "Greed: The Series," recognized as a "deliberate imitation" of "Millionaire," lives up to its name. Reading the fine print of the rules and regulations exposes the immense scope of power possessed by the sponsors. The "Rules and Regulations" on the "Greed" Web site states: "Qualifying entrant will be evaluated by sponsor's representative on the basis of the entrant's answers to these questions and on subjective criteria including charm, communication skills and sense of humor … Sponsor reserves the right to, and intends to, select contestants to play `Greed' via means other than through the sweepstakes."
Being personally appealing or of entertainment value to the sponsor is a requisite, no matter how smart a person is. Like the 1950s quiz shows, "Greed" seems to function primarily as a moneymaker for its sponsors. The difference is, they're not trying to hide it, now.
Not all of the current quiz shows appear to maintain the same standards though. Most viewers would place "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" high above the rest. The Nielsen ratings confirm that. The show has consistently been at the top of the polls, and it won November Sweeps month.
Another reason why the networks produce quiz shows to compete with "Millionaire" is their potential to be especially profitable. "They're really cheap to produce: $150,000 per show," said Ohmer. "A primetime drama is $1 million, [so] it's really inexpensive. Networks like this and advertisers line up to do them."
Among the benefits of "Millionaire" for ABC is the show's effectiveness in breaking NBC's long reign as the top TV network. As a result, a 30-second commercial spot during "Millionaire" costs $300,000 to $350,000 versus the typical cost of $100,000 to $200,000.
Also, the show serves as a lead-in for ABC's entire evening line-up. For President Bill Clinton's State of the Union Address on January 27, which followed its prized quiz show, ABC's ratings were "sky high." The ratings on NBC, CBS and Fox were not.
Viewers lean in, focusing their eyes on the contestant as she determines her fate. The music intensifies, question by question, consequently raising Patty's anxiety level as well as that of the audience. Each question is a delicate step toward her million. Just one slip-up and she's through. Will it be this question? That is what's surely on the minds of everyone glued to the TV screen.
Once again, Regis proposes a bit of trivia and she gives her "final answer." With a sudden musical scale rising and falling, it is clear that her answer was truly her "final answer." The studio sighs sympathetically as Patty bids a sad farewell to the path to instant wealth.
But it's all right, for the game will restart its dramatic course with a new, eager contestant wondering, "Will I become a millionaire too?"
All Scene Stories for Friday, March 10, 2000