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In 2020, Game Shows Reached a New Level of Dystopia

Who wants to win… school supplies? How about an education? When contestants flock to game shows to score basic necessities, there’s something nauseatingly wrong

In an October episode of the ABC game show Press Your Luck, Scott, a school teacher, survived a board full of whammies and made his way to the end. The final rounds of the show feature personalized prizes suited to the player, and for Scott, that meant a first-edition copy of The Wizard of Oz, a home entertainment system and a trip to London to see Celine Dion in concert. He won most of the prizes, but sadly no Celine Dion. Instead, he got two new smart boards for his classroom. “School supplies for my kids!” Scott screamed, the prize package totaling more than $147,000. 

Similarly, in September, Fox aired the premiere of I Can See Your Voice, in which Shannon from Arizona competed for $100,000. On Voice, the chosen contestant has to watch six people lip-synch and then determine based on their movements and general vibe, whether the person lip-synching can actually sing or not (seriously, that’s it). When host Ken Jeong asked Shannon what she’d spend the money on, the medical billing processor answered that she’d go back to school and get her certification. 

The common theme here: It’s hard to watch someone have to go on network television to compete for necessities like school supplies and tuition. But unfortunately, in the country we live in, it’s seemingly up to game shows to step in where the federal and state governments won’t (no matter how desperately Americans need help during a global pandemic and widespread unemployment).

Obviously, giving away cash isn’t anything new for game shows — if anything, that’s the whole point. To that end, they started on the radio and became especially popular after World War II, when companies would donate prizes as a way to inform listeners that they’d resumed manufacturing their products. When TV came along, rather than try something new, networks relied on giveaway shows, which were a big hit. To this day, in fact, game shows continue to be an inexpensive ratings draw for many networks. 

According to game show historian and author Adam Nedeff, there’s not really a formula for how a game show sets the amount of money it’s willing to bestow upon a winning contestant. “If it’s a good game show, a viewer will watch no matter how much money is given away,” he tells me. Conversely, if a game show is bad or too confusing, a viewer will change the channel regardless of how much money is given away. “You want a payoff that seems worth the effort. But the payoff is secondary to the quality of the game,” Nedeff continues. 

There are other considerations, too. Lighthearted shows like Match Game often give away less than intense shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or The $100,000 Pyramid. The idea being that if the pressure is low, the stakes should be as well (and vice versa). “If you’re giving away a lot on the game show, you can’t do laughs, because there’s going to be tension there,” Nedeff explains. “So 25k is a better prize for Match Game because that’s not enough to alter a person’s life.”

Ultimately, many high-stakes game shows hinge on the question: Are we about to watch someone’s life change in real time? “[My friend] has sat in meetings with network executives where people are like, ‘What’s the contestant’s journey on the show?’ Because executives see it on that level,” Nedeff says. 

Along those lines, the reason many network game shows are 60 minutes is because they’re thought of as hour-long dramas that need to compete with shows like Grey’s Anatomy. “You need a protagonist to identify with, like the teacher who is trying to win school supplies,” Nedeff tells me. “It’s not just a matter of it being dystopian — though, it is — it’s a matter of it being exciting because it’s good drama. It’s a contestant who has a need. And we’re going on a journey with them to see if they will fulfill this need.” 

In fairness, this also has been a big part of game-show history (i.e., it’s not just a 2020 thing for people to go on a game show to have some of their basic needs met). Back in the 1950s, on Queen for a Day, audiences would meet four women, each of whom would share their sob stories of myriad money troubles and personal woes. The audience would then vote for the woman with the saddest story by clapping, and the winner would be crowned, as the show’s title promised, queen for the day. In a clip on YouTube, one winner, Viva Birch, has a son with cerebral palsy, who she hopes to win a new wheelchair and bike for.

Then there was Strike It Rich, a show that posed four easy trivia questions to people with financial woes. For contestants who got the questions wrong, a Heart Line would appear, where viewers could call in and donate their own hard-earned money, like a GoFundMe circa 1947. 

Again, with that in mind, Press Your Luck and I Can See Your Voice are simply the latest in a long line of dystopic game shows. Still, what’s changed in 2020 is the context. Namely, the cruelty of capitalism has never been more apparent (kids without school supplies, the pursuit of education an endless pit of debt, game shows somehow the only answer to those problems). So, sure, today’s game shows might offer Joe Schmoes like you and me temporary financial relief, but they mainly just demonstrate how unforgiving our society really is.

In that way, in a year where the drama never stopped and the need was greater than ever, game shows stepping in to fill the role that an inhumane government refused to play feels, well, like a whammy.