It had to happen. The slick but savvy TV quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” which first took Britain by storm and then went on to conquer America, is poised to invade Japan. Fuji Television announced last month that it will begin airing a tailored-for-Japan version of the show — to be called “Millionaire Quiz” — from April 20.
Unfortunately for contestants, and perhaps for viewers who are titillated by the sight of enormous amounts of money being given away to the undeserving, Japanese law limits the top prize to just 10 million yen — about $90,000. Fuji Television officials are probably in the vanguard of the push to give the yen parity with the U.S. dollar. For now, as they admitted last month, their prize money is a bit on the paltry side. Ten million yen? Some people would pay that just to keep the show out of their living rooms. Judging by its popularity abroad, however, there is bound to be someone in every Japanese household who is riveted by it.
In truth, it is a singularly irritating program, which takes the traditional idea of the quiz show — rewarding the rare combination of general knowledge and fast reflexes — and ruins it. Here’s how it works. A single contestant answers a series of questions of increasing difficulty, with the prize money ratcheting higher as the quiz proceeds. At each level, contestants have the option of quitting — and taking the money won so far — or continuing. If they go on, but miss the next question, they get nothing. Making things easier are multiple-choice answers and the “life-line” option, by which contestants can ask the audience or phone anyone they like for help.
In other words, no competitors, a dumbed-down format and, at least in the U.S. version, according to Britons, tediously easy questions — until the big money looms, at which point the questions get tediously tricky. No one has yet won 1 million pounds in Britain, and only two Americans have hit the $1 million jackpot since the show was launched last summer. Having taken the competitive suspense out of the format, the show has had to inject suspense by artificial means, most notably heavy, space-age theme music and the host’s inane drumbeat of teasers: “Are you sure that’s your final answer . . .?” Under the deal agreed to in February, all this will be reproduced in the Japanese version of the show. But where is the fun in watching such stuff?
The answer, naturally, is: in the money. Gambling on viewers finding the old morality play of greed vs. fear as irresistible as ever, the show’s creators recognized that they would have to put up a prize worth getting greedy about. Actually, in show-business terms, $1 million is not that much. There are U.S. movie stars who earn over $20 million a film, and, more relevantly, several TV sit-com actors who earn $1 million per weekly half-hour episode. Professional sports, now virtually a branch of show business itself, pays its superstars comparable amounts. In the era of stock-fueled prosperity, the word “billionaire” pops up almost more often in the U.S. media than the ho-hum “millionaire.” Millionaires themselves are a dime a dozen. Still, for ordinary people, the concept of “a million” (even, maybe, a million yen) remains the diamond-encrusted standard.
It turns out that the geniuses who dreamed up the show were right. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” has not only been a huge hit worldwide (Britain’s Celador Productions has reportedly sold format rights to some 30 countries), but has also spawned numerous copycats, including the notorious “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?,” which last month probably won the prize for trashiest U.S. TV show ever — a tough category. It seems that people actually do enjoy watching their fellow human beings parade, not their intelligence, but their avarice in front of a whole nation. So much so, that “reality-based,” prize-driven shows are being touted, with good reason, as the new big thing in commercial television. As a top U.S. network executive said last week, “It works, and it’s cheap, too.” Media commentators, while conceding the success, have been less flattering about the reasons for it: “It’s like crack cocaine,” one said.
All in all, the arrival of “Millionaire Quiz” in Japan doesn’t seem much of a reason for celebrating. It’s not that it won’t fit in — on the contrary, it will probably slightly elevate the intelligence level of commercial Japanese TV. It’s more that viewers simply do not need yet another numbingly trivial show to get addicted to. They would all be better off going for a half-hour walk around the block. It can only be hoped that the government’s foresight in capping game-show prize money will deter them, exposing the show for the empty bubble of cynicism that it really is. But don’t hold your breath.
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