The Breakfast Table

Marjorie Williams and Tucker Carlson

Dear Marjorie,

I woke up planning to write something deep and insightful about the presidential race, which as you may have heard remains neck and neck, too close to call, a dogfight within the margin of error–a horse race down to the wire, really. That was my intention. But I never got past the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? story on the front page of the New York Times “Business” section.

I don’t read a lot of business stories (OK, none) except on Mondays, when the section is given over to coverage of what the Times now rather pompously calls “The Information Industries.” As a worker drone toiling within the vast machinery of those industries, this stuff is of interest to me. Plus I like to read Alex Kuczynski (who, I notice, filed today’s dispatch from Southampton, Bermuda–quite a dateline coup).

In any case: Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Fascinating story. Here’s what we learn: Since last season, the show has lost 16 percent of its audience. ABC and its advertisers are upset about this. So are the producers, who now believe they have identified both the problem and a solution.

(Oh, and by the way, Millionaire is still the most profitable program on television. Why is this not the lead? Losing tons of viewers and still raking it in–sounds like news to me.)

According to ABC, the ratings problem is really a contestant problem. The show, it turns out, has been “attracting an inordinate number of teachers, lawyers and, especially, computer technicians.” This “sameness among the contestants,” the Times informs us, “is a risk because ‘Millionaire,’ besides being a game show, is also a reality show.”

So here we are: An “inordinate” number of well-educated people are succeeding on a show that tests general knowledge. This is bad because it is inconsistent with “reality.”

By this point, you know what’s coming next. According to Michael Davies, the show’s executive producer, the contestants on Millionaire need to “look more like America.” (More undecided voters!) Potential contestants will no longer have to take a quiz over the phone. That would be mean, and it would work against the show’s new goal of “greater diversity.” Instead, people from “underrepresented” cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Birmingham, and New York will be invited to take a simpler test, for which there will be a “minimum passing score.” Those who pass (and most will, one suspects) will go on to the next stage of the selection process where they will be evaluated according to other, politely unspecified criteria.

Will all of this work? I’ve got nothing against diverse game shows. On the other hand, I can’t stand to watch contestants blow $1,000 questions. I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’d be on the side of computer technicians. But in this case, I am.