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Quiz Shows Invade Primetime TV

By Devin D. O'Leary

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  It's Sweeps Month yet again. Instead of the usual raft of mega-buck mini-series, big-name guest stars and salacious story arcs, though, networks are relying entirely on their new cash cow, the TV quiz show, to drag home the ratings.

No doubt about it, America is in the grips of game show fever -- though wise observers realize this has more to do with today's "Jerry Springer" culture of 15-minute fame than it does with the giant jackpots being offered. The reason the networks are so enamored with game shows is even easier to deduce -- game shows cost nothing to produce. Think about it. Even if producers did give out the "million-dollar jackpot" every single episode (an eventuality that rarely happens), it's a drop in the bucket. Compare that single payout to the seven figure per ep salary that every major cast member of "ER" is pulling in. Compare it to the $350,000 per 30-second ad rate that ABC's hit "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is commanding. The only people that truly win on these game shows are the networks.

But how do these shows compare on the spectator end of things? Are they game or are they lame? Let's compare, shall we?

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (ABC, Tuesdays 7 p.m., Thursdays 8 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m.) This is the puppy that started it all. The game is simple enough to understand. The addition of the "call a friend" lifeline adds some drama and personality to the proceedings. The progression from stupid questions to impossible ones makes even public school-educated viewers think, "Hell, I could do that." Regis is still a goofball of a host, though. Game or lame? Game.

"Twenty-One" (NBC Wednesday 7 p.m.) This newly revived gameshow was originally forced off the air during the quiz show fixing scandal of the 1950s. Too bad it still feels so retro. "Twenty-One" has virtually no innovations to boast of and is about as exciting to watch as radio. Once-respectable journalist Maury Povich looks like he'd rather be hosting late-night infomercials (which he probably will be very soon). Game or lame? Lame.

"Winning Lines" (CBS Saturday 7 p.m.) Host Dick Clark is hands-down the best of the bunch. (He's been doing this long enough, he ought to be.) Unfortunately, the show (which Clark also produces) is impossible to understand. About 300 contestants battle on a freakishly high-tech stage answering questions with numerical answers. Each time a correct number is given, the person holding that number is bumped. Eventually, the human stockpile is whittled down to one person who must face the daunting "Wonderwall." Contestants stare down a football field-sized video screen crammed with answers and must root out the correct ones. To "assist" them in their task, they've got three strikes, two time outs, a panic button and a list of rules that takes about 10 minutes to explain. Game or lame? Lame.

"Greed" (FOX Thursday 8 p.m.) Host Chuck "Love Connection" Woolery does a fair Dick Clark imitation, and the show's innovative "Terminator" option -- which allows team members to turn on each other and steal all the money -- is fun to watch. The oft-shouted "I feel the need for greed!" catchphrase is only slightly less annoying than having Regis ask "Is that your final answer?' every damn time. Game or lame? Game.

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