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Jewish World Review June 30, 2000 /27 Sivan, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Consumer Reports

Why we love quiz-show geeks --
EVEN THOUGH Survivor grabbed public attention and earned hefty ratings in its spring/summer run, another show already is assured of financially dominating the all-important, fiercely competitive fall season. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, expanding to four nights each week on ABC, has demanded advertising rates that will make it easily the fattest cash cow in the history of the medium.

Estimates on the program's earnings above expenses for next season range from $300 million to as much as $600 million. Sponsors are being asked to pay up to $400,000 for every 30-second commercial in the fall. This means that even after subtracting the $1 million an hour in production costs and the commissions for advertising agencies, ABC may earn about $4 million per episode.

No network has ever before earned more than about $500 million in annual profit with its entire schedule of prime-time programming. ABC easily could exceed this total next season on this one show alone.

Such unprecedented dominance requires an explanation. What is it about this particular moment in our history that drives us to embrace this glitzy quiz show with such fanatical enthusiasm? Nor does it stand alone with its ability to lure millions into watching ordinary people earn big bucks by answering general-knowledge questions. The eccentric Comedy Central show Win Ben Stein's Money has emerged as one of the biggest non-wrestling hits on cable TV - and no one could confuse the droll, bespectacled host, Ben Stein, with either "Stone Cold" Steve Austin or The Rock .

Could it be that huge social and economic forces have conspired to make it suddenly cool to be smart and knowledgeable? Fourteen years after Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick ) took his famous day off in a smash-hit movie, we may have reached the point where the mischievous lad's droning, know-it-all, high school teacher (played by - who else? - Ben Stein) seems more fashionable than Ferris himself. Why the overwhelming current cache for abilities that, until recently, had been dismissed as a trivial pursuit?

In some sense, surely, the quiz-show craze reflects the explosion of information technology that is driving our current prosperity. Computer geeks who might have been derided 20 years ago now look overwhelmingly important and powerful. Television games offer a hyperdramatic microcosm of high-tech industries, with bespectacled nerds winning instantaneous wealth through dazzling displays of brainpower and the good fortune of turning up at the right place at the right time. Quiz-show contestants, such as the digital drones so prominent on lists of the richest Americans, may lack conventional charisma or glamorous grooming, but they make up for it with their intelligence and the financial rewards it so clearly commands.

Of course, the digital revolution offers more than a few prominent examples of spectacular success; it also provides a fresh model for all Americans who want to get ahead. The new economy de-emphasizes charm or sex appeal, and requires legions of recruits with raw, well-disciplined mental acuity. It's no wonder that the highest compliment you can offer a successful quiz-show contestant is the suggestion that his (or her) ability to access information instantly reflects a computerlike mind.

In the same sense that our current love affair with quiz-show geeks connects with the achievements and imperatives of the digital economy, our previous infatuation with TV questions and answers reflected the desperate demands of that earlier era. At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev warning Americans "we will bury you," such shows as The $64,000 Question and Twenty One drew huge audiences and became national fads. Especially after the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957 , Americans worried that the communists would beat us in the all-important space race. Numerous national commentators observed that we had become fat and lazy, focusing on such meaningless goals as popularity and entertainment, while our only hope for successful competition with our Soviet rivals involved a new emphasis on intellectual excellence. For a few brief years, eggheads came to be seen as heroic as athletes, while quiz-show stars such as the ill-fated Charles Van Doren became idols and icons.

This trend came to an abrupt, sour and cynical conclusion with the wrenching quiz-show scandals of 1958 and '59. Disillusioned Americans duly learned that even "miracle minds" such as the elegant, aristocratic Van Doren had cheated by getting some answers in advance. When astonished viewers used to say, "Nobody could really be that smart!" it turned out they were right.

Surprisingly enough, no one so far has suspected any sort of hanky-panky among the contestants on the current crop of quiz shows.

Perhaps that stems from the much-less-demanding nature of the multiple-choice questions and the guy-next-door status of most of the participants. But the near-universal acceptance of such shows as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire also involves their odd aura of objectivity and integrity - another secret of these programs' potent appeal.

Americans today seem both weary and wary of manipulation, truth-shading, hairsplitting, seduction and spin. Sports, quiz shows and perhaps "real-life" contests such as Survivor at least seem to offer a last refuge for honest, straightforward results that don't lend themselves to artful explanations or special pleadings. We find it reassuring to watch an entertainment form with obvious winners and losers, and where all questions have clear answers - right or wrong. With so much confusion about the big issues in our lives, so many alternatives in most decisions we face, and fierce arguments among competing philosophies in today's culture, we enjoy a situation in which there's only one correct solution in the multiple choice. That's one of the reasons fascinated viewers continue returning to Millionaire: More than the charm or elegance of host Regis Philbin himself, we warm to the certainty and closure he conveys.

Despite the politically correct emphasis on ambiguity, it turns out that Americans still relish Final Answers.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . He also participated as a conspicuously successful competitor on The GE College Bowl in 1968 on NBC. You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Michael Medved