It's appropriate that the final nationwide sensation of 20th century America is a TV game show called "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Television is, after all, an invention that has reshaped our culture during the past 50 years. But while its collective impact on modern life is undeniable, the popularity of individual programs is often puzzling and unpredictable.
Why has "Millionaire" been such a hit? Certainly not because of originality. And, in contrast to the original big money giveaways of the 1950s, this latest version seems designed to avoid all opportunities for building tension and excitement. Unlike Charles Van Doren, who squinted and squirmed (or pretended to) in a glass booth, contestants on "Millionaire" sit calmly with Regis Philbin while he reads questions that sound as if they were intended for the latest version of Trivial Pursuit.
Dynamic studio lighting and bursts of synthesized music after each correct answer provide a disorienting counterweight to the strangely placid atmosphere of the set. When I first discovered the show while changing channels one night, my instant reaction was that it must be some odd import from Brazilian TV, dubbed into English.
Superior game shows already exist. "Win Ben Stein's Money" on Comedy Central is far more witty and informative. You'd think savvy network moguls would be scrambling to grab Ben for a slot in their prime-time lineups, but it hasn't happened. Maybe that's because the high-level decisionmakers are always more confident about imitating hit productions than creating new ones.
The Fox Network has already rolled out a competitor called "Greed," and they're trying to lure me into watching by scheduling it right after brazen offerings such as "Banned in America: The World's Sexiest Commercials." Do I sense a hint of desperation in this frantic promotional circus?
Imitations have a sad track record in the TV business. When "The Simpsons" started grabbing high ratings, some programmers thought it was clear evidence that America wanted more cartoon humor. Their blunder resulted in such animated flops as "Fish Police" and "The Critic." The compelling, inexplicable reality of the medium is the same today as it was five decades ago: Nobody really knows what the audience is going to like.
In my case, I feel fortunate to have developed an attitude of TV-indifference. Nothing makes me more wary than "teaser" announcements proclaiming, "It's the episode everybody will be talking about!" Part of my personal daily agenda is making sure I don't spend more than two minutes talking (or even thinking) about what I saw on TV the previous night.
Friends are often surprised by the number of shows I have ignored. My proudest achievement in this regard is never having seen any episode of "Married With Children," even in reruns. It still baffles me that such a tawdry, vulgar concept was so popular year after year. Perhaps someone in the next century will discover a way to make the system operate more logically. What it would take to screen out all the junk while producing a steady stream of intelligent, high quality shows that never fail to attract huge numbers of viewers? It's a tough question. But the person who gets it right will surely become a millionaire.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society