Episode 714: Can A Game Show Lose? : Planet Money Crafting a TV game show is a balancing act. Producers have to carefully calibrate the rules, the drama and the prizes just right. Sometimes they get it way wrong.

Episode 714: Can A Game Show Lose?

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On May 14, 2013, I was a contestant on the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." Do you just - do you just want to watch it?


Oh, is this - this is the video?

ROMER: This is the video.

SMITH: Yeah, I want to watch it.



SMITH: There you are. It's the whole, like, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" set. There are the lights. There's Meredith Vieira.


MEREDITH VIEIRA: Please welcome Keith Romer.

SMITH: There's the studio audience. There's everything.

ROMER: There's sweat pouring down me.

SMITH: You look a little nervous.


VIEIRA: Computer, please randomize the money the categories.

SMITH: Are the lights bright?

ROMER: The lights are super-bright. And they, like, flip around. They shine in your eyes like the spotlights all over the place.

SMITH: Oh, right. They're like do-do-do-do-do-do-do.

ROMER: Yeah, that's - that's real. That's, like, not a TV graphic.

SMITH: What happened?

ROMER: So I get through the first 10 questions - basically no problem. And then, I get to question 11.


VIEIRA: Let's see your question for $100,000.



VIEIRA: Who was once a golf caddy for O. J. Simpson and competed against Tiger Woods in the American Junior Golf Association?

SMITH: Who even knows that?


VIEIRA: Mario Lopez, Nick Lachey, Seth Meyers, Carson Daly.

SMITH: Oh, you - you have, like, a furrowed brow. You don't look happy.


ROMER: I have a feeling, but it's not strong enough to overcome the lure of $58,000 in a box on the street. So I...

VIEIRA: What are you feeling, just out of curiosity?

ROMER: What would my guess be?

VIEIRA: Yeah, what are you feeling?

ROMER: My guess would be Carson Daly, but I'm going to walk. Final answer.

VIEIRA: Is that - that's final? OK, you're walking with $58,500.


SMITH: $58,000 - Keith, that's a lot of money.


VIEIRA: The correct answer - Carson Daly. You would have been right, but you have...

SMITH: Oh, oh, oh, oh.

ROMER: Yeah.

SMITH: Oh, you knew it.

ROMER: Yeah.

SMITH: Oh, that's hard. But, I mean, you got almost $60,000. That's a lot of money. You did great.

ROMER: OK, that's glass half-full. Glass half-empty?

SMITH: You could have gotten 40 more thousand dollars, and you kind of blew it.

ROMER: Fair. But the thing is, that is how the game is set up. The people who run "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," they know that me having $60,000 in my pocket is going to pull me in one direction, and the $100,000 on the screen is going to put me in the complete opposite direction.

SMITH: Oh, and they're definitely amping the pressure up, too - the lights and the audience and some crazy question no one could ever know about celebrity golf caddies.

ROMER: The harder a choice this is for me, the better it is as TV. And that is how you make a successful game show.


SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

ROMER: And I'm Keith Romer. The contestants are not the only people taking risks on a game show. The producers of the show are essentially gambling that they have set up the rules and the drama just right so that, like me, contestants win some money, but not all the money.

SMITH: It is like this game of psychology and math. And if you are designing one of these shows from scratch, it can be really tricky to get that balance exactly right.

ROMER: Today on the show, we have the story of a producer who set out to create the greatest game show of all time, but instead, maybe created the riskiest.


SMITH: Vin Rubino has been a producer in the game show business for a long time, and he knows what makes a good show.

VIN RUBINO: Tension, comedy, drama, simplicity and play-along, so you can see yourself in it, screaming - shout-at-the-TV kind of stuff.

ROMER: He gets pitched ideas all the time for game shows. And one day, he heard an idea for a game show that would be bigger than anything else on TV. Vin used to work at "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." And yeah, a million dollars - exciting. But you know what's even more exciting?

RUBINO: You could walk away with $10 million.

SMITH: $10 million - on this new show, that was going to be the top prize. In fact, that was going to be the name of the show - the "Power Of 10."

ROMER: But for a game show producer, this creates an obvious problem. You want to be able to promise people that you're going to give them $10 million, but still not actually have to give them $10 million all that often.

SMITH: And usually, the way you do this is that you make the final question - the $10 million question - really, really hard, so that even the most hardcore trivia nerds might not know the answer.

RUBINO: And then it becomes almost exclusionary because you've got to be so super smart to win that. Then what's the fun for everybody else? I can't do that.

SMITH: And that's the whole play-along-at-home part. Whether or not it's true, viewers want to be able to imagine themselves answering the $10 million question and getting it right.

ROMER: So the new show, "Power of 10," solves this problem in this kind of interesting way. Instead of asking about facts - you know, like, number 74 on the periodic table - Stacey, what is it?

