Monday, March 29, 2010

Beat The Clock – 2010 Style

If you're as old as I am – somewhat younger than dirt but older than some of the hills, at least in my neighbourhood – you will probably remember an old TV game show called Beat The Clock. The premise of Beat The Clock was incredibly simple. Contestants had to perform a simple task or a stunt within a certain time limit. Of course the task always involved a twist, like you had to stuff ten balloons into a pair of oversized pants, but you had to do it while wearing boxing gloves. If you succeeded you won some money. It wasn't a lot of money – usually around $100 or $200 – but the major thing was being on TV. When I was watching Beat The Clock it was as old as the hills; the original version of the show debuted in 1950, and while the first version ended in 1961 a second version, made in Montreal debuted in 1969. I bring up Beat The Clock because 60 years after that show debuted a new series called Minute To Win It has debuted on NBC in which people perform an assortment of party games for money.

The basic elements of Beat The Clock are found in Minute To Win It. Contestants are given stunts to perform within a given time limit. While the time limit in Beat The Clock often varied, on Minute To Win It the time is obvious – one minute. But the stunts are pretty much the same. On Sunday's episode one contestant had to move three cotton balls from a bowl full of cotton balls... using only his nose. He first had to dip his nose into some Vaseline and then putting his nose into the pile of cotton balls to pick one up. Too little Vaseline on his nose could let the cotton ball drop off before he reached the other side of the stage, while too much would make it extremely difficult to get the cotton ball off of his nose.

There a some significant differences from Beat The Clock of course. Most are made to conform to the modern vision of game shows. Instead of contestants having to complete a single task for a set amount of money (in the old show it was about $100, and in some versions there was the option for the most successful players of the day to come back for another task for more money) there is a "ladder" system by which a contestant who completes a task for a sum of money can either take that money and leave or do another, more complex task for a higher amount of money. In theory at least a player can win $1 million, although the highest I've seen is $125,000. And while a contestant on Beat The Clock had only one chance to complete his task, contestants on Minute To Win It have three "mulligans" or "do-overs" (in this game called "lives") over the period of the game to do tasks. So, if a contestant fails to stack three golf balls on top of each other without any sort of mechanical aid (which a contestant on Sunday was able to do – I've only been able to do two) the first time he gets another chance (and if he has the lives left, another and another). Contestants who fail to complete their tasks and run out of lives go down to base levels. If they haven't reached the $50,000 level they get nothing; if they're above the $50,000 level when they use up their last life they win $50,000. And of course they have the opportunity to quit and take their money, but not if they've tried and failed and still have lives left.

Minute To Win It has done a very interesting thing with their games. All of the games use common household items – coin, ping pong balls, cookies, golf balls, and so on – and the producers have posted video instructions for the games online so that viewers can try the games. They are encouraging viewers to submit videos of them performing the various stunts. In addition to open casting calls for people in the Los Angeles area, and e-mails to the casting department, the show is accepting those video submissions as a way to audition for the show.

Minute To Win It is hosted by LA restaurateur and Food Network star Guy Fieri. He's hosted several shows for that network, most notable Diners Drive-Ins And Dives. Minute To Win It is a major departure for him, but his energy and personality make it work. He's a bit off the wall but this sort of show needs someone who is personable and energetic. It wouldn't work with a host like Howie Mandel (Deal Or No Deal) or Regis Philbin (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?). The show isn't a static production where a host can stand or sit behind a table or desk. Fieri talks to contestants wherever they are in the playing area, but then usually has to back off while they are performing the task. He does manage to keep a high energy doing commentary for the various tasks and keeping the viewers interested.

A major difference between the old Beat The Clock and Minute To Win It is in production values. I'm not sure that the change is for the better. The set for the show is what you might want to call a generic "game show modern." The playing area is a circle in the center of the set which is set up in a faux theatre in the round style, so that we always see the audience. Everything is done in black except the railings around the playing area which are in chrome, or something resembling chrome, and underlit with blue neon lights. There are big projections screens above the audience which sometimes convey information but more often are used to create the impression that there is a second tier to the audience. The player receives his instructions, called the blueprint for the stunt because it is drawn rather than photographed or shown in video, on a large screen. The blueprint is presented by a female, apparently British voice, which seems at time to be mimicking a computerized voice rather than a real woman. The whole thing is more than a bit overproduced.

One area where there is a problem is in resetting the stage. Frequently, when a task is completed the playing area is more than a bit messy. And because of the theatre in the round style of the set there is no moving to a different area of the set while the one that was most recently used is being set up for a future task. Consequently there are times when Fieri introduces the blueprint for the next task amidst the detritus of the task that has just been completed, and when the blueprint is completed the set is miraculously cleaned up and set up for the next task, a chore that obviously could not be completed in the time that it took the blueprint to run. The result is sometimes rather unsettling, particularly when they set up the new stunt and then break for commercial before the contestant starts the next task. For me this makes the editing more than a bit choppy and it can come across as a bit amateurish.

Minute To Win It is not doing well in the ratings with the episode on March 21st drawing 5.16 million viewers and a 1.8/5 rating in the 18-49 demographic. That put it into fourth place for the first half hour and third place for the second when it beat the animated Cleveland Show on Fox. It did not beat time slot winner The Amazing Race or the more than somewhat cloying Extreme Makeover Home Edition. I certainly can't disagree with the results. While the show has more than a few fun moments, and the challenges are something everyone can try, they don't hold a candle to the scenery and experiences on The Amazing Race or the deliberately heart-tugging stories that make up Extreme Makeover Home Edition. While I scarcely regard Minute To Win It as original or compelling TV, I have seen worse game shows – remember The Singing Bee, or that series that Shatner hosted Show Me The Money – and even worse scripted shows. This show just doesn't seem like a real contender for the Sunday night time slot and totally doesn't fit with either its lead-in, the news magazine Dateline or the show that follows it Celebrity Apprentice. I'm afraid that the show would do well in the sink hole that Friday night has become on every network except CBS, but maybe a better alternative would be for the show to enter syndication as a daytime game show. The show is pleasant enough, has the right type of host, and I think if it could find the right audience it would do reasonably well. The problem is that it isn't going to find that audience in the Sunday night time slot it now occupies.

Here's a clip of one of the blueprints for a stunt on the show.

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