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A Game of Chance

By Belinda Acosta

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Everything old is new again. If only that worked with dimpled thighs. Alas, it doesn't. But it does seem to work for television -- in this case, the prime-time game show.

Unless your television has been in the shop the last few weeks, you have at least passing knowledge of the ratings hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (ABC) and the more cutthroat Greed (Fox). Hoping to ride the coattails of these popular shows, NBC is developing a re-make of Twenty-One, while CBS has plans for a new version of The $64,000 Question and What's My Line?

Cable nets are getting in on the action, too. On VH1, look for Pop-Up Quiz, from the creators of Pop-Up Video (details unavailable at press time). From the History Channel comes The Great American History Quiz: Modern Marvels with Chevy Chase as host. On this show, celebrity players test their knowledge of inventions and innovations, while home viewers play along through the History Channel Web site, http://www.historychannel.com/quiz. The site becomes available Monday, 12/6. The show itself premieres 12/14, 7pm, on the History Channel.

And then there's the game show rumored to be in development at Fox, in which a female contestant wins the opportunity to marry a multimillionaire, presumably in front of a live audience. There's no confirmation from Fox on that one, but with the network's track record of showcasing the bizarre and outrageous, the odds are good.

So what is the appeal of these game shows? The success of Millionaire is particularly boggling if you insist on looking at it as a game show. On the surface, it is based on the "feats of knowledge" model (my term) that is the backbone of game shows like Jeopardy. However, in Millionaire, the model has been considerably watered down. The first $1,000 are handily won by answering questions like: "The name of George Washington's wife was which of the following: Martha, Mara, Marfa, or Shantel?" (Okay, I made that one up, but anyone who has watched the show knows I'm not far off the mark.) Furthermore, there's no pressure to beat the clock. There is none. Each contestant takes their own sweet time choosing their answers. If they're unsure, they resort to a "lifeline" (three chances to ask for help from either a friend, the audience, or the computer system, which then eliminates two incorrect answers). If some poor Joe takes an hour or so to make a choice, the wait time gets edited out of what is eventually aired. In spite of this, Millionaire sucks you in. Though the show is not live, it has the feel of being live, with the stoic audience facing the contestant from all angles to witness the least spectacular but most torturous of human activities: making a decision. Millionaire is not a showcase for intellect or quick thinking. What it offers is the drama of a regular Joe making a small decision with big consequences. Add to this the surprisingly adroit ability of host Regis Philbin to keep the tension heightened but not suffocating, and voilô: a ratings monster.

But how long can the popularity last? Is this really the resurgence of the game show that the Johnny-come-latelys are hoping to cash in on, or is it just a trend that will burn itself out once viewers get over the novelty? I, for one, hope this is a burgeoning trend -- not for the prime-time game show, but for new types of programming that borrow from the past. For example, the live television event. Although the live ER episode a season ago got flak for being inconsistent from performance to performance (by critics who viewed video from each of the time zone performances), I found that criticism preposterous. Of course the performances were different. Been to any live theatre lately? And while the live episode of The Drew Carey Show stumbled over the gimmick of adding improvisation, it was one of the most refreshing 20 minutes of network television I'd seen in a while, because it recaptured and embraced features of the medium.

Broadcasting live heightens the stakes of the event, which in some very real ways does make it like a live theatre event. The actors know there's no stopping or turning back; the viewers know it too. Everyone is along for the ride, whatever it may be.

Like a television critic at NPR, I'm pining for a return of the prime-time variety show. But what would a variety show in the year 2000 look like? Could it be live? Could it be global in its programming? Is it even possible for a prime-time variety show in this era of programming sharply sculpted to demographic profiles? Who would host -- a single host, a pair of hosts, or something totally different? If anyone out there in TV Land is contemplating a return to the form, I, for one, would be a willing guinea pig.

As always, I'll stay tuned.


Not Just Behind the Music

VH1 is adding seven new series to its roster of rock-&-roll-oriented programming. Three of the new shows include For the Record, a one-hour magazine show that revisits the biggest moments in rock history; Needle Drop, a video-based series featuring 30 videos in 30 minutes; and the previously mentioned game show Pop-Up Quiz. Premieres of these and other shows begin Thanksgiving weekend.


Suddenly Shuffled

Midseason changes are coming to NBC beginning in December. The marginally popular Suddenly Susan will be placed in limbo. It's not canceled, as it will remain in production, but who knows when -- or if -- it will be seen on the air again. Taking SS's place will be a new show from X-Files producers Glen Morgan and James Wong called The Others. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will thankfully be moved to 9pm on Fridays; it was beyond bad judgment that the spin-off, dealing with mostly gruesome sex crimes, had such an early time slot. Thanks to persistent harping by SVU producer Dick Wolf, the drama will now air at a more appropriate time.


Millennium Madness

Dennis Miller: The Millennium Special -- 1000 Years, 100 Laughs, 10 Really Good Ones premieres next weekend on HBO. Norm Macdonald guest stars on the special, which "takes aim at mankind's social deviance over the last millennium." The special debuts a week from this Saturday (12/4, 9pm, HBO). Check local listings for additional air dates.

Taking yet a different approach to end-of-the-millennium special is A Century of Living. This documentary features interviews with centenarians, all born on or before the turn of the 20th century. Together with archival film and photos, the special promises a multidimensional look at what it meant to be an American during different decades of this century. Mark your calendars. (12/22, 7pm, HBO).


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