SMITH: Hydrogen. No, that's number one. Ytterbium.

ROMER: I have no idea whether that is true. This show is going to ask not about ytterbium, but about opinions. They hire a polling company, give them a bunch of questions and find out what percentage of Americans think whatever.

RUBINO: There were such awesome questions. It was almost like, what is your favorite leg? You know, something like that.

SMITH: How is that an awesome question?

RUBINO: It's a great question.

SMITH: That's a terrible question (laughter).

RUBINO: It is a great question. It is a great question. What's your favorite leg?

SMITH: What is your favorite leg?

RUBINO: I think it's funny. Some people have their favorite leg.

ROMER: It's sort of genius because no one is an expert in a question like that, so every contestant is essentially on a level playing field.

SMITH: So they need someone who can write a lot of weird questions, and they bring in this guy.

DAVID LEVINSON WILK: Hi (laughter), I'm David Levinson Wilk, and that's my name.

SMITH: And what do you do?

WILK: I write for television game shows, which is wonderful and delightful and provides health care, which is also delightful and wonderful.

SMITH: So when you say you're a writer for a game show, what does that mean?

WILK: Great question. Nobody knows. I have no idea.

SMITH: (Laughter).

ROMER: David gets to work cooking up questions to give the polling company. The polling company does its job.

WILK: And it was the only question that we ever wrote where we ever got a response from them saying, is this actually what you want us to be polling? And we said, yes. And the question was - we were going to ask people, have you ever been decapitated?

SMITH: (Laughter). But...

WILK: They were sure we had made a mistake, and we had not.

SMITH: As far as David remembers, by the way, 4 percent of Americans answered that they had been decapitated.

ROMER: Seems high.

SMITH: So the producer, Vin, and the question writer, David, and all of these other people get to work creating this new game show from scratch.

ROMER: They find a host - Drew Carey.

SMITH: They build a set and design all the graphics and lights. And Vin tells us it looks like a cross between the House of Parliament and a pinball machine.

ROMER: There's going to be a screen that shows this 100-point scale with an animated ball that rolls up and down to show what percentage of Americans think that they have been decapitated.

RUBINO: And it has to make some sort of a sound, like that (making sounds) - like that kind of thing.

SMITH: They try the whole thing out a few times with some practice contestants, and then they're ready to go.


DREW CAREY: Hello. I'm Drew Carey. Welcome to the "Power Of 10," where, in just a few moments, just one of these contestants will get a chance to play for $1,000, $10,000, $100,000, $1 million, and then 10-times that amount - $10 million.


ROMER: But even on that first day, there is still this, big, unanswered question - how risky, financially, is this show that they've just created? Vin told us that the total prize budget for the first nine episodes was somewhere between 3 and 4 million dollars.

SMITH: So they were essentially counting on the fact that no one would actually win...


CAREY: $10 million.

SMITH: And this made for a very nervous producer.

RUBINO: That first day, I can tell you right now, I was up at probably 4 o'clock in the morning. I didn't have to be at work until probably 9:00. But I was up at 4:00, just anxious.

SMITH: Because no matter how much planning you've done for a game show, there is still a big unknown variable right at the center of it - the contestants.

ROMER: I mean, I went through the whole process of getting on a game show. And do you know what it is? You take a test. There's a super-short interview. And then maybe you show off your, like - your one stupid human trick.

SMITH: What was your stupid human trick?

ROMER: Chewbacca imitation.

SMITH: You did a Chewbacca imitation? Do your Chewbacca imitation.

ROMER: (Imitating Chewbacca).

SMITH: (Laughter). Oh, my God.

ROMER: (Imitating Chewbacca).

SMITH: And that got you on TV?

ROMER: That got me on TV. And that is basically all that got me on TV, right? I was not a completely random person, but I was not that far off. And for the game show producers, that is a risk. Like, they have no idea, when they put me out under the lights in front of an audience, what I'm going to do.

RUBINO: I'll go over and talk to them just beforehand. And you can always see their hands are shaking a little bit, which that's just adrenaline. The ones that you worry about are the ones where their faces are twitching.

SMITH: Game shows do you have these rules of thumb that they use when they're choosing contestants.

RUBINO: You don't normally want to put an 18-year-old in a game show because their knowledge base isn't as - as deep, you know?

ROMER: But on "Power Of 10," remember, knowledge base doesn't really matter, so they get to do something you almost never see on a game show. Their first contestant is a teenager, a 19-year-old college student from New Jersey.

RUBINO: Jamie Sadler - a good-looking kid. His parents are both in the audience, sitting on opposite sides. He had so much promise. And you could see in his eyes, like, he wasn't afraid of anything.

ROMER: I actually talked to Jamie, and he remembers it pretty much the same way.

