A BOMBASTIC off-camera voice introduces the show. Studio audiences shriek with inordinate delight. Part way into the half-hour, a smiling host chats with the contestants and poses perfunctory personal questions. At the end, winners leap ecstatically, hugging each other and the host.
No, you're not watching a local commercial station. This is PBS, which has discovered that ancient secret of feather-weight commercial fare: the quiz show.
The weekly venture, ``Think Twice'' - premiering Monday, from 8 to 8:30 p.m. (check local listings) - is a departure for PBS, its first foray into the field, other than one previous try that was aborted. PBS says it wants to vary its basic format of dramas and documentaries running an hour or more. The objective is better ratings for a public network whose current programs typically reach only about a quarter as many homes as shows on ABC, CBS, or NBC.
The advent of ``Think Twice'' may also have something to do with the fact that game shows cost much less per minute than most of the higher-brow programming PBS is identified with.
PBS is quite unabashed about this turn to pop culture, which curiously comes during the release of the film ``Quiz Show'' and while a documentary about quiz shows is still airing on some public stations - both productions dealing with that format's darkest hour. With its federal funding agency, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS spent a lot of money steeping itself in game-show lore. The ``Think Twice'' staff went to the West Coast, seeking quiz-show masters who could teach them how to achieve the pace, sound, and chemistry so familiar to fans of ``Wheel of Fortune'' and ``Jeopardy.''
Apparently they found them. ``Think Twice'' is loaded with the production cliches of the genre. The voice-over ticks off the prizes in the best booming style of the late veteran quiz-show announcer Johnny Olsen. The ``Think Twice'' voice-over seems to say, ``Even if we are on public TV, we're going to sound like a quiz show if it kills us.''
But the network is also seeking something different, a format demanding not just quick answers but teamwork, imagination, and even intuition. And it does capture some of those elusive commodities, although ultimately they prove as hard to package in a quiz show as they are in any other form.
``Think Twice'' pits two pairs of contestants against each other. In Part 1 - the ``Information Round'' - partners must each answer one part of two-part questions like ``Name two Louisa May Alcott books with `little' in the title'' and ``Who founded Motown records and in what city?'' In Part 2, the ``Imagination Round,'' the partners must make up a story - somewhat in the style of the old parlor game charades - that includes certain word clues to a given topic. The other team must guess the topic from the clues. In
part 3, the ``Intuition Round,'' questions have ``several answers.'' One team can challenge the other's responses. Winners go on to a bonus round.
Actually the partner concept is nothing new. Ages ago I recall a commercial-network show where two contestants hurriedly consulted - sometimes disagreeing - before issuing an official answer. Yet ``Think twice'' is clever enough, I suppose - mildly diverting, more literate than, say, ``Wheel of Fortune,'' though not really more so than ``Jeopardy.''
But what is it doing on PBS in the first place? Is it PBS's job to nibble at the fringes of a broad commercial viewership already inundated with quiz shows? The ratings-driven enterprise sends shudders through anyone who looks on PBS as an alternative network for people who cannot afford cable, and even for those who can but still realize that network offers precious little of the best stuff seen on PBS.
The best thing about ``Think Twice'' is host Monteria Ivey, a stand-up comic who brings - don't I detect? - a hint of spoof to his glib, friendly repartee with contestants, as if to say ``Well, let's not expect too much from all this.''
He's got a point.