Here's a question that recently earned big bucks for a contestant on ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the most popular TV quiz show in 40 years: What two colors make up an Oreo cookie?
And here's another stumper from the same program: What is your power source if you use solar energy? Or try these dazzling "Millionaire" brain teasers: What year did Columbus discover America? The Empire State Building is located in what state?
Questions like these tempt us to pose a question of our own: Why have quiz show questions gotten so moronic?
It's worth asking, now that prime-time TV, and perhaps America, is gaga for game shows. Because imitation remains the sincerest form of television, the wildly successful "Millionaire" was bound to be copied by another network. Actually, make it three networks. This week, Fox began new installments of its game show "Greed." CBS wades in on Saturday night with a new show called "Winning Lines." And just after ABC returns "Millionaire" to the air next week, NBC will revive "Twenty-One." The last time so many quiz shows appeared in prime time was in the late 1950s, when "Twenty-One" was revealed as a fraud.
Yes, some of the quiz shows of yesteryear were fixed, with producers feeding contestants answers in advance. But the essential difference between the old and the new is this: Back then, the questions were tougher. And people seemed to like it.
On "The $64,000 Question" (1955-58), for example, a contestant was shown six portraits and asked to name not just the artist and the subject, but also the teacher with whom the artist had studied. Another contestant was asked to name the Verdi opera that started Arturo Toscanini's conducting career, as well as the date of the performance and its location. In 1957, a young college professor named Charles Van Doren was asked on "Twenty-One" to name the kings of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Jordan.
Herbert M. Stempel, the contestant who faced Van Doren and eventually exposed the rigging on "Twenty-One," was eliminated from the show when he could answer only two parts of the following three-parter: What was the name of the anti-populist Kansas newspaper editor of the 1920s? (William Allen White.) What was the name of his newspaper? (The Emporia Gazette.) What was the name of the column he wrote? ("What's the Matter With Kansas?")
No clues. No multiple choice. No "lifelines."
Today, Stempel, 73, scoffs: "There really has been a dumbing down. In the old days, we had arcane and esoteric stuff. It was designed to make the audience gape" at the contestants' grasp of difficult subjects.
Today, the producers of "Jeopardy!" award $1,000 (the value of its most difficult questions) to the contestant who can name the capital of Paraguay (Asuncion). "The capital of Burkina Faso or Namibia I could understand, but Paraguay? To anyone who knows trivia, this is an insult," says Stempel.
Not so fast, Herb. It's because the questions are no-brainer gimmes that "Millionaire" has become such a hit. In all the analysis of "Millionaire's" hold on American audiences (it single-handedly carried ABC to a victory in the November ratings sweeps), many said they liked not having to be a Rhodes scholar to answer the questions. "They've made the questions very relatable" is how CBS network chief Les Moonves put it recently.
By which he meant no-brainer gimmes.
To some observers, this is more than a Nielsen phenomenon. It's a cultural sea change.
"It demonstrates that the cultural aspirations of the bulk of the country have changed," says New York University sociology professor Todd Gitlin, the author of "Inside Prime Time," a book analyzing television. "The lion's share of the audience in the 1950s [found] pleasure in being stumped. To be stumped meant that you had further to go. It reinforced the idea that you could spend the rest of your life getting smarter."
That's the opposite of today's ethic, Gitlin says. "The dominant cultural aspiration now is to demonstrate how good one already is," he says. "There's a kind of hipness in being superior. It's 'I am somebody,' not 'I will be somebody.' It's 'I am happening,' not 'I will be happening someday.' "
Gitlin says it's telling what passes now for knowledge (or at least trivia fodder) on today's games--primarily, he says, facts about television and popular culture. In fact, "Winning Lines" is a show combining knowledge of pop trivia with brute memorization skills. Big money now rides on being able to identify Britney Spears on "Jeopardy!" One "Millionaire" contestant passed at a chance to take home $500,000 by answering this question: How many von Trapp children were there in "The Sound of Music"? (Seven).
"The information that the producers believe is universally appreciated is information about the media," Gitlin says. "Their gamble is that people would rather watch someone [familiar with] that body of information than watch someone who knows about opera, molecular biology, the royal families of recent centuries, the political history of Europe, or butterflies."
Ben Stein, host of the game show "Win Ben Stein's Money," offers a more succinct analysis: "People are dumber," he says flatly. "I was a well-educated graduate of a public high school in 1962 [also, a graduate of Columbia University]. Now, compared to what people have sunk to, I am considered an incredibly well-informed person."
Unlike the pandering "Millionaire," the premise of Stein's show is that Stein is smarter (or at least better informed) than his contestants. At the end of a qualifying round, one contestant takes on Stein in a head-to-head match for a $5,000 prize (Stein doesn't get a look at the questions in advance). He calls his show, which airs on the Comedy Central cable network, "insanely difficult."
Among recent questions: At the Battle of Trafalgar, Lord Nelson was killed aboard what ship? (The HMS Victory.) And: What particle inside the nucleus carries a positive charge? (The proton.)
To be fair, the contestants of the 1950s weren't just folks off the street. They tended to be well educated, even intellectual, and often with quasi-expert knowledge in a particular subject. Charles Van Doren was a college professor; Dr. Joyce Brothers appeared on "The $64,000 Question" as an authority on boxing (she won $64,000). The show also once featured Robert Strom, an 11-year-old boy genius, and Richard McCutchen, who won by describing all five courses and two wines served at a 1939 banquet given by King George VI of England.
Even so, says Stein, "in the 1950s, the questions reflected knowledge that a well-educated person with an excellent liberal arts background would have. Now . . . [producers] have given up asking whether people know about the Treaty of Utrecht or what amendment to the Constitution gives former slaves the right to vote. They'd rather ask who the drummer for Motley Crue is."
And what's so bad about that? In a pluralistic society, isn't it useful to know a few facts about Motley Crue or V-8 engines or the work of J.K. Rowling, if only to be able to converse with a J.K. Rowling fan? Isn't Stein making the mistake of concluding that the accumulation of stray facts on a few high-minded subjects is a reflection of an educated mind?
"There's really no such thing as trivia," answers Daniel Melia, a rhetoric professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "Since all knowledge is connected to all other knowledge, there's no such thing as a useless piece of information." But he adds that all facts require a broader context--a canon--to become truly useful. "I do lament the loss of comfort in having a single [Western] canon so that everyone more or less overlaps in their knowledge," says Melia.
Melia's not entirely complaining. In 1997, he became a contestant on "Jeopardy!" Following a string of victories on the daily program and in a tournament of champions, his winnings came to $175,600--the second highest total in the history of the long-running game show.
His secret: "Every time there was a biblical category, I cleaned up. And Opera. No one expects anyone to know about opera anymore. I prayed for Opera."
CAPTION: On the original "Twenty-One," Charles Van Doren, left, displayed a broad range of knowledge. But Regis Philbin, below right, lobbed easy ones to "Millionaire" winner John Carpenter.
CAPTION: Ben Stein, of "Win Ben Stein's Money," has a theory on the simplification trend. "People are dumber," he says flatly.
CAPTION: Contenders for "Millionaire's" throne: Maury Povich of NBC's revived "Twenty-One"; Dick Clark of CBS's "Winning Lines"; and Chuck Woolery of Fox's "Greed."