Game shows enthrall audiences with their promise of instant fortune, and millions around the world tune in for their riveting fix. But why watch other people win money? By Tracy Melass.
‘Low, low, low!’ chants the studio audience. Contestant Sandile perspires and chews his fingers.
The lights dim, the music swells… There is a ripple of nervous anticipation as Sandile indicates that he’s ready to pick his number: his choice of a high or low number could mean losing R5 000 or R50 000.
‘Are you suuuuure, Sandile? You feeling the pressure, baba?’ says host Sydney Matlhaku, to a background of slow clapping.
‘Remember, some clues are your friends and some clues are your enemies…’
Sandile glances anxiously at his mother and aunt, hesitates and answers.
Then comes the big reveal: he has only lost R5 000. The audience goes wild.
The director shouts ‘cut!’, the make-up artist runs on stage, dabs Sandile’s forehead and touches up Sydney, who is nodding at instructions coming into his earpiece from the studio upstairs.
This is a recording of an episode of You Deserve It, the newest game show on local television, based on a format from the US.
It’s a game show with a twist: contestants don’t win money for themselves but for a worthy cause – a charity or a needy friend or family member.
The most exciting part is that the beneficiaries don’t know.
In an emotional finale, the winning contestant surprises them with the money.
‘The premise of the show is that it is better to give than receive,’ says Roberta Durrant of Penguin Films, local producer of You Deserve It.
She saw the show at Mipcom (the global entertainment content market) two years ago and knew it would work here.
‘There are so many people in need in SA and people doing great things, despite meagre means, to make their communities better.’
Henriette de Villiers, a game show producer and head of television at AFDA film school, agrees that You Deserve It is a product of our times.
‘Its creation coincided with the recession. Due to the financial crisis, many game shows have become much kinder. They reflect the fact that people are looking out for each other more.’
The first game show ever, Spelling Bee, was broadcast on British TV and radio in 1938.
Truth or Consequences was the first in the US, on radio in 1940 and then on TV a decade later. During the 1950s, game shows became a pop culture fixture.
Daytime shows had lower stakes and targeted housewives; higher-stakes programmes aired in prime time.
A rapid rise in popularity laid the foundation for the global shows we know today.
Television only came to SA in 1976 but we were quick to catch on.
‘South Africans like game shows,’ says Henriette. ‘They were immediately one of the crowd pullers. Shows like Suikerkaskenades and Skattejag had huge viewerships.’
Noot vir Noot, a musical quiz show, is the longest continually running television game show in the country.
In 2010, it reached episode 500 after 20 years. ‘This was the first wave of interactive TV,’ says Henriette. ‘It was way before reality TV and people liked the interaction.’
While it’s often hard to tell, the bulk of game shows are adaptations of overseas formats.
‘The international formats work best because they are so well worked out and developed,’ says Roberta. ‘There is a huge amount of research and testing done as it’s a major risk to produce a show like this.’
Production company Urban Brew has a long-standing relationship with BBC Worldwide, which started with Friends Like These for SABC1.
After its success, Urban Brew was approached to produce a local version of the British family game show The Generation Game.
Helga Palmer of Endemol South Africa says that game shows are one of the most popular genres in the company’s portfolio – the second largest offering after their reality-TV shows.
Locally, it has produced shows such as Deal or No Deal, The Kids Are All Right and Million Rand Money Drop.
For Helga, the most successful game shows always have strategy, high jeopardy, simplicity and an element of play-along, but above all ‘entertainment value’.
Lani Lombard, head of communications at M-Net, says, ‘It’s been a trend to localise the international formats, knowing that these shows have proved to be audience pullers.
But we also develop our own formats, especially for our local-interest channels, kykNET and Mzansi Magic.
So why are game shows so popular? ‘Very simply, people are interested in other people,’ says Roberta.
‘They’re interested in common experience and seeing themselves in other people.
That identification factor is crucial.’
‘Viewers like watching “normal” people in unusual situations, as the popularity of the reality-TV genre has proven,’ agrees Henriette.
‘Viewers enjoy game shows because they become part of the game – they encourage participants and shout out answers.’
There is also an informative, even educational aspect, to these programmes.
‘The element of suspense is the drawcard,’ says Lani.
‘Will the contestant win the money or lose everything? Viewers often weigh themselves up against the contestant. They answer the questions or cringe when contestants make mistakes. Game shows can also be wonderful family bonding time.’
Game shows have simple formats and are easy to follow, but don’t be fooled by their simplicity.
They are designed to tap into and manipulate human behaviour. They offer people an opportunity to switch off and live the dream of winning big.
‘They are a powerful mechanism to allow people to live out fantasies of being in control, of being an achiever,’ says clinical psychologist Siyabonga Nkosi.
He adds that game shows reflect the very nature of everyday life – full of paradoxes and ups and downs.
‘They offer an escape from a world filled with uncertainty, work and personal problems, stress and traumatic events.’
The choice is virtually unlimited but when asked which they consider the most successful game show of all time, the unanimous vote from industry experts is Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
‘The format works incredibly well,’ says Roberta.
‘It’s designed to build tension, the stakes are high and there’s a lot to lose.’
Henriette agrees. ‘They took something really simple, a general knowledge quiz, and did three clever things: they changed the way that you could win money (the increments were significant); they were the first to put a million up as the prize; and they introduced the three life lines. It was such a simple formula but it changed game shows forever, and “phone a friend” became part of our everyday lexicon.’
‘I won R100 000!’
Vanessa Glass and Andrew Simitopoulos won R100 000 in the first-ever local episode of Million Rand Money Drop.
‘We entered because Andrew wanted to win some money. He saw the advert for the auditions and applied. We didn’t think for a second we’d get in.
They tested our general knowledge and at the second audition they did a screen test. I was shocked when we were chosen. It scared me. I don’t even like having my photo taken, and now I was going to be on television!
‘The recording of the show was fascinating. We had no idea how a show like this is put together and how much goes into it. The studio audience was supportive and we felt they were rooting for us. I had no idea how long
I was up there [on stage]. I was worried we’d embarrass ourselves and not
know the answers. It was also damn hot! I’ve never been so hot in my life. And I shouldn’t have worn the shoes
I did… But we ended up winning R100 000. It was all one long adrenaline rush!
‘The biggest highlight was when the episode was screened on M-Net and our friends and family could watch. I got so many calls and SMSes, even from people I hadn’t seen in years. It was like all my birthdays rolled into one! I was pretty boring when it came to spending my share of the money – I saved most of it, but I did have a shopping spree.’
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