SCMP Tuesday, August 21, 2001

Quiz show conundrum

Over the past few months, Hong Kong has been embroiled in what can aptly be called a millionaire frenzy, with an estimated 1.5 million viewers tuning in on an average night to ATV's game show Who wants to be a Millionaire?
So successful has the show been in prompting habitual TVB viewers to switch channels that suddenly ATV is no longer the underdog in an industry in which TVB has long been dominant. TVB has had to mount a high-profile bid to win back viewership by producing a local version of The Weakest Link.
When the ratings are out in a week's time, we will know if The Weakest Link, launched tonight, will enable TVB to recover its lost ground - a question to which the stations, advertisers and stock investors eagerly await an answer.
Both programmes are basically quiz shows. What makes them hugely popular are the unique formats hatched by their respective creators to captivate the audience. A big drawcard is the generous prize money awarded to participants.
The upshot is that knowledge - little bits of it, that is - has suddenly become truly valuable. Knowing the answers to such questions as who wrote Wuthering Heights, what is the gas that makes soft drinks bubble, and which planet is closest to the earth, matters a great deal for those who want to win the million dollar jackpot. Bookstores have reported that books that may help potential participants enrich their general knowledge have picked up in sales.
Sociologists will differ on the significance of this fetish for knowing bits and pieces of trivialities, which do not constitute wholesome information and understanding about a subject that can be used to solve a problem or drive a business.
But the acquisition of facts is the first step of learning. If the two programmes could rekindle people's interest in reading "real" books, as opposed to gossip magazines and horrid comics, that would be a positive spin-off.
Who knows if, in trying to come to grips with mountains of disparate facts, some may not hit on one or two bright ideas of organising seemingly unrelated bits of data in new, imaginative ways that would bring them fame and fortune.
After all, quiz shows are nothing new. But by giving them a new spin, the creators of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link have made millions for themselves, thrilled TV audiences around the world, and brought joy and wealth to hundreds of thousands of participants.