Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Head To Head

The other new American show that debuted on Monday was ABC's game show Duel. Like the show, not crazy about the host. I'm not sure – for reasons that should become apparent – whether it will work as a weekly series, but I think it could have the potential to work during sweeps periods.

Duel isn't an ordinary game show. It has a tournament format and unlike a show such as Jeopardy or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? the tournament aspect is integral to how the series works. The mechanics of the game are layered on in such a way as to violate what I feel is the primary rule of game shows, adherence to the KISS Principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). At its heart the game is a multiple choice trivia quiz, with two contestants competing head to head with each other. The twist – or rather the first of several twists – is that you don't have to give just one answer. Each player is given ten chips, which resemble poker chips each chip represents $5,000. A screen made up of two LCD monitors is raised between the players; it not only serves as the place where they see the questions and the possible answers but it also keeps the players from seeing what the other person is answering. Answers are entered by placing chips on the letters for the various answers; A, B, C or D. A player can place chips on as many or as few answers as they wish. However each chip placed on an incorrect answer is taken away and the amount of money they represent is added to the prize pool for the finale of the tournament at the end of the week. So if a player with eight chips places chips on three answers, one of which is correct, he is left with six chips, and $10,000 is added to the prize pool. There is no time limit in terms of a player giving an answer unless his opponent "presses" him. Each player has two Presses which require the other player to answer within seven seconds. If one player doesn't have the right answer covered with a chip, the duel is over and that player but only those chips that covered incorrect answers are added to the prize pool. If both players fail to cover the correct answer, all of their chips are forfeited with the ones covering incorrect answers going to the pool. They then enter a shootout. They are both given four chips with no monetary value; the person to get the correct answer while using the fewest number of shootout chips wins the duel. Players who win their duel get to keep an amount of money equal to the number of chips they have remaining. They then go on to pick from one of three people randomly selected from the show's pool of 24 contestants. The top four contestants in terms of duels won and money earned have seats in the "Leaders Box." The four players in the Box at the start of the final show will play for the amount of money in the Prize Pool.

Sounds complicated right? Well, it's sort of like the difference between Poker and Tournament Poker. In a regular Poker game the focus is on the current hand. In Tournament Poker, the primary focus is on the hand but the player also has to be aware of how the tournament is structured, where they stand in terms of chip count in the tournament and at the table, when the value of the blinds go up and so on. It's another case of where detail is layered on but the primary focus for the player should always be on the hands they're playing. So it is with Duel. The primary focus of the player should be on keeping as many of his own chips as possible while trying to force the opponent to waste chips. (I don't know why I'm using the masculine pronoun here – in two nights of the show only two men have actually competed and only one has won a duel.) This is where the Press option comes in – it forces players who don't know the answer to use more chips. A player who is certain enough of the correct answer that they can play only one or two chips can gain a real advantage using the press against an opponent who is less clear of the correct answer; conversely a player who has no clue about the correct answer can either force an opponent to use the maximum number of chips or rush their thinking process so that they don't cover the right answer. This gives the show a valid strategic aspect to it that you don't see in most game shows. I'm sure experts in Game Theory could analyse correct choices to death, but for my part I'm just happy to see a game show where not only are players pitted against each other, but there is more to playing the game than simply answering a trivia question or picking numbered briefcases.

The tournament format is essential to Duel. The show builds towards the final contest between the four players in the Leaders Box for a guaranteed one million dollar prize (and possibly more depending on how many chips are collected during the week), and there is dramatic tension in having a contestant winning their duel in one episode and having to choose who they'll face... but holding the actual announcement over until the next episode. But the tournament aspect of the show would seem to argue against having it as a weekly series. The format of the current miniseries with six episodes in a week allows the show to have a fixed pool of twenty-four contestants who are there for every episode and allows the actual leaders to stay in the Leaders Box. Now, I realise that the series was probably shot in fewer than six days but there would undoubtedly be logistical problems in trying to have the show run for even thirteen weeks. Do you restrict the pool of challengers or do you bring a new group in every week? Do you bring back the people in the Leaders Box every week or just have them appear as names and pictures on a wall? How high do you allow the prize pool to build?

Duel is hosted by Mike Greenberg who is probably best known as the co-host of the Mike & Mike Show on ESPN. Well at least he's well known among people who watch ESPN in the mornings, or have access to ESPN Radio – obviously I'm in neither of these categories. There are some definite negatives about Greenberg's hosting style. For one thing he doesn't seem to have any gift for humorous banter of any sort. He seems to be totally serious all of the time and it's wearing on the audience. He also seems to have a couple of annoying quirks. Whenever a new duel is about to start, Greenberg seems compelled to restate the rules to the new contestant and the audience, or at least port of the rules (the part where he tells them the chips are worth $5,000 each). Another quirk seems to grow out of his experience on radio. From time to time he seems compelled to announce that "You are watching Duel on ABC." This sort of thing is pretty much necessary on radio where it's not always obvious what show you're listening to and what stations you're hearing; on TV it's redundant. Television has plenty of clues, including the "Bugs" at the bottom of the screen to tell you what network you're watching, and if you've stuck with a show for any length of time you know what the show is just by watching it come back from commercial. And boy do there seem to be a lot of commercials in Duel, all of them timed for moments of "high drama" like a crucial answer or the selection of the next opponent.

The pedigree of Duel is interesting. It originated in France from producers FrenchTV (although the series apparently isn't seen in France yet). It was brought to the United States by Gail Berman (former president of FOX's Entertainment) and Lloyd Braun (former president of ABC Entertainment) and sold to ABC. A British version of show will begin in January 2008 and the show has been optioned in a dozen other countries if the show proves popular in Britain and the United States.

As I've stated, I am enjoying Duel even though I have trouble with Greenburg as host. I like the strategic aspects of it particularly the ability to force an opponent to make less than optimal choices. This aspect makes the show more than just another trivia challenge. It is certainly preferable to shows like last season's stinker Show Me The Money (with William Shatner) or the popular Deal Or No Deal. The fact that Deal Or No Deal and even one of my favourites 1 vs. 100 are popular may be a bad sign for Duel in terms of gaining an American audience. Do Americans like complexity or strategy in their game shows? The fact that a show where the high point in strategy is deciding which briefcase to pick and whether or not to take an offer is one of the hottest shows on TV seems to indicate that they don't. And for all that I love shows like Jeopardy and 1 vs. 100, they are also very basic in terms of what a player has to think about – there isn't much for the player to do beyond getting the right answer to the question. The strategic aspect and the tournament format are what set Duel apart. I don't think you can scrap the tournament format of the show. Certainly you could have players face off against each other, with the current champion playing until they lose and then taking their money and leaving, but that would seem to make it just another trivia challenge. But in my opinion the tournament format would seem to make the show impossible to offer as a continuing series. On the other hand I could definitely see the show as something you could trot out during sweeps (a full week of shows or episodes presented two or three days a week for the full month) or even for a restricted period during the summer. A great deal will depend on ratings of course, and while the show did adequately during its debut (as did Clash Of The Choirs) it didn't set the world on fire, so ABC may not see fit to even try it again once the Writers Strike ends. In my book that would be unfortunate.

No comments: