There is a beautifully written story over at Esquire about how a small group of people bested the longest-running game show in television history, The Price Is Right. In nearly four decades, no one had ever guessed with pinpoint accuracy the prices of the prizes in the “Showcase Showdown.” But a man named Terry Kniess did just that, cleverly exploiting a flaw in the game to win big.
I have long had a special place in my heart for The Price Is Right. After making a trip to the show myself, I wrote about the experience, arguing that the program is “a truly American game show: the perfect blend of capitalism and democracy.”
Capitalism, because the program challenges contestants to price a range of marvelous prizes–commodities described lovingly in the course of the game. In functioning as an hour-long advertisement, the show pleases its sponsors. But at the same time, as a game show celebrating the consumerist endeavor, it out styles rival programs that merely award cash to the players. Cash prizes are practical, but stuff is more exciting. By offering correctly priced items as prizes, The Price is Right at once basks in the dual joys of winning money and spending it.
Democracy, because the audience has the
ability to participate in the proceedings. People not only yell out answers to the contestants, they aspire to become contestants themselves. While other studios must pay scouts to draw tourists off the streets of Hollywood to watch filmings, CBS never struggles with The Price is Right. The idea that any lucky audience member could be named in the call to “Come on down!” keeps the studio filled.
Anyone can potentially emerge from the crowd and work him or herself into minor celebrity, not by humiliating themselves with embarrassing revelations (a la Jerry Springer), but by exhibiting the savoir-faire of a smart shopper–knowing the prices, the comparisons, the bargains. This is a knowledge fundamentally different from Quiz Show triviality. It is a practical intelligence. At its core, it derives from the humble shared experience of buying toiletries and dog foods, and of coveting a catalogue’s higher-end items.
For most players, there’s plenty of luck involved in the game. However, the Esquire article relates how Terry Kniess and a small group of other masters cracked the code of The Price Is Right. Having worked in casino surveillance and attuned himself to the patterns that professional cheats use to get the best of weak dealers at the card tables, Kniess turned his talents to figuring out the television game show. Along with his wife, Linda, he discovered a critical flaw that they could use to their advantage:
In The Price Is Right’s greatest strength, he and Linda also found its greatest weakness: It had survived all those years because it seemed never to change. Even when Drew Carey replaced Bob Barker–the show’s own version of Vatican II–he rocked a similar skinny microphone. Behind all the screaming and seeming chaos, there was a precise and nostalgic order. Terry says he first sat upright in bed when a distinctive grill called the Big Green Egg came up for bid again and again. It was always $1,175…. [Terry and Linda Kniess] saw that virtually every prize on The Price Is Right, from a pack of gum to the flashiest car, repeated.
A select few other aficionados also detected this flaw. Memorizing the static prices in the show’s finite catalog of prize items, they were able to make their bids on the show with fearsome accuracy.
Obviously, this was a big problem for Price Is Right executives. I thought one of the most interesting parts of the article was the discussion of how producers control the show’s prize budget and craftily manipulate game-play to make sure their payouts never get too big:
The Price Is Right pays out of pocket for most of the prizes that it gives away, and the prize budget is fixed. If it’s been giving away too many cars especially, it’ll pull out some of the harder pricing games, Range Game or That’s Too Much, to balance the books. They’re not rigged, but they rely on the natural tendency of most contestants to guess somewhere in the middle. In the first instance, contestants almost always stop the game too early; in the second, they almost always stop it too late. The further the producers push the prices toward the extremes of possibility, the less likely someone will win. On [the morning that Terry Kniess took the stage], however–no matter the game, prize, or price–everybody was winning. The show was getting rolled.
Producers watching the game felt their stomachs sink as Terry played. They thought that they might lose their jobs, or that the show might be shut down altogether. Not a good day at the office for them.
Nevertheless, reading the story, I was definitely rooting for the gamers, some of whom took on a Robin Hood-like ethic and helped others to win. It’s fun to see them come out on top. Still, their role gets more problematic if you think about it within the extended metaphor I proposed earlier. If we consider The Price is Right as a representation of America’s capitalist democracy, how would these too-expert players fit in?
I’d argue that the game-crackers are good stand-ins for our Wall Street bankers and hedge fund “quants.” They succeeded not by exhibiting the virtues the system is supposed to reflect, but rather by cleverly exploiting anomalies. These casino-savvy technicians made out extremely well for themselves; they did not, however, perform any labors that could be called socially productive. And in the process of enriching themselves, they threw the system into a crisis.
You can only take the parallel so far. But I think there’s a point to be made here: all this is fine when we’re talking about televised fun and games. But when it comes to the real material needs, hopes, and aspirations of a society, it’s another story. While I tip my hat to Terry and Linda Kniess, masters of The Price Is Right, it’s hard to imagine that a form of casino capitalism that rewards those who can most cunningly game the system is really in the best service of democracy.