Paying the Price

April 24, 2008

Today in the USA it’s the first day of May Sweeps – a time when things in TV land get crazy as networks desperately bid for viewer’s eyeballs and recall.

Unlike our local system, US ratings are gathered in two ways – via people metres each evening and by analysing data entered into paper diaries that are distributed four times a year. For some reason, even as the US gallops toward phasing out analogue television, this dated method of recording viewing habits is given incredible kudos. So, when the diaries are sent out, every network pulls out its big guns so that when members of a household put pen to paper, its their logo or programs that come to mind. Even though those who get a ratings book are paid for their opinions, you can be certain that US$30 doesn’t change the fact that they’re filled out the night before they’re due for collection.

It’s the May Sweeps that have inspired the newest incarnation of the world’s longest running gameshow Price Is Right. In the primetime Million Dollar Spectacular version that will start appearing next Wednesday night at 8pm, Drew Carey presents games we know and love but offers huge payoffs for guessing the retail value of familiar items. In calculating the cost of running a gameshow and paying for cash or prize giveaways, production companies utilise the expertise of academic statisiticians. These masters of mathematics are brought in to assure everyone that big money will only ever be given away when the show can afford it. Variables like the difficulty of the game, the number of times it’s been played and the likelihood of choosing an intelligent contestant are all taken into account.

However, even with the best equations, anomolies occur. On paper, it shouldn’t have taken 5 years for the first Australian to fulfill the promise of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and certainly the boffins wouldn’t have foreseen this outcome.