Who would have thought it?
Not long ago society watchers were saying there were fewer and fewer things that involved Americans in a common experience as in the past.
And then came a certain game show with a no-brainer for a name that even had David Letterman offering other possible titles before the show premiered. After all, who doesn't want to be a millionaire?
For whatever reason, this game show had captured the attention of a nation several times a week. The appeal has even been dissected by commentators. They speak of a successful stew mix of Regis Philbin, a single contestant watchers can identify with and a show that rewards knowledge. The questions are often not as hard as game shows of the past. In the past, questions often tackled world knowledge and history. Now the questions are more general. They include putting former prime time television shows in order of debut.
"Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is decidedly a blue-collar type of phenomenon. Contestants include night shift supervisors in grocery stores. And perhaps that is the reason so many tune in. It is that American dream of getting rich quick. A dream that is especially sweet for those who live paycheck to paycheck and just one step ahead of a mountain of life's bills -- for car payments, rent, mortgages, loans, and credit cards. It is the dream of walking into a store without worrying about the cost of a couch. It is the dream of living debt free, of limitless travel, of financial freedom. It is freedom that money in large sums seems to offer. Of course we all know that money won't solve all the problems. But it sure seems to solve enough of them.
The show has taken some heat for having contestants that are mostly male and mostly white. That may lead to a question of what type of criteria producers have for selecting contestants.
The idea that so many people watch the ABC show and talk about it the next day at the proverbial water cooler is part of the charm. And talking about the show's success has taken the topic from entertainment shows to hard news programs.
In an era where special interests rule the day -- from the magazines we read to the television shows we watch -- there are fewer common ties that bind. Not long ago cultural gurus remembered when businesses closed their doors to get home to watch Milton Berle and when televisions were tuned to catch pivotal episodes of shows like "Dallas" when the burning question was who shot J.R.
Much of that was gone, or so many appeared to think.
Probing the public pulse in the 21st century can be an adventure in itself. Not that diversity is bad. It's not. In fact it can be a decidedly strong measure of community. But on the other side is that idea of sharing a common culture and a common event that unites people of differences. Fire, famine and flood are natural bond builders that bring out the best in most people.
But in the little things that connect culture, it is often the mass media that connects individuals to a greater shared experience. ABC has proved the experience is not a part of our past. And it need not be burying a president or a slain president's son. It can be about rooting for the common working stiff or being surprised that the contestant has no idea how many weeks of winter remain after Punxsutawney Phil has spoken.
Now if only they would take out a few of those "Is this your final answer?" queries.
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