As Gimmicks Go, This One’s Pretty Trivial

So there’s this new television “event” gameshow called “500 Questions,” and which revolves around a contestant having to answer 500 general-knowledge questions. I like the idea in theory, but as televised, it represents everything awful about American gameshows, which feel as if they have to constantly reinvent the wheel and invent dramatic stakes in order to capture viewer eyeballs. (Granted, I don’t have the viewership numbers on “Jeopardy,” so maybe that’s true. But then again, the television adaptation of “You Don’t Know Jack” was full of genuinely clever gimmicks and solid ratings, and that sank all too quickly.)

Most problematic is the drawn-out gameplay. Jeopardy gets through 61 questions in 22 minutes, and that’s including time for introductions, a little bit about each contestant, and commercials. On the other hand, in roughly double the time, “500 Questions” gets through only 40 or so questions. Now, that’s far better than “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” but still a pretty dismal count, especially when you consider the name of the series. “500 Questions” is scheduled for seven episodes (some of which are double-sized), but it appears to need at least fourteen in order for someone to “win.” Moreover, the weirdly drawn out narrative from the host is entirely at odds with the endurance-based premise. I can understand inventing rules and challenges and timeouts that stretch forty minutes of football into a three-hour-plus affair, as the players need more than forty seconds to catch their breath and regroup between plays. But if the point of “500 Questions” is to wear down contestants, it should be because they don’t have a chance to calm themselves down between questions. In truth, we watch single-player competitions because we want to see them break down, and we’re deprived of that opportunity at just about every turn.

Next, there’s the mismatch between the “genius” contestants and the lazily written questions–no clever reading necessary to trick the Watsons of this world. These are basic Trivial Pursuit questions, not Genius-level ones, and they’re blunted by the fact that a contestant can submit as many answers as they like, so long as they get the right one within ten seconds. Ultimately, this is less about knowing the right answers as it is about being able to process information and make good guesses, so if the topic is “Films of the 80s” and the question mentions an “acclaimed comedy” with characters you can’t immediately identify, you can still get to “Tootsie.” Moreover, beyond that, each milestone round of fifty questions is broken into ten five-question chunks that you can tackle in any order: in order to lose the game, you have to answer three wrong in a row, so from a strategic point, if you’ve got a few safe harbors (as a so-called genius should), you can dance around categories you know nothing about.

Finally, there’s the way prizes factor into all of this. Each question correctly answered is worth $1,000, and that’s only if your first guess is the correct one. That makes the risk/reward for 500 Questions as compared to other game shows pretty dismal: there are some milestone rewards thrown in there (the exact value is unknown), but you’d think that players would be able to win millions here, not a half-million, especially when you consider that it would take a player two weeks’ worth of episodes in order to do so. Why would a genius even want to compete on this show, knowing that 1) they might simply be a challenger, knocked out after fifty questions if unable to unseat the actual contestant, and 2) that they’re only guaranteed money if they manage to make it through fifty questions? I mean, people on other competition shows, like The Amazing Race and Survivor also sacrifice a great deal of time and energy–but they’ve generally got a 5% to 10% chance at a guaranteed million dollars, and have a one-of-a-kind experience to talk about if they fail. 500 Questions is just another gameshow, no matter how flashy.

If ABC is this desperate for a gameshow with an aspect of strategy, they ought to look no further than the online Learned League, in which two rivals go toe-to-toe, not only having to out-know their opponent, but to out-think them, as they’re the ones responsible for assigning point values to each question. And they really ought to take a cue from the better pub night trivia hosts, who not only find interesting facts (Can you name the famous playwright who once drove Andre the Giant to school?) but present them in clever ways, often using puns and other word devices to provide multiple clues and approaches to each difficult question. That’s why I mentioned You Don’t Know Jack earlier in this piece: if ever there were a place for pop-culture and high-culture to collide, it’s on the small screen. Heck, at the very least, developers should be finding ways to involve a live viewing audience, as they did with 1 vs 100, so that those of us at home can play, too–and possibly even win some money! Heck, why not even cross successful genres and combine a trivia show with Shark Tank, with local pub trivia hosts pitching their best questions (live) to a panel of judges like Ken Jennings as a mix of in-studio and at-home contestants attempt to answer them? We don’t need 500 questions, we only need one: How do we make a compelling, interesting gameshow? (Corollary: And is it better than Jeopardy?)


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