This evening, the world learns the answer to the burning question on everybody's mind: "Are the TV game shows of the future safe for humanity?" Personally, I believe all game shows are in jeopardy unless the producers and networks embrace the reality that it's not an IBM supercomputer that threatens to make on-air game show contestants -- and the genre -- irrelevant.
The real assassins will be the TV executives who continue to let everybody -- with the exception of the at-home audience -- be an integral part of the TV game show experience. I'll say it again - WE WANT TO PLAY. Offering viewers silly (and often misleadingly costly) side games, like the litigation-ridden, text-message-revenue-driven Magic Suitcase distraction, does little to engage viewers in an increasingly connected world.
First, however, some casual "Jeopardy" observations from a less-than-casual game show enthusiast:
The special edition game of "Jeopardy" between Watson, the IBM super computer array, and the two best players in "Jeopardy" history, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, has received a lot of attention from the media, and presumably, the public. Going into this evening's third and final game, Watson is heavily favored after having doubled the cumulative scores of his fleshy foes in the first "game."
Watson has two unfair advantages, the first of which has been quietly discussed in some circles for weeks, including a report posted by PBS. It appears that Watson is amazingly deft at timing the important button presses that allow one player -- mostly Watson, as it turns out -- to answer, while locking out the others. I don't quite understand the algorithm used to "clear" the circuits to allow the players to "ring in," but I am certain that a computer has an advantage in that subtle, but most vital, department. Especially since Watson can't hear, and is fed the questions via digital text; how else would it know when it is safe to hit the trigger, if not by some formula tied directly to the computer or switch that "opens the lines"? (My gut - for Game Two this evening, IBM will have slowed Watson's trigger reflex, giving Ken and Brad a sporting chance. Shades of the Roman Coliseum, merged with the $64,000 Question scandal... oh, but it's for charity... right.)
The other advantage is purely mathematical. Trigger-advantage aside, if indeed the exposition is a battle between "man and machine," then having two virtually equal, human "Jeopardy" geniuses on the same stage actually gives Watson an advantage, in the long run. One human ends up eroding into the other human's chances (sort of like the Tea Party's impact on the Republican Party candidates in the upcoming elections). At this high level of trivia games, Ken and Brad, cumulatively, likely know 85% of all answers, leaving the number of questions that only one human knows at a pretty low percentage. Watson, on the other hand, seems to be adept at answering questions that are extremely difficult, but stumbles on the easy questions, which would, with high certainty, likely go to either one of the humans.
A more favorable (and entertaining) simian outcome, therefore, would find Watson competing against only one of the two "Jeopardy" champions, filling the third spot with, say, Karl Pilkington. Or perhaps even Lindsay Lohan. (Well, maybe not Lindsay - she'd probably end up stealing the show. Click here for your choice of rimshots...)
Observations aside, however, inquiring TV Board readers want to know, "Is this the future of TV game shows? Or do game shows even HAVE a future?"
Granted, the celebrity-versions of game shows have been a tried and true, if not cyclical staple of many game show franchises. At-home audiences may, at least temporarily, be curious about a celebrity's mental prowess. They may tune in just to see if she's wearing the latest from Dolce and Gabbana. Or, now, how many terabytes of data it houses.
And, certainly Watson's celebrity is undeniable; on Tuesday, a Google News survey comparing "this week" results for "Watson," "Sheen," and "Lohan," returned 19,100, 10,200, and 9,370, respectively.
But, much like the celebrity-versions of TV game shows, audience interest wanes. Which means Watson may move on to less challenging game shows (for a computer), such as "Wheel of Fortune" (early Vegas odds, Watson, 1:5), or, more challenging games like "Family Feud" or "Million Dollar Money Drop," where intuition and knowledge of human sentiment often trumps sheer data retrieval power.
Either way, the "viewing" audience, with smart phones, laptops, and tablets in hand, is increasingly hungry for engaging content - and TV is NOT delivering. To make matters worse, no genre of TV programming - NONE - provides a better onramp to interactive and reactive television, meaning that no genre today wastes a greater opportunity.
Consider "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which reportedly captured over 75% of America's viewers in its first year on national television. One reason why it's been remanded to syndication is because its viewers gradually came to recognize that the more appropriate title should have been, "You Won't EVER Be a Millionaire Sitting At Home Watching This Program - I Don't Care How Smart You Think You Are!"
The formula for game shows used to be, "Play along at home while you watch total strangers win huge prizes." Game show designers have changed the nuances of their games by dumbing them up, or down, and have increased the jackpots over the years, but to the at-home viewer, nothing really changed. As a result, many still sit at home, visiting the equivalent of Mr. Roger's "Neighborhood of Make Believe," yelling answers at their TV sets and patting themselves on the back for getting an occasional answer correct.
And then there's the growing audience share that texts, searches, surfs and Facebooks while dedicating increasingly less attention to content, and even less to the ads. How do you reach them, Mr. Game Show Gatekeeper? What's the answer?
What is "Please pass the iPad?"