Sunday, October 15, 2006

There's Always A Gimmick

It used to be that the best game shows in the world came from the United States of American and were exported to the world. Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune and a bevy of others started out in America and migrated elsewhere in the world. There was even a Maori version of Password in New Zealand. But as time went by fewer and fewer game shows were being made in the USA. There's only one daily network game show left - The Price Is Right - and only a handful of syndicated game shows on broadcast TV plus another handful on cable networks including GSN. Instead of buying syndicated game shows, local stations started buying syndicated talk shows like Oprah and Jerry Springer or court shows like Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown.

At the same time that the game show seemed to be dying out as an American form new shows were appearing in Europe, some of which took a wildly different approach to the form. Part of this was the rise of the "reality competition show" - things like Belgium's The Mole, Sweden's Expedition Robinson, Now Or Neverland and Big Brotherfrom Holland. All of these shows migrated to North America, with Expedition Robinson becoming Survivor and Now Or Neverland turning into Fear Factor. As is obvious from this list American television saw the success that these show had and when producers like Endemol and Mark Burnett brought those shows to American networks they were quite willing to pick the shows up. The popularity of these shows encouraged American networks to look at other types of European shows including game shows. ABC had a hit with an American version of the British hit Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, hosted by daytime talk show host Regis Philbin, a show which continues today in syndication, hosted by Meredith Viera. NBC brought the BBC series The Weakest Link to the United States, featuring the original British host, journalist and television presenter Anne Robinson. More recently the network brought the Endemol series Deal Or No Deal to America, a show which has versions in 26 other countries. And on Friday NBC introduced another Endemol series, 1 vs. 100.

Known in the Netherlands as Eén Tegen Honderd, 1 vs. 100 bears a strong resemblance to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? There is a single player and "The Mob" - 100 people with varying degrees of education. The show's host, Bob Saget, asks both The Player and The Mob a multiple choice question with three answers. There are twelve levels of questions with values between $100 and $10,000. The Mob answers the question in secret after which the Player answers the question publicly. If the Player answers the question correctly, an amount of money equal to the number of members of The Mob who got the answer wrong times the value of the question at that level is placed into a pool. The Player can either take the money or again face The Mob. If The Player answers the a question incorrectly the money in the pool is split between the surviving members of The Mob. The Player has two "Helps" that can be used at any point during the game. The first time The Player uses a Help he/she selects one of the three answers to the question and may ask one of the people in The Mob who gave that answer for an explanation of why that answer was given. This would seem to be a combination of Millionaire's "Phone-a-Friend" and "Ask The Audience" life lines. The second time The Player uses a Help the "game" (which of course means the producers) selects two members of The Mob. One has entered the correct answer while the other has entered an incorrect answer. The Player can then ask why the two people have chosen their answer. This Help most closely resembles Millionaire's "50/50" life line, since one incorrect answer is always eliminated. If The Player successfully eliminates all 100 members of The Mob, the top prize of $1 million will be awarded. To make it worthwhile for members of The Mob to give correct answers, those who haven't been eliminated before The Player is either defeated or walks away with the cash stay to compete against subsequent players while those who are eliminated are replaced in The Mob.

The show reveals its similarities to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? early on. The first question asked to the first contestant was "The 2003 movie Seabiscuit featured what kind of animal in the title role? A) one with fins, B) one with paws, C) one with hooves?" Both The Player - a bouncer who wanted to win enough money to buy an engagement ring and hold a really good wedding for his fiancee - and The Mob which included nine teachers, three Deal Or No Deal models, and Jeopardy's biggest winner ever Ken Jennings, all got it right. It was a simple question but as Regis Philbin once revealed the producers of Millionaire would offer very easy questions in the first couple of levels so that kids playing along at home wouldn't feel frustrated. Of course there were some players on that show who didn't know the right answer to those "simple" questions. The Player won his first money at the $500 level when eight members of The Mob didn't know that a "pupu platter" was a type of Polynesian dish frequently served at Chinese restaurants. He picked up over $22,000 at the $1,000 level when the question asked what the name of the (then) current Secretary General of the United Nations would be if it were rendered in the style of the song "The Name Game" (if you're interested it is Kofi, Kofi bo Bofi). In the end the player walked away after completing the $5,000 question, using both of his Helps and winning $135,000. He also eliminated 58 members of The Mob.

I confess that I was intrigued about this show. To say that it is far more complicated than Deal Or No Deal is probably an insult; Candyland is more complicated than Deal Or No Deal. The format gives both The Player and The Mob an incentive for getting the answer right. At the same time both The Player and The Mob have a rooting interest in the player eliminating members of The Mob but eliminating them late in the game. If the player eliminates 30 members of The Mob at the $500 level and goes out at the $1,000 level, the 70 remaining members of The Mob split $15,000, getting $214.28 each. If on the other hand 30 members of The Mob are eliminated at the $5,000 level that adds $150,000 to the pot. Assuming that these were the first eliminations (highly unlikely) that would give the remaining 70 members of The Mob $2,142.85. In other words keeping as many members of The Mob in the game until the higher levels benefits whoever wins the money. While the show doesn't have the mathematical complexities of the seemingly simple Deal Or No Deal - there have been analyses of optimal strategies in that game - it is certainly more of a challenge.

Bob Saget is a perfectly adequate host, nowhere near as manic or eccentric as Howie Mandel can be or as excitable as Regis Philbin. Saget's years hosting America's Funniest Home Videos and his time on Full House make him a comfortable presence as host. He moves around a certain amount and seems relaxed as he eases information out of the players and talks to members of The Mob when The Player uses one of his Helps. The set design is interesting. The set is constructed so that the members of The Mob are seated "stadium style" in front of individual panels of lights which are normally blue but change colour when a member of The Mob gets the answer wrong before their lights go out and they effectively disappear into darkness. The studio audience is seated behind The Player in more conventional TV studio seating so that their perspective is similar to The Player's.

I found myself enjoying the first episode of this series when I eventually watched it. I'd like to see more challenging questions but then that's a common gripe of mine when it comes to this sort of program - I want Jeopardy style questions on the grounds that both players and the audience aren't stupid and that they want to see the players pushed a bit. Barring the sort of overexposure and reliance on gimmicks such as frequent "celebrity" editions that became a problem for shows like Millionaire and Weakest Link I feel that this show could do quite well. In that respect I would say that it is at best a one or two night a week thing. You could easily replace one of the three editions of Deal Or No Deal with 1 vs. 100 which might not be that bad an idea. On the other hand, given the state of the current NBC line up - which is showing more than a small amount of weakness - it is entirely possible that the show will find a spot of its own. I'd offer a qualified recommendation for this even though it is delaying the return of Crossing Jordan.

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