Stop the lights!
WHERE are we going with this stuff? The prizes are increasingly valuable, the contestants greedier and more beady-eyed than ever, and the networks must now be using triple doses of some mood-enhancing, hot beverage additive that turns every member of the audience into a shrieking, hysterical cretin.
The finger of blame points firmly at Bunny Carr. As compere of Quicksilver, he seduced millions of Irish viewers, diverting them from the idea that wealth was earned and towards the notion that you could become rich beyond your wildest dreams simply by appearing on his show and answering inane questions.
Or, at least, he tried. Quicksilver had a checkerboard of lights, seven by seven. The top row was made up of units of some vast sum - perhaps as much as £5. Below that was the £1 row, then lines of various amounts, such as 25p and 10p. The lights went out one by one, and the idea was to answer the questions quickly. Whatever was left on the board after three questions was yours.
Readers born after 1975 may be interested to know that contestants who didn't know an answer could freeze the board by yelling "Stop the Lights!" Yes, sadly, this is the origin of the phrase.
The questions were written on the basis that anyone who hadn't actually been in a coma for the previous 50 years would have no problem with them.
Faced with this challenge, RTE's crack researchers tracked down precisely these individuals. One contestant, asked Hitler's first name, answered, "Heil?" Another, pressed on who or what was the Ayatollah, said it might be a ceili band.
Before long, Quicksilver had achieved cult status, "must-see TV" for those who enjoyed watching the systematic baiting of refugees from Cross Country Quiz. It was a runaway success, so RTE took it off the air.
Now we have Winning Streak, which involves no skill whatsoever; just ordinary people whose names have been drawn from a glass drum by Mike Murphy. He jokes and cajoles them along, and they make their random choices, usually winning at least £10,000 plus a car or a holiday. It's simply casino television, but the members of the audience behave as if they are witnessing the unveiling of the cure for cancer.
Arguably a step back up the game show evolutionary chain is Moment of Truth on UTV with Cilla Black. It, too, has bizarre disco lights and prizes of holidays and cars, but at least requires some element of humiliation for the participants.
Imported from Japan, the format involves giving a member of a family an absolutely imbecilic task, and seeing if he or she can learn quickly how to do this and perform it live. Asking someone to learn the basics of Norwegian in a week would be too purposeful a task; instead they must learn off grocery bar-code numbers, or knock plastic ducks off a table with a yo-yo.
As the victim makes the live attempt, the family must huddle at the other side of the studio. To the right is a lavish display representing the prizes. If the task is done right, there are hugs and kisses; one mistake and automatic doors slam to seal off the prizes. The parents and children are herded out, usually clutching teddy bears as their consolation prize.
It's possible, of course, that where we are going with this stuff is around in a circle. The ultimate cash game show dates to American TV of the 1950s, and was called Queen for a Day. At the centre of the screen was a throne, and the host, Jack Bailey, would introduce a series of women who had to tell their own, wretched story.
The more pathetic or desperate the woman's situation, the more the audience clapped, the higher the applause-o-meter rose, the more likely they were to be crowned and enthroned. One woman won an artificial leg for her daughter; another, a mother of seven at 28, came away with a washing machine.
A sort of 1990s version, currently on US screens, is called Debt. Contestants are chosen for their hopeless indebtedness, their credit card bills, their car loans, their medical expenses - and must impress the host and audience with their tales of woe. If they can answer enough pop trivia questions, their debts are paid off by the TV company.
(Note to RTE: Don't try this at home. Next contestant is Mr C Haughey from Dublin, and he owes . . .)
Perhaps the future of the game show lies in finding the right mix of the classic ingredients; humiliation, greed, envy, hysteria. But there is something missing: sex. Challenged by day-time talk shows such as Gerry Springer and Rikki Lake, even the soap operas have now conceded that the public needs constant titillation, but the game shows can't seem to get with the programme.
What we need is a cross between Ibiza Uncovered (moron holidaymakers drink to excess, snog, strip, etc), Mr & Mrs (the "Do you know your husband's favourite colour?" show) and Winning Streak.
Contestants could be asked a series of intimate questions about their sexuality, with the answers confirmed or rejected by a partner in a glass, soundproof box. For every correct response, the contestants spin the wheel and win £10,000, a holiday, or a car - but then have to drink a tumbler of neat whiskey and remove some articles of clothing. Answer wrong, and they would have to recount a personal tragedy before the applause-o-meter.
Done tastefully, this would surely represent the cutting edge of the game show format. It could be called Quickstreaker . . .