JAMIE SADLER: I think I was just confident because I was 19. I didn't know any better.


CAREY: Welcome back to the "Power Of 10." I'm your host, Drew Carey, here with Jamie Sadler, our very first money contestant on the "Power Of 10." How are you feeling, pretty good?

SADLER: I'm feeling great.

CAREY: You excited, nervous?

SADLER: A little nervous, but hey.

CAREY: It says here on your sheet here you're a caddy and a waiter. Let me ask, if you win the $10 million, will you continue to be a caddy or a waiter?

SADLER: Neither.

CAREY: No, you're just going to quit.


CAREY: Good for you, man. It says here...

ROMER: Quickly, here's how the money round works. Jamie has to guess the percent of Americans who think that they have been decapitated or whatever the question is. He doesn't have to name the exact number, though, just a range.


CAREY: You ready to play, Jamie?

SADLER: I'm ready to go.

CAREY: OK, here's your thousand dollar question. What percentage of Americans said Vin Diesel invented the diesel engine instead of Rudolph Diesel?

ROMER: Jamie thinks it over. He assumes that not too many Americans think it's Vin Diesel. And on the first question, he gets a big range. He guesses the answer is somewhere between 1 percent and 41 percent.

SMITH: The actual answer, 25 percent of Americans think Vin Diesel invented the diesel engine, falls within Jamie's range. He gets it right.

ROMER: And he gets the $10,000 question right. After that comes the $100,000 question, which pretty firmly dates the show in the mid 2000s - 2007, to be precise.


CAREY: We all know Dick Cheney's pretty good with a rifle.


CAREY: He shot that dude in the face, his lawyer. So we asked America, if you and Vice President Dick Cheney were dueling with pistols at a distance of 50 feet, which of the following do you think is more likely to be the outcome?


CAREY: You would successfully shoot Dick Cheney, or Dick Cheney would successfully shoot you.

SMITH: With each new question, Jamie's range gets smaller. So he guesses that between 35 and 55 percent of Americans think that they would lose that duel to Dick Cheney. The actual answer is 43 percent, and that is good enough to get Jamie a hundred grand.


CAREY: A hundred grand for Jamie Sadler.

ROMER: And this is good for the show. As weird as it seems to say, this is what Vin, the producer, wants.

RUBINO: I love seeing people win. I just don't want it happening all the time. It can happen all the time because I'd be out of a job.

SMITH: A hundred-thousand dollars is great for them. This is the first-ever episode of the show, and they want high stakes, and they want a lot of drama.

ROMER: Now, on any other game show, they could draw out this drama without risking that much more money, on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," the next question would be worth $250,000, the one after that, $500,000.

SMITH: But this show - this show is called the "Power Of 10." The prizes aren't doubling. They go up by 10 times every single time. That is the big gimmick, and it's super exciting, and it's super risky. All the sudden, four questions into the show, there is a lot of money at stake.


CAREY: So here it is for $1 million.


ROMER: Just like that, a million dollars.


CAREY: And the question we're asking you is what percentage of women consider themselves feminists?

SMITH: (Laughter). Nineteen-year-old Jamie is not excited about this question. You can see his face drop.

ROMER: His range for this one is just 10 percent. The audience is shouting at him. His dad is saying quit. His mom is saying go for it.

SMITH: Meanwhile, Vin is over in his corner of the stage, trying to figure out if he has just created the world's most disastrous game show.

ROMER: And Jamie is out there thinking things through sort of exactly the way you would expect a 19-year-old is going to think things through.

SADLER: I remember thinking there's a - there's a movie I used to watch when I was growing up. I don't if you've ever heard of "Tin Cup" or seen the movie "Tin Cup." And Kevin Costner has a line of - of, you know, when a defining moment comes along, you either define the moment, or the moment defines you. And I remember thinking that this is - this is my chance to define it.

SMITH: In case you have not seen "Tin Cup," that line is Kevin Costner defending a decision to take an impossibly difficult golf shot that he then missed.

ROMER: Like, you watched a movie where a guy said a crazy thing, did it and failed. And then you're like, that's how I want to live my life.


SMITH: So Jamie Sadler defines the moment.


CAREY: I really hope you get it. You're locked in between 23 and 33 percent. Let's - let's see it, man. For a million bucks, let's see what America said.

SADLER: Oh, my god.

ROMER: The audience is going nuts. The little ball graphic is rolling up and down - (making sounds). And then...


CAREY: You won a million bucks.

ROMER: This kid, this 19-year-old, just won a million dollars.

SMITH: And he is just one question away from $10 million.

ROMER: Vin, the producer, he's doing a little math in his head. Three or four million dollar prize budget - $10 million top prize. Vin is looking right into the eye of this very basic truth about his new show.

RUBINO: You could potentially give away a lot of money. There was really no way to control winning.

