Personable show ... Grant Denyer on Million Dollar Minute.
Who decided that game shows should be the gateway to our weekday evening? For some people a jolly, upbeat man in a shiny suit, the pressure to answer questions correctly and exhortations to earn more money could sound suspiciously like a repeat of the stressful work day they've just finished.
Nonetheless, the game show has become the weapon of choice for duelling commercial networks, with the latest clash at 5.30pm neatly summing up the genre's strengths and weaknesses. Channel Seven has introduced Million Dollar Minute to take on Channel Nine's carryover champion, Hot Seat.
Master ... Eddie McGuire's Hot Seat still sizzles.
Million Dollar Minute won the ratings battle on the opening night, with a metropolitan audience of 811,000 to Hot Seat's 674,000, although you can't reach a verdict before initial curiosity settles and viewers decide on their habitual choice. Still, it's a tonic for Channel Seven, which had to move former star performer Deal or No Deal to 5pm after it was solidly beaten by Hot Seat in Sydney and Melbourne, impacting on the crucial news and current affairs battle beginning at 6pm.
While host Grant Denyer has the perkiest patter going, Million Dollar Minute is still very much a work-in-progress. Developed by Channel Seven, as opposed to bringing in a successful format from overseas, it makes more than a few nods to the local gold standard Sale of the Century, which lasted for two decades until 2001 and was later revived as Temptation. There are three contestants buzzing in to answer questions, but they start with 15 points, not 20 – so that's obviously a crucial distinction.
It would actually take a contestant eight victorious nights to win $1 million, but the titular 60 seconds occurs at the end of each episode, when the winner has to answer five multiple choices and then wait through a commercial break (and news headline plug) before learning if they were correct. It's an ungainly stretch and for all of Denyer's breeziness the show is unevenly paced. A large but empty studio doesn't help, either.
Game shows are somehow meant to be ruthlessly paced but utterly personable. They do this by reducing each contestant to a simple sentence that might alarm the insecure. If you're “a radiologist and a hula hoop champ”, then that's your life in seven words, and you'd better be prepared to back that up with some quick sound bites.
Denyer has a knack for this, but Eddie McGuire on Hot Seat may well be the master. The show – which has some of the cheapest sounding theme music going but an actual live audience – allows the host to riff a little, safe in the knowledge that his common touch will get something good even from an entrant who is bizarrely described as being “in KFC when it was robbed by thieves”.
Hot Seat rotates half a dozen contestants through McGuire's queries, although the great danger is the hopeful who jokingly explains why they're rejecting some of the multiple choice answers. This can get tiring very quickly and should be saved for the comics on celebrity week when the ratings need a touch up.
It's not clear if audiences at home want to be impressed by the ability of the contestants or if they want to be vindicated by answering correctly at home themselves. But both game shows at 5.30pm are now firmly part of the knowledge wing, as opposed to the luck that essentially underpins the banished Deal or No Deal, where the main skill required is the ability to cross your wrists and howl “no deal!”.
The Channel Seven series, which has accumulated more than 2000 episodes since July 2003, is an old-fashioned game show in many ways. It still has female models strutting around the stage, giant cardboard cheques and a host with an entertainer's spark. Is Andrew O'Keefe this excited about everything? Meeting a butcher sends him into paroxysms of punning and he soundtracks the elimination of various sealed cases with a hearty “good on ya” and a purring “oh yeah”. He's a car that only runs in top gear. Still, he's suited to the slot's requirements.
Given the content of the news bulletins that will follow it, the game show is a moment of inoculation against the real world's often tragic events. Most game shows don't last, but even on the short-lived and the doomed there are smiles all around until the very end. Happiness, it appears, can be bought.