Risking or Folding: Why Staying Alert on a Game Show is Crucial

Katie Vasbinder, a former licensed architect turned artist who lives in North Dakota, is seen as a contestant on the Netflix game show Awake, which aired for 8 episodes in June 2019.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the million-dollar game show boom began to affect America. During this time, network game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Greed, and Twenty-One became staples of primetime American television; a total of twelve contestants, all males, won at least $1,000,000 or more on all three of those shows between November 1999 and the week before the September 11 attacks in 2001. They brought in a new twist on the game show genre, where one contestant or a team of contestants faced a series of questions that they had to answer correctly; an incorrect answer on a single question results in the game ending prematurely and the contestant leaving with nothing or the value of the last “safe haven” question that was correctly answered. Contestants were free to withdraw from the game and keep any money they won after answering the previous question correctly. That twist would later be taken to numerous extremes with the success of Millionaire, which would be the highest-rated program on American television in the 1999–2000 season. All three of the extremes that are described play a factor in how the 2019 Netflix game show Awake was developed; the three concepts that are listed were initially used on five primetime game shows that premiered between 2002 and 2010, two of which never aired in America.

Imagine how it would be like for a contestant to participate in a game show where they had to remain alert at all times. This was a small factor in game shows like Cram and Russian Roulette, which both aired on GSN for two seasons between early 2002 and mid-2003. Both of those game shows offered a top prize of $10,000 and had mindful trivia questions and challenges which were required to be answered within a short period of time. Despite the somewhat similar mechanics shared by both game shows, the bonus rounds of both game shows differed very greatly from each other. The bonus round of the former involved the winning two-person team of the main game listening to a story while sleeping for a few minutes; when the alarm clock rang, the contestants woke up from their slumber and had to run to an obstacle that they had to step onto. The team then had 60 seconds to answer five rapid-fire questions about the story, with the question being repeated each time a team member removed one foot from the obstacle. In the latter show, the lone remaining contestant had 60 seconds to answer five (later 10) brain-teaser questions, with one drop zone opening every 10 seconds; the contestant was automatically disqualified and was dropped if a single wrong answer was given, but gained the opportunity to play a final bonus game for $100,000 if all questions were answered correctly. In the final bonus game of that show, the contestant had to pull the handle next to them and wait until the red lights stop; if a red light does not encounter the contestant’s drop zone, he or she wins the top prize of $100,000 (a red light encountering the contestant’s drop zone results in the contestant being dropped with only the winnings obtained in the main game).

The “staying alert” element became more prominent in the John McEnroe-hosted game show The Chair, which aired on ABC for nine episodes between January and March 2002; four of the show’s episodes aired opposite NBC’s coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which were held in Salt Lake City and were the last Winter Olympics to be held in the United States. In this game show, one contestant is strapped to a chair which rises up onto the stage and tilts backwards to face the host, who is shown on a television screen above the host’s viewing platform. The contestant was strapped to a heart rate monitor, which told the contestant’s current heart rate. The maximum permissible heart rate was initially set at between 60% and 70% of the contestant’s resting heart rate that was calculated before the show, and reduced by 5% after every correct question. Once a contestant’s heart rate exceeded the maximum permissible heart rate, he or she was penalized between $100 and $1,000 for every second above that rate until running out of money and could not answer the question until the heart rate goes exactly one beat below that level; a contestant could therefore lose all of his or her money in as much as 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The contestant faced seven questions, which added between $5,000 and $100,000 to the contestant’s score, which had an initial value of $5,000; the maximum top prize in the game was $250,000, which was obtained by answering all seven questions correctly and not having the heart rate exceed the maximum permissible value. There was a major twist, though: the contestant was subjected to two special events that took place that took place after the second and fifth questions of the game. Those time-limited events exhibited the contestant to a series of special encounters, and required contestants to be alert at all times. Hanging on in these events without reaching the maximum permissible heart rate results in the event ending; if the maximum permissible rate is breached, the event continues (with the monetary penalty still applied) until the heart rate goes below that value. Doing any disallowed action during a question or an episodic event (which includes a contestant closing his or her eyes) results in a violation of the countermeasure rule; three violations resulted in the contestant ‘s disqualification from the game. The Chair and its sister counterpart The Chamber were the first game shows in the 21st century where contestants had the opportunity to withdraw due to medical issues during gameplay. Two contestants were able to answer all seven questions correctly and walk away with more than $200,000 in their bank, but only of those contestants was able to claim the entire $250,000 jackpot.

Many vocabulary words, including “bluff” and “fold”, are borrowed from the casino card game known as “Texas Hold ‘Em”, which is the main variant of the game known as poker. The most prominent poker tournament in the world is the World Series of Poker, which began in 1970. Over the years, the prize for winning the tournament grew from $30,000 at its inception to a shocking $10,000,000 for the 2019 edition. The $10,000,000 value had been used as a top prize on game show twice in history: Super Millionaire between February and May 2004, and Power of 10 between the summer of 2007 and early 2008. On both of those shows, the maximum amount of money a contestant won was $1,000,000. But the use of poker-related terms does not remain exclusive to poker programs; it has been expanded to cover two game shows, both of which involve different rules: PokerFace (which aired in 2006) and Duel (which ran from December 2007 to July 2008).

