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Big Bucks, Big Problems - November 29

In the 1950s, game shows were the biggest thing going, and they had massive prizes for the big winners. The country was neck-deep in a space race with the Soviet Union, and as well there were new scientific discoveries being made left and right. Intellectualism was lauded in those days, and contestants who were able to make their way to the $64,000 Question, or win the race to twenty-one points would not only win the big bucks that were part of the game, but they would also be at the forefront of the country. Winners would have their names and faces on the news, cheered for their brains. The house of cards came falling down after the scandals revealed that some people were being given the answers.

In 1999, ABC took a chance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and it revolutionized and energized the genre. Anyone, on any night could win $1 million by answering fifteen questions. Only one person ever got the kind of notoriety that would be achieved by Dr. Joyce Brothers or Herb Stempel, but again, the country watched. Rival networks created their own copycat shows, and the mirroring was transparent: answer a series of questions for big money, with various ways to make the journey easier. Only this time, the questions weren't about Classical Literature and Nuclear Physics. Contestants would win their jackpots by knowing which car companies were doing the most business, or the number of the precinct on NYPD Blue. The "anyone can win" mentality meant that the question material was changed. Gone are the multiple part questions from the days of old. Now we have questions where the answer is on the screen, flanked by several (sometimes up to 48) wrong answers. Now it's a matter of finding that right answer, and having the nerve to walk just a little farther on the tightrope.

At least back then you had to know a little something about some things to win the jackpot. Now it's not even that hard. Deal or No Deal is all glitz and little substance. That's not so offensive; Treasure Hunt had longer odds for a lower payoff. The thing is, Treasure Hunt had no pretensions about being all fun and silliness. Deal or No Deal pretends to be something it is not, by holding up that same house of cards with tense music beds and silly stunts. And the public eats it up like they were old people at an afternoon buffet. The same public that earlier cheered on the mental gladiators of sixty years ago, and dreamed of their own shot at a million bucks less than ten years ago now wants their cash jackpot to be served to them on a silver platter. And to win that jackpot? Fifteen questions is fourteen too many. They just want to pull numbers from a lunch sack

All I can think if is "America got stupid." Sure, that's a generalization of the highest order. I know many smart people, and I'm sure you did too. But the type of game show that is on the air now does not showcase the smart people of our country. It showcases manic extroverts with Queen for a Day-inspired wishes, over-the-top mannerisms and none of the same qualities that we looked for in our small screen heroes of the days of old.

I miss the good old days.

Travis Eberle can't find his onion. Send him a Vidalia or Walla Walla at


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