SMITH: Now, the fact that Jamie could win $10 million, maybe that wouldn't matter that much in the long run. If you have a game show with a $10 million top prize and it runs for 20 years, somewhere in there you're probably going to give away $10 million. But the idea is to spread that really tiny but really expensive risk out over a lot of episodes.

ROMER: This is basically how the insurance business works. Geico or whatever company, they just insure a whole bunch of drivers, and most of them do not, in fact, drive their car into the wall. And when one guy does drive his car into a wall, they've taken enough money in from everybody else to pay that guy off, and they still come out ahead.

SMITH: But - but, if you run a game show and your very first contestant wins $10 million, you are not going to have a chance to run your show for 20 years.

ROMER: After Jamie wins the million dollars, Vin walks out onto the stage. He's got the show's lawyers with him to make sure he doesn't say anything stupid. Vin is just supposed to make sure the kid understands the rules.

RUBINO: Every bit of my producer brain was going, go out there and tell this kid, you're a nut. Do not go for this. You're crazy for doing this. But I couldn't say that.

SMITH: So here's how the $10 million question works. From within his 10 percent range - 23 to 33 percent - this kid, Jamie, has to choose on the nose what exact percentage of women actually said they were feminists. If he's off by even 1 percent, he loses and ends up with just $100,000.

ROMER: There's really no way anyone can know what that number is exactly, but Jamie has a 1-in-11 chance of just guessing it randomly. And if he does do that, he'll go from $1 million to $10 million.

RUBINO: When the final question for $10 million is a roll of the dice, that's pretty scary.

SADLER: At that point in my life, it was, you know a hundred thousand dollars, a million dollars, a billion - like, everything was just a - it was just a number. It wasn't - it wasn't, like, something that I could truly appreciate.

RUBINO: This is a cowboy. He had nothing to lose. If he goes for it and gets it, I'm going to be walking home because I'll be out of a job.

ROMER: This being a game show, they really stretch out this final decision. Vin's over there sweating on the sidelines. Jamie's on stage hamming it up. Finally, Jamie says...


SADLER: I'm done. I'm done. I've had enough.

CAREY: You won a million dollars, Jamie.

ROMER: ...I'm out. I'm going to walk away with a million dollars. For the show's producers, this is a huge relief, but also a warning. This "Power Of 10" thing, this thing was a time bomb. The show did have an insurance policy. They weren't going to have to sell the CBS building or anything if somebody won $10 million, but they weren't going to be able to make a profit either.

SMITH: The "Power Of 10" ran for just 17 more episodes, and that was it. It lasted just one season.

RUBINO: "Power Of 10" was a great idea at its core, but there were some flaws to it that, ultimately, those financial flaws can really shut something down.

SMITH: A game show is supposed to look risky. It's not actually supposed to be risky.

ROMER: Stacey, for this show, we had this big-shot game show producer come into the studio. And Vin didn't just work for "Power Of 10." He worked for "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," the show that I essentially lost $40,000 on that I could've had. And I think about this a lot. And I've - I - he has seen all of these contestants come in and make whatever choices they're going to make. And I wanted to ask him, like, did I make the right call?

What should I have done?

RUBINO: How old were you at the time?

ROMER: Thirty-something - no kids.

RUBINO: No kids?

ROMER: Married, but no kids.

RUBINO: Married, no kids?

ROMER: Yeah.

RUBINO: Take your money and run. You got to weigh out where you are in your life. That's why I asked how old you were. Don't worry about it. You did the right thing.

ROMER: This is like therapy.

SMITH: I feel - I was going to say, it feels like a therapy session.

ROMER: And like a therapy session, during the session, I felt great, like I had solved all of my problems. And then, the next day comes around. And you know what? I still feel bad about it.

SMITH: (Laughter). I'm sorry.


FREDERIC AUGER: (Singing) I'll never get away from this nice place. Keep on making jokes with our girlfriends. You ever think you'll...

SMITH: We always love to hear what you think of the show. Send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org - or find us on Facebook.

ROMER: Special thanks today to Leigh (ph) and Ron Priby (ph) and also to the two people who accompanied me to my taping of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," my lovely wife, Mallory, and the inimitable David Kestenbaum. Our show today was produced by Nick Fountain. Thank you, Nick.

SMITH: And if you're looking for another podcast to listen to, check out the NPR Politics Podcast. They break everything down. They're great. The candidates, the vice presidential candidates, the polls, everything you want to know - they've got it there. Check it out at npr.org/podcasts or listen to it on NPR One. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

ROMER: And I'm Keith Romer. Thanks for listening.

SMITH: (Unintelligible) Chewbacca.

ROMER: (Unintelligible) Jedi mind trick.

SMITH: That's killer. Your Jabba is better than my Jabba.

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