Easy Does It
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Ready, contestants? Here's your bonus question: Have TV quiz-show questions become dumber, and have the shows' rules grown wimpier, as producers pander to ever-lower audience expectations and the viewing public's general intellectual flabbiness?
Good luck, panel!
[Sound of time-filling musical interlude.]
Okay, time's up. For those of you playing along at home, the correct answer is . . .
Boy, have they.
Consider the premiere episode of the new Fox hit, "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," in which a contestant grappled with the daunting complexities of arithmetic. "Two times five equals . . . ?" he asked himself aloud, genuinely struggling.
It wasn't a trick question. The answer is still as plain as the fingers on two hands.
"Are You Smarter" suggests how far down the de-evolutionary scale quiz shows have tumbled. Throughout TV history, quiz shows measured how smart their contestants were, rewarding them for their gray matter and their lightning reflexes. "Are You Smarter" celebrates the opposite, trafficking in the dimness of its adult contestants and glorying in their embarrassment.
The show's underlying premise is that its questions are within the intellectual grasp of a 10-year-old but out of reach of most adults (although it's not really clear how smart the 10-year-olds really are since, as a disclaimer notes, the producers supply the kids with workbooks to help them bone up on material covered during the show).
Some of the program's questions are difficult, but it's unusual to get more than two real tough ones in a row. Among the questions in the debut episode: Name the ship the Pilgrims sailed on from Plymouth, England, to the Plymouth colony in America in 1620. Name the closest star to the Earth. What country has the longest shared border with the United States? What is the suffix in the word "undoubtedly"?
TV executives call those kinds of questions "relate-able," by which they mean "unlikely to challenge viewers too much and thus make them feel bad about themselves."
More than a few viewers apparently appreciate the approach. "Are You Smarter's" elevation of familiar, simple facts to brain-twisting stumpers has proved to be monstrously popular, attracting a larger audience than any new show in the Fox network's history, some 26.5 million (although it admittedly was helped by following the even more popular "American Idol"). The quiz show's second episode drew 23.4 million.