Game shows: our universal language

March 12, 2000|By colorado springs gazette

ANSWER: A truly global phenomenon. QUESTION: What are game shows?

Ding!

The United States may have originated such heavy-hitters as "The Price is Right" and "Wheel of Fortune," but societies around the world are crazy for contests of knowledge, skill, strength and, of course, luck.

Ohio University journalism professor Anne Cooper-Chen studied game shows in 50 countries for her 1994 book "Games in the Global Village," and found them to be universally accessible forms of entertainment -- requiring only studios, hosts and contestants.

"The smallest countries in the world can still have game shows," she says.

Her research turned up four distinct game-show cultures. In the western division (United States, Europe and Australia), Cooper-Chen found male hosts, civilian contestants, fast-moving games and a high level of viewer participation. "In the west, the person at home can almost vicariously be in the studio," she says.

Latin game shows in Mexico and Brazil are more about physical competitions, i.e.: running up a greased slide to grab money, trying to catch money blowing around in a booth. The audience members are just spectators -- they can't play along.

Africa and the Middle East have educational, "Quiz Kids"--type shows with schools competing for trophies or scholarship money. It's more about honor than prizes.

East Asian game shows have male and female hosts with mainly celebrity contestants. Expensive travel-theme games are popular here, with one host in the studio and another on location in Paris, for example, asking questions about the Eiffel Tower or a French occupation.

The most bizarre game show Cooper-Chen saw was a sweating contest on the Japanese show "TV Champion." Three men in swimsuits sat on buckets in a heated glass booth, eating hot noodles. The object: to see who could emit the most sweat into the bucket. They even took their swim suits off behind a curtain to wring every last drop of sweat into the bucket.

"In Japan, winning isn't really the big thing," Cooper-Chen says; it's more about having the strength to persevere. Latin game shows put importance on winning big money; in western competitions, it's more about fame.

At the end of her study, which took nine years to turn into a book, Cooper-Chen realized how strongly culture influenced a seemingly universal form of entertainment.

"We could have the same shows everywhere in the world, but we don't," she says. "The technology is there, but the culture is stronger.

"Would you like to see someone sitting there sweating?"

While a few new American game shows originated in other countries ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Winning Lines" came from England; coming next summer are "Survivor" from Sweden, and "Big Brother" from the Netherlands), the United States is the industry's main exporter.

"The rest of the world is following right along and emulating us," says Morris Holbrook, Columbia University professor and author of "Daytime Television Game Shows and the Celebration of Merchandise: The Price is Right."

"Nobody wants to buy our automobiles or our steel, but everybody wants to buy our pop culture."

Pub Date: 03/12/00

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