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Daze of My Life/I’m Game, Are You?

by Kenneth B. Lourie

Have you watched any of the nighttime game shows recently? I hadn’t until the other night while visiting my parents. Have you seen the money that “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” are offering as nightly potential prize winnings? It’s huge.

“Jeopardy,” which I’ve been off-and-on watching since the days of Art Fleming and Don Pardo, has doubled its questions’ dollar denominations. Single Jeopardy, formerly providing answers for $100, $200, $300, $400 and $500, has become in effect what Double Jeopardy - “where the scores double and the game can really change” - used to be, where the answers were valued at $200, $400, $600, $800 and $1,000. And Double Jeopardy now might as well be called Quadruple Jeopardy (for old times’ sake) because the dollar values are now $400, $800, $1,200, $1,600 and $2,000 per answer! Talk about “big money, big money,” which leads me to “Wheel of Fortune.”

Though Pat Sajak and Vanna White are still hosting and letter-turning (actually it’s more like monitor touching), respectively, as they have since the show’s inception, the dollar amounts available on the wheel are now often upward of $1,000 per consonant correctly requested, and the special prize-packages/bonus dollars available for the winners are even bigger. As such, contestants are routinely walking away with more than $25,000. The night I watched, the winner was solving puzzles to the tune of $45,000. Not bad for one night’s work, if you can get it.

Perhaps these numbers are old news to regular viewers. Maybe they’re merely reactions to the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” phenomenon that swept through the game show world five years ago (reruns of which can be seen nightly on the Game Show Network), when contestants regularly won $32,000, $64,000, $125,000 and occasionally even $250,000, $500,000 and $1,000,000. Obviously the only way for another show to compete with that kind of cash is to offer it itself - and then buy the necessary insurance so that if some brainiac takes your show by storm, he’ll empty the insurance company’s coffers rather than those belonging to the producers, and thus avoid any manmade disasters. Because these shows can’t exist if they’re not profitable. Entertainment is fine, but there are limits. Watching other people win money can be very exciting. It appeals to many of our most difficult-to-resist temptations - greed, envy, sloth. And human nature being what it is, many of us viewers are transfixed for both good and bad reasons, to sit and watch, root or rant, as contestants buzz in with their “final answers.” And even though it’s been years since I attempted to “make sure my answer was in the form of a question” or to “buy a vowel,” the thousands of dollars available - “with no help from the studio audience, please” - is causing me to rethink my focus on sports and instead sharpen my puzzle-solving skills.

I may be past my prime athletically, but I may very well be entering my prime intellectually. And I can’t help thinking that if these contestants can succeed, so can I. Their enthusiasm and excitement - at winning - is extremely contagious. As a result, I think I may have caught the bug. I just hope it doesn’t make me sick.

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.

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