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Spare Change
August 25

With the new TV year starting soon, we're getting wind of various changes that will be happening on the game shows. In some cases, they're merely cosmetic. Some will magnify the top prize available. Others will comprehensively change the game as we know it. And in many cases, change didn't have to be made.

Back in December of 2007, we were treated to a six-episode run of Duel. Twenty-four contestants had one goal: win the gigantic cash jackpot on offer. The game was an easy one to follow, and simple to pick up in the middle. If you fail to cover the correct answer, you lose (unless your opponent also failed.) The winner was paid $5,000 per chip and got to play again in a climb up the champions' ladder. The four top winners played Sunday for $1.7 million. It was exciting, awesome and great TV.

Duel returned, and instead of a tournament, we got something closer to the British show. Winners would be paid based on the length of the Duel (effectively paying the winner based on how poorly the opponent did), and got a chance to double that amount with a single bonus question. Not so horrible, but I thought it was a needless change. The big change came later: champions could take their money and leave, or risk it to play again in the hopes of a five-time streak and $500,000. Unfortunately, this change meant that lots of players left after building up a decent bank, without even giving the end of the rainbow a single look. And that doesn't make for good TV.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has decided to jigger the game. Gone is 50:50, to be replaced by Double Dip. Switch the Question is out, replaced by Ask an Expert (also from Super Millionaire) Again, these are relatively minor changes that are made to keep the show fresh. The big change, and the one that I think will cripple the ship, is putting a time limit on each question. And the limit is seconds, not minutes.

Part of what makes Millionaire so great was watching that struggle. Seeing the contestant grope for the right answer, or for some bit of information that will bridge the gap. Sometimes, the excitement was in seeing if the contestant would play at all. Maybe he'll gamble on a whim. Or the risk will be too great. That's the kind of game you get when the questions are open-ended. With 15 to 45 seconds per question, you'll see lots of people reaching for a lifeline to stop the clock. You'll see more $0 winners, more $1,000 winners, more people quitting before $25,000, and maybe a few people who are locked out because they forgot how little time was left. Again, this is not good TV. Millionaire is a great game because it is a simple one.

With no transition at all, we're left with The Price is Right. If any game show was vulnerable to change, this is the one. Longtime producer Roger Dobkowitz was released from his position at the show at the end of the year, leaving Syd Vinnedge in charge. Reports are that Syd has been making changes left and right; the set changed, some of the set pieces have changed, some of the games have new rules. Some of those rule sets changed after a single playing. This is perhaps the worst case out of the three. I believe Michael Davies knows what he's doing and Millionaire is in good hands. Duel remained a solid quiz show after the format change. But you can't change stuff on The Price is Right willy-nilly. Roger steered the boat, and now they have no captain, so it's sort of like martial law. I doubt Syd is dumb enough to change the fundamentals of the show, so you'll still have the pricing of items. But I think the show will be very different from what we've come to enjoy for all these years.

Travis Eberle has ninety-five cents on him. Dare him to spin again at