When you think about it, Reality TV has been around since television first began. For starters, most of the earliest, locally produced TV shows were screened live - TV doesn’t get much more real than that. The perennial staple of daytime and primetime viewing has always been The Game Show. No less than 62 game shows have been produced over the 48 years Australian Television has been in existence. Not only that, variety shows usually also include a mini-Game Show segment, like a chocolate Wheel or celebrity quiz in their formats. Game Shows always had all the ingredients that now make Reality TV so compelling. I call them The Three H’s: hope, humiliation and hysteria. There’s nothing like the universal pursuit of money-for-nothing to bring out the avaricious voyeur in us all.
While reality TV may be on the way out, Game Shows will never die. Why? Because they constantly give average Joes the hope that with a teensy bit of nous and a lot of luck we too might one day find ourselves jumping up and down, hysterical with glee, hugging Larry Emdur to within an inch of his life.
The popularity of the game show is inexplicable. At best, they are noisy and annoying. At worst they are frustrating and sometimes blatantly unfair. However cringeworthy, there’s always been a game show to appeal to every demographic. I’m not exactly what you’d call a game show junkie – I can take or leave them. However, I’ve still managed to turn up as a contestant on three game shows in the past four years. If you didn’t have enough reason to hate me, consider this: in all three cases I found it remarkably easy to get on. With Catchphrase I was called up within a week of auditioning. With Sale of the Century it was three weeks. I’m pretty certain that the fact that I used to write a Sex Advice Column had more than a bit to do with that. One of the people I’d appeared alongside on Sale had auditioned six years prior.
Sure it all sounds too good to be true, but then I remember the fact that I sent thousands of entries in to the various crazy competitions run by Hey, Hey, it’s Saturday over 28 years and I never won a cracker. Don’t be fooled - this is payback. For the quiz-show wannabe, Who Wants to be a Millionaire definitely represents the pinnacle; the Holy Grail.
However, when the show first started in 1999 it seemed that only people who were prepared to run up ridiculously large phone bills had a chance of being picked. Even when they changed to the single-registration-only rule, the chance of being selected out of hundreds and thousands of gambling disciples just seemed too remote.
During that first season, I phoned about half a dozen times and then gave up. Not only had I given up on ever being on Millionaire, I also gave up watching it. For me, it fell into all those aforementioned categories: colourful, noisy, annoying, frustrating and seemingly unfair. The way the tension is dragged out over that hour every Monday night was way too torturous for me to bear. The apparent inconsistency of the perceived "difficulty" in relation to the order of the questions also prompted discomfort. Not even Eddie Maguire’s iridescent baby blues and ockerish charm could woo me back to the fold.
And then, in a quirky fit of pique, the Powers That Be at Channel Nine tried a daring but ultimately ill-conceived experiment. They launched the WWTBAM Super Series. For two magical weeks in June they put WWTBAM on five afternoons a week, in a bid to lure Sydney viewers away from Deal or No Deal – and away from the Channel 7 News which, for the first time in eons, was actually in front. The advertisement asking contestants to register was repeated over and over all day. On an impulse I registered – once – and the rest is TV history.
It was a heady experience. Firstly, as a resident of NSW, I was treated to an all-expenses-paid flight to Melbourne and overnight stay at a swish motel (including breakfast!). The production crew marshalling the 50 contestants couldn’t have been more obliging and cheerful. Considering they had all just had their workload multiplied by five times the usual volume they showed remarkable poise and kindness. Their's was not to reason why, their's was just to smile radiantly and make us all feel great.
Although Millionaire is ostensibly a trivia quiz show, the measure to which luck plays a part is incalculable. Take the “fastest finger first” concept. It’s not enough just to know the right answer, you to have the nerves of steel to punch the answer in faster than your feverish competitors. We had a few practices at it before we went to air, and holy anuerism the pressure is excruciating! I was crap at it during the rehearsal and had pretty much satisfied myself that this exercise had been little more than a pleasant 24-hour furlough away from the family. But the Irony Fairy wasn’t finished with me yet. I appeared on the Friday episode. We had time enough for two cracks at fastest finger first. The first time I was just a second off the pace. On the second occasion, I took all of seven seconds – but miraculously I was the only schmuck with the correct answer. The question was: “In descending order from eldest to youngest, name the Fab Four”. It didn’t take a genius to know that – only someone with a misspent youth. Pure, unadulterated dumb luck.
So, I had to fly back again, the following week - yippee! They didn’t tape the next week’s episodes for another ten days, by which time I was ready to go a bit postal. It was like holding a winning lottery ticket but not knowing the amount. I never conceived that I could win the million, but the possibility of obliterating my mortgage seemed remotely feasible. I would need a cool head and a lot more luck. By the time I was finally sitting in The Hot Seat again as "carry over champ" I was a nervous wreck. The trouble with WWTBAM is once you have landed in the Hot Seat, there is nowhere to hide. You are The One. All scrutiny and pressure is resting squarely on your shoulders. The weight of expectation coming from the audience and the other contestants sitting in the "cold" seats (waiting expectantly for you to bomb out) is immense. (I silently apologised for every time I’d watched the program and yelled at the person in the Hot Seat for being a complete git). This is certainly no walk in the park.
All the emphasis on intelligence has gone to my head, because I have come up with my own mathematical equation. Too much time + too many options = too much room for doubt. Sometimes the thing you think you know can seem a bit fuzzy when there are viable alternatives to consider. Then there are the lifelines. You have to know when to hold them, when to fold them, when to walk away and when to run. Who has the presence of mind to do that?
It’s now a matter of public record that I clawed my way to $16,000 and, depending on your particular area of knowledge, I was either a dimwit for quitting when I did or legend for surviving that long. All I know is, I have often known the answer to questions upwards of $32,000 (including the Million dollar question once) and it seemed to me that my $8,000 question was inordinately difficult – it cost me all of my life-lines. However, if it wasn’t for a question that I found easy – I wouldn’t have landed in the Hot Seat in the first place, so somehow it all balances out. Destiny works in mysterious ways.
After all, a question is only easy, if you know the answer. On Millionaire, anyone can look like a genius and anyone can look stupid – depending on the questions asked. Who would have thought Molly Meldrum would have one half a mil?
Now that it’s all over, my brush with game shows seems completely surreal. Having seen it from the inside, my impression of the show and its contestants has completely changed. The secret of its success is that the opportunity is there for any mug to walk away with a sizeable chunk of change. What’s not to like about that? The amount I won isn’t going to change my life a huge amount, but it has doubtlessly made some things possible that I had all but given up on. The verdict is in - quiz shows are cool, and Millionaire is the bomb.
Mark my words. Some day, someone will finally win that “Mooyon” bucks. (Sorry Ed, in spite of the elocution lessons; you’ll never live that one down). And when they do – I reckon I’ll be watching. The show is undoubtedly annoying and frustrating but, like inadvertently spotting your neighbours on the job with the curtains open, it’s perversely compelling viewing.