Why Who Wants To Be a Millionaire Is a Hit

The most important thing that’s changed about the major TV networks in the last few years, aside from their steadily shrinking share of the audience, is that more and more of their programming is “reality-based.” On the one hand, you have the continued proliferation of the too-scary-to-be-fictional genre, which was pioneered by Fox and exemplified by When Animals Attack and World’s Scariest Car Chases. At the same time, more and more of the networks’ schedules are occupied by news shows–which generally have at least a loose connection to reality–such as Dateline. And although America’s Funniest Home Videos is no longer provoking belly laughs across the country, variants thereof air regularly as specials.

The great virtue of reality-based programming is that it’s relatively inexpensive to produce, since very little of the material needs to be paid for. And for people who are supposedly obsessed with celebrities, Americans seem remarkably interested in what other “real” people are doing–as long as what they’re doing involves either being chased down with 40 vials of crack, fighting a long illness, driving the wrong way on a freeway, or getting upended off a ladder by an overly friendly springer spaniel. (Wasn’t that a great segment?)

Perhaps as a result of its success, though, “reality-based programming” is now being used as a label to cover shows that are, well, not real, like the huge hit game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire and its recent successful competitor Greed. Millionaire has picked up where it left off this summer, dominating its time slot and actually casting a slight halo effect on its ABC peers, while Greed has been one of the only–OK, the only–bright spot in a disappointing fall season. It’s their success that prompted a recent headline in Variety proclaiming “Nets Reap Ratings From Reality Shows.”

What’s odd about this is that game shows–even if they’re not fixed like they were in the ‘50s–are real only in a very tenuous sense. Thoroughly staged and stage-managed, they’re dramatic, or perhaps melodramatic, precisely because of the artificial structure of their formats. We don’t, it’s true, know how any given episode of Millionaire is going to turn out, and even though one might say the same about a forthcoming episode of ER, the fact that in theory no one knows how the Millionaire episode is going to turn out may make it more real.

But Millionaire and Greed are to Cops and When Animals Attack as the zoo is to the Serengeti Plain, offering a kind of semblance of uncertainty (and, therefore, reality) instead of the actual thing, whatever that might be. In part, the actual thing is just the possibility that something genuinely unexpected is going to happen–who knew that deer could beat down hunters with their front hooves?–but in part, especially with a show like Cops, it’s the possibility that nothing especially important is going to happen. Millionaire, by contrast, is circumscribed in both directions. You know it’ll be exciting but not too surprising, and you know it won’t be too surprising but also not dull.

Game shows do have many of the same advantages as true reality-based programming–relatively low production cost, endless supply of material–and some others in addition, including the ability to keep Chuck Woolery off the dole. And the fact that TV viewers would rather spend prime time watching a not-so-great-looking guy answer questions about the Great Lakes than watching gorgeous twentysomethings pretend to be teen-agers has to count for something. But only in a world as totally hermetic as that of TV production would game shows count as real. Next we’ll probably hear that Felicity counts as real, too, since the people saying their lines on the show are actual human beings who are actually saying the words.

Sounds good to me.