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HOWARD ROSENBERG

TELEVISION : A 'Masterpiece' It Isn't : PBS' New Quiz Show Doesn't Look Too Different From Brand X

October 10, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Here is the latest quiz-show scandal.

Question: Which television programming chief--in rejecting the distinctive global-affairs series "Rights & Wrongs" for her network this year--called human rights "an insufficient organizing principle" for a prime-time series?

Answer: Jennifer Lawson, executive vice president of national programming and promotional services for PBS.

Now the $64,000 question: Which network now has a prime-time quiz show?

Answer: PBS.

In other words, PBS--whose mandate is to do serious, innovative programming in the public interest--believes that a quiz show with prizes, a glib host and all the other formulaic aspects of this antique genre is a sufficient "organizing principle" for a prime-time series.

The evidence is tonight's prime-time arrival (following the shallow, sound bite-driven, MTV-style premiere of "Future Quest," a series merging pop culture and science) of the PBS half-hour "Think Twice."

Announcer: "With the host of our show, a man who will make everyone think twice, Monteria Ivey."

Applause.

Ivey: "Thank you, thank you. . . ."

Subject to the whims of Congress because of its ongoing money problems, PBS survives by tiptoeing through minefields. It's nearly always in someone's cross hairs--if not liberals claiming that it's too conservative, then conservatives charging that it's too liberal.

Presently, no one can accuse it of being too unique.

In part because of the options offered by cable's broadening multichannel smorgasbord, the gap between PBS and the rest of TV has been narrowing for years. Yet PBS itself appears a willing collaborator in this process at times, and the emergence of "Think Twice" may signal an especially defining moment.

As if game-show maven Merv Griffin himself were pulling PBS strings, now comes the kind of program that has epitomized routine commercial fare for decades. And notably, "Think Twice" is from WGBH of all places, the prestigious Boston station that presents "Masterpiece Theatre."

PBS has previously used game-show formats as an educational bridge within its science series, "Nova." Yet "Think Twice" is nothing more than public TV flat-out aping Brand X.

Will public stations now entice contributors during their droning pledge drives by boasting about "Think Twice," whose creative team's pedigree includes "The $64,000 Question," "Sale of the Century," "Hollywood Squares," "Wheel of Fortune," "Bumper Stumpers," "Let's Make a Deal," "Queen for a Day," "Concentration," "The $25,000 Pyramid," "Match Game," "Press Your Luck," "Card Sharks," "Name That Tune," "The Joker's Wild" and "Truth or Consequences"?

Advertised as being brainier than other game shows, "Think Twice" is only moderately challenging. Being dry and convoluted are all that separate it from its commercial siblings.

The game is split into information, imagination, intuition and bonus rounds, with Ivey--listed in his bio as a stand-up comic--reading questions to two teams of contestants standing behind panels equipped with buzzers.

How interchangeable is "Think Twice" with other game shows? This interchangeable:

Ivey to Chris, the announcer: "What do we have for our winners tonight?"

Chris: "Monteria, our winners will receive a mini-audio system from Kenwood with seven-disc CD changer dual cassette deck and FM/AM tuner, and a $500 gift certificate from Borders, where you can choose from over 150,000 book and music titles."

Plus, the bonus round gives each winner a shot at a $2,500 investment in a mutual fund, and losers are sent away with $500 in computer software products and a $250 gift certificate for Signals, a catalogue "for fans of public television."

One team tonight is former '60s flower children Demita and Sherman. Opposing them are Josh and Wesley, who look like Young Republicans. All listen intently to Ivey: "Every question will have two parts. Buzz in when you think you have the correct answer, but only answer half of the question, because your partner must answer the other half. Every question will be worth 10 points. Everybody ready?" Ready.

Ivey: "Their names differ by one letter. One is the highest mountain in Turkey. The other is the highest official in the PLO. Name them."

Buzz.

Sherman: "Ararat."

Ivey: "Which is the mountain. The PLO leader?"

Demita: "Arafat."

Ivey: "Which is correct, and you get the first 10 points of the game."

Not that a single game show transforms all of PBS into "Hollywood Squares." When it comes to drama on PBS, the British-made "Prime Suspect" serials have been the equal of anything on the small screen. PBS still has the sanest, most thoughtful nightly newscast on TV in "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," and the two best documentary series in "Frontline" and "P.O.V."

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