PokerFace, as it is implied in the title, involves six contestants competing to answer three-choice trivia questions in five rounds for a top prize of £50,000, with one contestant getting eliminated after each round. Eight questions were asked in round one, and five questions were asked in the four rounds afterwards. Contestants had five seconds to lock in their responses to each question, and at the end of the round, the contestants themselves are secretly shown the amount of questions that they answered correctly. After a short discussion, the contestants remaining in the game stand next to individual podiums containing one buzzer button each. A 10-second countdown is triggered, and the first contestant to push his or her button during that timeframe leaves with whatever money he or she has. If no one presses the button within 10 seconds, the buttons are deactivated and the contestant with the fewest correct answers (or the slowest time to answer correctly) is eliminated with no winnings. This process repeats until one contestant remains; the last contestant standing has his or her winnings increased to £50,000. However, each season of PokerFace has a total of seven episodes; the winners of each of the first six episodes play again for £1,000,000, but must put their total winnings at risk. A total of 14 episodes of the show aired for two seasons on ITV between July 2006 and March 2007, with two contestants winning the million pound jackpot. The only North American country where the show aired was in Mexico; the Mexican version, known as Doble Cara, ran from 2008 to 2016 on TV Azteca, making it the longest-running and most successful version of the PokerFace franchise.

The first season of Duel ran on ABC for a total of six episodes during the week of December 17, 2007. A total of 24 contestants participated in the tournament; two contestants at a time faced off against each other in a series of trivia questions with four possible answers each, and both contestants stood at a podium with a movable barrier that can be raised or lowered at any time (the barrier is raised before each question). Each contestant received 10 poker chips prior to each match; once a question and four possible answers are read, a contestant can place as many as four chips (one per answer) on the panels marking the answer choices on his or her side of the podium. There were also two buttons on each side of the podium: a green button for locking in the responses and a red button for using a special element to force the other contestant to respond within a seven-second timeframe (if the other contestant doesn’t respond in that situation his or her answers are locked in automatically). Once both contestants have answered the question, the barrier is lowered so that the contestants’ responses are compared, and then the correct answer was revealed; contestants keep a poker chip that is placed on a correct answer and lose a poker chip that is placed on a wrong answer. If both contestants answered a question correctly, the process is repeated until only one contestant has a correct answer, which thus marks the end of the match. If neither contestant provided a correct answer to a question or if there was still no winner after both contestants answered ten questions correctly, a tiebreaker question was played with each contestant receiving four chips; the tiebreaker question contained a rule where if both contestants answered correctly, one contestant had to provide one fewer response than the other. If the latter condition was not satisfied, the procedure was repeated again until there was a winner; if no one answered the tiebreaker question correctly, both contestants were disqualified. Throughout the tournament, each chip that was lost to an incorrect answer was removed from play and the jackpot (which began at $20,000) increased by $5,000 for each chip that was removed. The four contestants who won the most matches advanced to the final round of the tournament, which was held on the sixth episode. The two winners of the semifinal matches faced off against each other in the final, where the winner of the final received the jackpot plus all accumulated winnings from previous matches. The final jackpot total was $1,720,000. Despite the popularity, the tournament format was not brought back for the show’s second season, which had a top prize of $500,000 for winning five consecutive matches. In the second season, contestants lost everything for losing their second or third match, and had their winnings halved for losing their fourth or fifth match. One contestant won the $500,000 jackpot in the first five episodes of the second season; the latter half of that season saw a contestant winning his first four matches but losing the fifth one.

While it may seem quite strange for household items to be used on a game show, household items are a key component. The Price Is Right, Supermarket Sweep, and Let’s Make a Deal all had pricing games and challenges that involved prices of household items, but they were small components of the shows themselves. Before the million-dollar game show boom that began in 1999, household items were sometimes used as joke prizes for losing contestants. This all changed after 2008, when two game shows premiered within a short amount of time that involved challenges with household items and strategy: The Cube and Minute to Win It. Both shows share many similarities with each other but have few differences.

The Cube aired on ITV from 2009 to 2015 and involved contestants competing in a series of seven difficult memory and physical challenges to win a maximum top prize of £250,000. Each contestant gets nine attempts to complete a challenge; for each challenge that they fail to complete, they lose one attempt and must restart that particular challenge. All attempts that remain after each challenge is completed carry over to the following challenge, and each challenge gets tricker to complete as each contestant progresses through the game. After completing the £100,000 challenge, the contestant faces a much harder version of one of the first five challenges they already completed. The two methods of assistance are a “trial run” (where one contestant can try a challenge before deciding whether or not to attempt it) and a “simplify” (where the rules of the challenge are adjusted to make it easier for the contestant to complete it). Both forms of assistance are unusable on the seventh challenge, and using up all nine attempts causes the contestant to lose all of their winnings.

Minute to Win It aired for a total of three seasons: two on NBC from 2010–2012 and one on GSN from 2013–2014. A total of 10 challenges with everyday household items had to be completed, each of which must be completed within 60 seconds. Some challenges take the entire 60 second time limit or require a certain threshold to be reached in order for the contestant to advance to the next challenge. Not completing a challenge within 60 seconds or violating the rules of some challenges results in the contestant being assessed a strike; if the contestant gets three strikes, the game is over and the contestant leaves with a consolation prize. Like The Cube, some challenges require the contestant to use precision and accuracy skills. No one has ever completed all ten challenges in the history of the series’ run, but numerous contestants completed nine challenges and two teams won $500,000, which was added as a safe haven in the show’s second season. During the show’s first two seasons, the top prize was $1,000,000; the jackpot was reduced to $250,000 for the final season.

The elements that were featured in all five game shows that were mentioned began to be integrated with each other when the game show Awake premiered on Netflix on June 14, 2019. In the premise of the show, seven contestants have to count quarters within a 24 hour period without sleeping and then have to make guesses on how much money they have counted. This task is an example of one where the contestant has to “stay alert”; two contestants in one episode of the series had to withdraw for medical reasons because they were unable to stay alert as it is problematic for contestants with long-term health issues, who are more likely to experience issues related to sleep deprivation than others. After all quarters are counted within the 24 hour period, the contestant who counted the least amount of money and the contestant who was the least accurate in counting the money were eliminated from the game before the start of the game’s main phase.

The main phase of the game involves five contestants facing off against each other in a series of challenges that may involve household items or require the contestants to test their accuracy and precision skills. Health, precision and accuracy diminish spectacularly under sleep deprivation, and the challenges were designed so that a person who tested them was well-rested. All challenges have time limits, but in most cases, one contestant completes a challenge at a time. Once the time limit expires for some challenges or upon completion of the last contestant’s attempt at a challenge, the contestants gather at a series of individual podiums with buttons on them. The contestant who performed the best in a challenges advances to the next challenge. A buyout offer of an amount from $2,500 to $7,500 is presented to all remaining contestants, who then have 10 seconds to decide whether or not to push the button to take the offer and leave the game. If not one contestant pushes the button, the contestant who performed the worst on the preceding challenge is eliminated with no winnings, and then the results are compared to. This process continues until two contestants remain. After three challenges are completed, the remaining two contestants are presented with a final buyout offer of $10,000, with the same rules in play as what happens in the elimination process following the challenges.

The endgame of the show is tied into what happened when the contestants were counting their quarters. The contestant who survived all three challenges and the final elimination is then asked to tell the host the amount he or she though they counted in the 24-hour coin counting period. That amount is then compared with the actual amount of quarters the contestant counted. The endgame is done twice for each contestant; for each round, the contestant has the option of taking the money they have or risking it all; if the contestant’s guess is outside the correct range, he or she leaves with nothing. Accuracy is very important here, since the range decreases after the first round. In order for the contestant to win the total amount of money that was counted by all seven contestants (a maximum of $250,000), the contestant’s guess must be within exactly $500. If they manage to get their guess in that range, they are presented with a second decision: to take the money they have or to risk it all. This time, the contestant is playing for $1,000,000; in order to win that amount, the contestant’s guess must be within exactly $25. No one won the $1,000,000 prize on the show, but one contestant managed to risk all of his money after passing the first round and lost it all; in addition, another contestant took the total amount of money that was counted instead of risking it and was within the $25 range after it was revealed, missing out on the $1,000,000 top prize.

If anyone wants to realize how primetime million-dollar game shows have evolved since 1999, there is nothing short of how remarkable the format has shuffled since then. The million-dollar game show boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a response to a decline in game show popularity that began after Press Your Luck ended its original run in September 1986; the show’s end marked a decline in daytime gameshows that was supplanted by the premieres of the syndicated versions of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune earlier that decade. Although game shows remain a popular aspect of world television today, the future of game shows beyond this decade is reasonably grim because of the expected hyperinflation that will await the global population in the near future. Hyperinflation not only tends to produce higher top prizes for game shows, but also corresponds with an increase in a game show’s production costs; as a result, hyperinflation is going to make programs of the game show genre highly unprofitable to produce. The game show genre is about to slowly fade into the dustbin of history after failing to do so in the early 1990s, due in part to currencies collapsing and the increasing income inequality that will be affecting the entire Western world in the years to come. Awake is a prime example of one of the last new million dollar game shows to be developed for a television network or a streaming service primarily due to the aging of the college-educated population (something that was expected to happen after the 1980s) as well as declining television viewership following the 2009 digital television transition.