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For the week of Mar. 22 through Mar. 28, 2000

Quiz show demons are running wild


We are in the midst of game-show mania. I started to write a column titled "Twenty-one Reasons not to be on 21" but ran out after two or three, since the reality is that given the chance, most people who are not already wealthy would probably jump at the chance to get the big winnings.

At this juncture in early 21st Century affluence it hardly seems worthy to note that prizes for winning quiz shows are out of bounds. But then I grew up in the era of "The $64,000 Question" (yes, I know that that was a lot of money if translated to today’s values) and other game shows where contestants really had to have a deep knowledge rather than a mastery of cultural trivia.

As a matter of fact, I was on some game shows myself in the late 60’s, when I lived in Los Angeles. Some of you will remember "Password." I was lucky enough to be on that show twice, once with entertainer Carol Burnett and Ross Martin, co-star of the popular television series "Wild, Wild West."

I won the maximum then possible for that show, $750, and a set of luggage. My husband and I took the Samsonite on a trip to Mexico with my winnings. We thought it was a fortune. Most of all, though, I remember the experience as one of great fun. My mother was in the audience, and I saw her on the opening scene when it replayed a year after her death. I often wish I could get a copy of that ancient episode.

Then, a year later, the show called me back for a "Tournament of Champions," again with Carol Burnett and actor Peter Lawford, both charming, Lawford even more amiable as he drank the martinis he had lined up under the booth.

Carol was gracious enough to call me by name and mention that she still laughed occasionally at my use of the word "memorabilia," which I had used to get her to say the word "attic." Martin had joked that it sounded like a rare disease. On that show I again won the maximum, $750, and then this time a small TV set (black and white) which lived in my kitchen for years.

After that show I must have been put on a list for potential game-show tryouts, for I was called often to play sample games being considered for future shows. I soon discovered that this meant I could not compete in any of them for real, and the "honorarium" of $25 or $35 for helping them iron out the kinks was all I would receive.

So I retired early from my game show binge, but over the years I have watched the progress of this form of entertainment. It seems to me that either one has to act like a simpering idiot (as in "The Price is Right") or be extremely lucky to even get on any game show now.

Access to Internet applications has upped the numbers of people who want their 15 minutes (or even 15 seconds) on TV. My heart goes out to the 10 people who sit on the sidelines and wait for their turn to be on the hot seat in "I Want to Be a Millionaire". They have to wave like orangutans and look pretty stupid as the camera pans their needy faces.

The thing that surprises me most, however, is how savvy even the most dorky looking contestant is once he or she sits across from Regis or banters with Maury. (Incidentally, there are many more men than women who make the cut.) They all seem very much at ease with their hosts, often calling them by first names and looking into the camera at just the right angle. Many don’t even seem to shake or show abject embarrassment when they lose over some too-simple question.

Perhaps just watching TV as much as we do gives many viewers the ability to mock the manners and postures of these announcers. I have taught public speaking and often noted to my students that, for many, speaking in front of an audience is an almost primal fear; it ranks next to death and above poverty. So I am aghast at the poise these representatives of the population exhibit under the pressure of the cameras and the big stakes

Certainly we have gotten used to seeing people expose their secrets in front of Oprah or Jenny or Sally. While Oprah has rejected the most salacious manifestations of this seeming need to launder our dirty linen in front of millions, the talk-show circuit gets more crowded every day with even grosser examples.

Someone out there is probably studying the phenomena, but I have a totally unscientific idea about all of this. I think we have television on so much of the time that the little screen has, in effect, become a natural component of our lives. It’s like another member of the family, a TV sibling. We accept its presence as naturally as anyone else’s sitting at our dinner table.

So when we get a chance to be seen on the tube it’s as natural to shine on television as it is to play a home game of "Trivial Pursuit." After all, TV is always there. It’s nothing to be afraid of. However, I do think our gross pursuit of money is.


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