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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2000/ 5 Adar I, 5760

Larry Elder

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Regis feels our pain -- "CAN ANYBODY explain this to me -- why is it that nearly all our contestants are white men? I'm a white man, so you know I have nothing against them, but come on. We would really like a little more diversity."

Last week, Regis Philbin, host of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" greeted viewers with that editorial. Of the nearly 100 "Millionaire" contestants so far, only a few women sat in the "hot seat," and no blacks, Hispanics, or other racial minorities.

A problem? Who's complaining? The NAACP? No. La Raza? No. Dennis Rodman? Poet Maya Angelou once complained about the lack of racial diversity on "Jeopardy." But Host Alex Trebek promptly welcomed Angelou, or any other qualified person, to apply. We welcome all, he said, but first you apply and qualify.

Too bad Philbin didn't say the same thing. After all, "Millionaire" uses a "double blind" procedure to select guests. Prospective contestants must dial an 800 number and answer a series of questions. A random drawing then winnows down the numbers. Finally, to qualify for the "hot seat," these contestants must speed-answer questions like, "Put the following movies starring Dudley Moore in order, starting with the earliest," or "Put the following four cities in geographical order from east to west."

What could be more fair, more color-blind? But, Executive Producer Michael Davies, like Philbin, feels the pain of the left-out minorities and women. "I feel like I have one weakness with my program, and it's a weakness I'm extremely passionate about." Davies admits considering a change in the selection procedure to more minorities and women.

If "Millionaire" wishes to "diversify" contestants to increase ratings, fine. Although, with the top-rated show attracting 30 million viewers, one wonders how much bigger the show can get. But many game shows, to attract viewers, select contestants based on looks, energy, and gender.

But, if "Millionaire's" goal is diversity for diversity's sake, what's the point? Turns out, blacks watch "Millionaire" far less often than do non-blacks. According to the Nielsen Media Research, ratings for black households range from 7.1 to 10.9, as opposed to 11.6 to 15.8 for non-black households. This might explain, in part, the lack of black contestants.

But what about women? They watch the show as frequently as do men. Why, then, so few female contestants?

For six years, I have hosted a topical/political radio talk show. Depending upon the topic, male callers outnumber female callers, by a ratio of 8 or 10 to 1. Radio programming directors scratch their heads to figure out why. More men than women seem to enjoy the competition, the winning, the need to publicly express one's feelings. As for "Millionaire," maybe men care more about trivia, and display a greater competitive desire to sit in the "hot seat." It might be that simple.

Philbin's message, while undoubtedly well-intended, condescends. It says that, if based on fair and uniformly applied rules, minorities and women do not succeed, change the rules.

To encourage female applicants, for example, many police and fire departments discarded or altered height, strength, and endurance requirements. But, if strength and endurance make better officers and firefighters, aren't we endangering the public and fellow officers and firefighters by abandoning legitimate requirements?

Years ago, the Detroit City Council threatened to withhold funding of the Detroit Symphony -- too few minority musicians. But the Detroit Symphony, like "Millionaire," used double-blind auditions. A partition separated the auditioning musician from the judges. And, since women tend to step more lightly, auditioners walked on a thick carpet to eliminate noise from footsteps. Still, the Detroit City Council complained.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a color-blind, not color-coordinated society. Yet critics of the SAT urged colleges to abandon the test, since minorities underperform. So, rather than improve education from K-12, out with the test! If police and fire departments fail to attract enough women, change the standards. Meanwhile, government pressures banks into changing lending criteria so that "underrepresented" non-credit-worthy minorities nevertheless get loans.

What's next? The NBA lowers the hoop to encourage "under-represented" whites? Should those hiring plumbers, secretaries, and garbage handlers change criteria because of "under-representation" of the opposite sex?

A recommendation. If sincere in his desire for diversity, how about having Regis Philbin and the other white male "greed" show hosts -- Maury Povich, Chuck Woolery, Dick Clark --- step down in favor of a minority host. After all, hosting "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" is probably a helluva lot easier than winning the mil.

Meanwhile, why don't we all lighten up? After all, it's just a television show.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate