I watched “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” thinking I’d see yet another indication of the decay of values in America. Not so; I was drawn in, answering multiple choice questions — the kind I liked when I took tests in school. You have at least a 25% chance of answering correctly whether you know it or not. And you can usually eliminate one or two answers.
It wasn’t long before I noticed the lack of racial, ethnic and even gender diversity among the contestants on millionaire. Most of them were young, white males — no people of color.
Regis Philbin said, “Everyone out there who has thought about being on the show who isn’t a white male, dial that 800 number.” Strange. I learned about the show’s selection process, which on the surface seems to present a level playing field, an equal opportunity to qualify. But if we dig down a little we find it is in fact tilted in favor of all those young white males.
Potential contestants are asked a question requiring them to put four answers in their correct order in 10 seconds. About 6% succeed. There’s a random drawing from that pool and those who move up are asked five multiple-choice questions by phone. The fastest are invited to the show. Then, once on the show, ten contestants are presented with a question that requires putting four answers in correct order in the shortest time.
All of this seems fair, but there’s a growing body of research on various kinds of standard tests that shows that responding to quick re-call, multiple-choice items with the clock ticking is a skill in which men excel. One study says, ‘brash young men in particular’ excel at this.
In addition to this less-than-level field, many of the questions are culture-laden, tilted toward upper middle class white males.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” helped us to become more sensitive to the testing issue? It’s not a matter of wanting to be a millionaire — it’s a matter of wanting a fair shake, a portion of the pie, an opportunity to share in the American Dream. It’s about justice and hope. It’s about complex issues that have been knocking on the door for a long time. There’s a lot more to this game show worth noticing.
For example, the contestants are given three so-called life lines: a chance to ask the audience what they believe to be the correct answer (they’re always right!); the elimination of two incorrect answers; and a telephone call to a family member or friend of their choice. Think about it: they’re demonstrating our need for help, our need for this thing we call community. The show is less about money than it is about community and support.
The millionaire show isn’t about money as much as it is about the identification we feel with the person sitting across from Regis — we become contestants. The show is a reminder of the central reason we are here, together, in this covenanted community: to help one another!
Would you be willing to be a life line? Consider the work of our Care Committee. On back of this letter is a form to make it easy for you to sign on. You have more than ten seconds to answer correctly. Think about it. Now is that your final answer?