Free Ticket Thursday, Marchipelago 2, 41 A.B.

"Hey, we're the ones who ask 
the questions around here."

- Typical B-Movie Dialogue

     I've been thinking.  Again.  It's what I do.  I don't claim to be any good at it, but seems I've been doing it all my life, off and on.  Too old to stop now....
     They come out with a patch that might help me break this nasty habit, you be sure to let me know.

     TV quiz shows.  That's what I've been thinking about today.  I thought I'd thought all there was to think about 'em when I wrote this entry.  Turns out I was wrong....
     Blame Joseph P. Kahn, a writer for the New York Times News Service.  It was a reprint of an article of his which appeared in my newspaper on Feb. 13 that got me thinking again.  It was one of those kind of articles.  You know - an article I believe dames nowadays call "interesting."
     The basic point of Kahn's article was that quiz shows have changed a lot since the 1950s.  Back then, his theory goes, viewers at home no more expected to answer the questions themselves than today's viewers expect to sink a putt like Tiger Woods.  The point was just to sit and admire those who could answer the questions.  Seems Sputnik had made Americans feel stupid and unsure of themselves as they competed with the Soviets in the Cold War.  Seeing American geniuses excel at answering super-hard questions (like the one about English literature that had two-parts and 14 separate components) was somehow reassuring.
      Things have changed a little since then.
     A recent question on the biggest TV quiz show of our era asked: "What two colors do you find on an Oreo cookie?"

     This is not to say that things have necessarily changed for the worse.  The Cold War is over, and if we're not allowed to ponder a few cookies in celebration, well, what the heck were we competing for
     More interesting than whether things have changed for better or worse, however, is asking why have they changed?
     Seems it's all about ratings and money.  Maybe it always was, maybe not.  The simple fact is, that's the way it is today.  
     And viewers apparently want to feel as if it could be them up there, winning all that money for just knowing what they know. 
     And then there's that consolation prize.  You know the one I mean.
     Hooting at the fool who blows the question you knew the answer to.
     If the dialogue of Baywatch hasn't managed to make you feel superior in the ten years it's been on, watching a guy miss "What did Little Jack Horner pull out of a pie?" almost certainly will....

     Ok.  So everyone needs to feel superior now and then, and where they get that feeling from is none of my business.  At least they ain't paying kids to go play in traffic just so they can sit smugly in their homes secure in the knowledge that they would never dodge trucks for a mere 25 cents a week. 
     It's just that once Kahn got me to thinking, I couldn't stop.  My brain overshot the runway of his article and ended up plowing through a few thickets of thought it never expected to visit.
     Like how so many of the questions on quiz shows nowadays deal with pop culture.  The subliminal message is clear: Pop culture knowledge is important.  It separates the winners from the losers.  It can earn you a million dollars if you just know enough of it.
     Is it a coincidence that the networks which broadcast these quiz shows are owned by companies that produce so much of this pop culture?
     Are these really quiz shows at all or merely insidious commercials for the movies and music and celebrities they ask about?

     Ok, so not every question is about pop culture.  Even a show like "Jeopardy!" seems to ask more of these sorts of questions than it used to, but still - a lot of the knowledge it rewards its contestants for having has little to do with anything that could remotely be labeled pop.
     Does that mean "Jeopardy!" is off the hook?  Free and clear?  Mere harmless entertainment if not an outright educational experience?
     I used to think so.  But then - goodness help me - I started thinking some more....

     Kahn may have started me thinking, but my mind didn't really start overheating until I'd watched a couple fresh installments of "Jeopardy!" over a two-week period.
     Abigail Adams came up as a proper response twice.
     Now, I don't have anything against Mrs. Adams.  I've never met the woman, and I couldn't even tell ya what political party her husband was a big cheese in.  But I do know this:  If I sat down and made a list of all the things it's important for a person to know in this life, the name of the wife of the second U.S. president would be somewhere in the bottom millionth.
     So the real question became:  Why Abigail? 
     I'll be honest with you here: I don't know.  But I don't like the possibilities suggested by my imagination.
     Possibilities like "Maybe they're trying to reward people for stuffing their brains with useless trivia so that there won't be room for the important stuff.  Maybe they're trying to make sure that there's no room left in our heads for worrying about the health dangers of being a couch potato or eating the fatty food products or driving the dangerous cars that advertise on their show.  Maybe trivia has increasingly become the real non-denominational opiate of the people in an age of mass communications because it serves the interests of the powers that be.  Can't be worrying about the consequences of that AOL-Time Warner merger or that $7 million Bill Gates "earned" today if you're thinking about Abigail, can ya?  And it's all a bit like the AIDS virus, isn't it?  Baywatch is obvious in its intent and easily removed by our mental  immune systems when too much meaningless crap builds up in our brains, but Abigail - Abigail is knowledge.  Abigail infects the very organ charged with clearing out the meaningless crap!  Talk about a clever racket!"

     Ok, so maybe I'm overreacting.  Maybe I'm becoming like one of those poor hicks who sees a single black helicopter in the night and thinks the U.N. is taking over the country.
     I admit, I'm wrong more often than I'm right.
     And shows like "Jeopardy!" make that crystal clear every night.
     But haven't you ever wondered about the sorts of categories you never see on that show? 
     How come there's never a "Famous Atheists" category?
     How come I've never seen anything like "Corporate Welfare Cases"?
     Ok, so "Psychologists Who Think Question-And-Quick-Correct-Response Shows Condition People To Think And Act Within An Authoritarian Cognitive Framework While Stifling Individuality And Creativity" is a tad long and esoteric.  It's still better than seeing "First Ladies" come up one more time.
     Ain't it?
     Sure, it may clog the old noggin with wordy congestion for a spell, but it probably won't make me vomit....

     But I gotta go.
     Almost time for the evening TV news.
     You know - that's the program that conditions me to believe that the all-knowing, all-wise, and all-merciful Dan Rather has checked life out for me so I won't have to.
     And that the only knowledge worth knowing is that which can be captured with a TV camera or on film.
     And that conflict and other bad things are more important than peace and the millions of good things that happen every minute.

     Seems once an old guy like me starts thinking, it's very, very hard to stop.
     Maybe I'll flipped over to Mayberry tonight and see if Gomer is in his garage.
     He's always been only too happy to put new brakes on my mind....

Back... Back To A Time
Before There Were Questions



Forward To A Time When
Utter Forgetfulness Will Be
The Birthright Of Every Child
Of The Media

(All Material Previously Unseen Prior To The Start Of This Entry
©In Under 30 Seconds by Dan Birtcher, a married wannabe Jester from Lima, Ohio -
let's give him a nice round of applause!)