Game shows go ape
TV networks exploit lottery mentality and ruthless competition to hike
It was perhaps the seminal moment in the short history of television's new breed of game shows.
While helping his team build up to a jackpot of $1 million on the Fox network's "Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge," wild-haired Curtis accepted $10,000 in cash to try to "terminate" his teammate Janice. Whoever answered the next question first would take the other's share of the pot. The loser would go home with nothing.
In two simple words, Janice summed up the compelling social experiment producers and programmers have begun as they catch the game-show wave.
With the runaway ratings success of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," networks are clamoring for their own high-stakes contests involving everyday people. Judging by some of the shows currently in development, however, contestants will soon be laying much more on the line than cash.
Of course, there will be lots of money. The game-show business has suddenly become a table at which a million-dollar jackpot seems like penny ante. But producers say the possibility of striking it rich is merely an incentive for contestants to expose their own instincts - bad or good.
"Game shows have always been about greed," says Bob Boden, executive producer of "Greed." "It's just that they have never called themselves 'Greed.' "
Some have suggested that Mr. Boden's show be renamed "Who Wants to Stab You in the Back." On it, teams of five complete strangers work together, answering trivia questions in the hopes of building a team cache of more than $2 million. At the end of most rounds, though, contestants can challenge one another, wagering their entire cut in the process. A cutthroat approach would see one person walk away with all of the loot.
It's a concept that Deborah Crown, an ethics professor at the University of Alabama, calls contradictory to modern notions of adulthood and teamwork.
"If you look at the concept of maturity in our society, that's heavily loaded with being able to see things from others' points of view, being able to have care and concerns for others," Dr. Crown explains. "One of the elements that's essential for a team to operate effectively is that they have to be able to trust the other people on the team."
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