January - February 2008
Mad over money

Game on–or off?

AN anxious contestant waits to see whether or not she has won the jackpot prize on Eat Bulaga. [photo courtesy of Eat Bulaga]

THE SCREAMING is constant, but no one seems to mind. In fact, the contestants are encouraged to scream round after round, as boxes containing thousands of pesos and big prizes light up. The screams, however, are the same thing over and over again: “Give me some money!!!”

When it debuted on GMA-7 last October, “Whammy” was an instant hit, shooting to the top spot in daytime ratings. The mechanics are simple: three contestants take turns at a sort of digital roulette, yelling “go” or “stop” whenever they please. The idea is to pick up as much cash and prizes as possible, while avoiding getting the dreaded red demon known as the “Whammy.”

The hapless are slimed and lose all their money, while the one with the most cash at the end of the show gets to keep his or her pile as confetti rains down and the hosts scream in jubilation. Yet while it’s entertaining to see contestants slimed, “Whammy,” as the old song goes, is all about the money. And it’s not the only TV show in town with that kind of come-on.

Cash draws people, most of whom dream of getting as much of it as possible. But while cash prizes have always been a game-show staple, it used to be that contestants needed to have some modicum of skill, talent, or intelligence to have a shot at them. By contrast, the more popular game shows today ask only that contestants have a great desire to get their hands on lots of money — fast.

Clinical pychologist Dr. Violeta ‘Doc Bolet’ Villaroman-Bautista says that it takes a certain kind of personality to be lured by get-rich-quick schemes like those offered by some game shows. ““The people who go for these activities also are risk-takers, venturesome people, I would think,” she says. “Some(one) looking for some new experience.”

But most of today’s game show contestants are also poor. Jenny Ferre, the creative head of GMA-7’s popular noontime show “Eat Bulaga” — which devotes considerable airtime to palaro (games) — estimates that 90 percent of their contestants belong to the D and E classes.

Luis Teodoro, deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, meanwhile notes that the hope of getting something for little effort is universal. He adds, though, “The Filipino work ethic is not very strong so there’s a great deal of reliance on luck, connections, and the divine.”

Teodoro says that game shows and other forms of gambling seem to tap into this aspect of Filipino culture, even as they reinforce it. Ferre, who is actually the vice president of the production and creative departments of Tape (Television and Production Exponents) Inc., which produces “Eat Bulaga,” also admits that game shows can encourage a get-rich-quick mentality. “Parang isang ikot lang ng roleta, milyonaryo ka na (It’s like with a single spin of the roulette wheel, you become a millionaire),” she says.

FOR SURE, the lotto operates much the same way, and the long lines that form in front of lotto ticket sellers on particular days of the week attest to its popularity. The odds of winning in lotto are extremely small — about 1/13,983,896 for each number to be drawn in 6/49 Super Lotto — but people buy tickets anyway, each of them hoping to parlay his or her P20 into at least a few hundred bucks or perhaps even the jackpot prize that could reach millions of pesos. Just recently four lucky winners split the P133-million jackpot. The winners included a Quezon City couple who showed up to claim their share with close to a barangay of well-wishers.

MANY dream of an easy million, but only a lucky few will win. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Driver Dexter Dequilla, 32, says he has been buying lotto tickets for eight years. He has won once, in 2005, and his P10 ticket became P4,000. The price of the ticket has since doubled, but Dequilla hasn’t stopped hoping he’d have another lucky turn (although he now buys lotto tickets three times a week instead of every day).

“All games of chance are oriented toward baka sakali (a maybe),” says sociology professor Dr. Manuel Bonifacio. He points out that part of their popularity comes from the limited job opportunities in the country. These opportunities, he says, are in turn dependent on the educational attainment (and sometimes the alma mater) of would-be employees. One of the prerequisites for being a call-center agent, for example, is a flawless American accent. For those who lack enough education or twang to land a decent job, says Bonifacio, games of chance “provide the one opportunity to earn or collect P100 million.”

The government-run lotto, however, justifies its existence largely by saying its proceeds go to charities. TV game shows certainly cannot say the same thing. And in the noontime shows that have been practically taken over by all kinds of palaro, money is being made for the program’s producers even as it is being given away. In these shows, most of their sponsors do not only place ads, but are also allotted space on the stage for their banners and have their names said aloud several times by the program hosts.

Still, Ferre insists, “If you talk about formula…it’s fun and prizes, it’s basically the same.” What has changed, she says, is what defines the fun and the prizes.

But there’s the rub; in the old noontime shows, for example, much of the fun was provided by professional entertainers who sang and danced or put on skits. The few contests the programs had usually showcased a particular skill or talent — say singing or debating — and people clapped when participants were finally rewarded their well-deserved prizes. Ferre herself recalls watching IQ-7, a quiz show that was part of GMA-7’s “Student Canteen” in the ‘80s, in which contestants “really used their brains.”

These days, the fun seems to be derived mostly from the thrill of watching contestants snag significant amounts of cash with little trouble. The prize is no longer dependent on what one can do or knows, but on how big a pile one wants to bring home. Teodoro, in fact, observes that the prizes have slowly become the principal attraction on game shows.

AMONG ABS-CBN’s top-rating game shows are Wowowee and Kapamilya Deal or No Deal. [photo courtesy of ABS-CBN]

And the prize have only gotten bigger and bigger. A few game-show aficionados still remember when the biggest pot offered by “Kuwarta o Kahon,” which aired during the late ‘70s up to the ‘90s, was P10,000. Even with inflation, the P1-million prize that “Eat Bulaga” put up for grabs in 2001 was already in a different league (although it was probably pushed in that direction by the popularity of the local version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”). ABS-CBN later upped the ante, giving away P2 million in its noontime show “Wowowee.” Before it went off the air recently, “Deal or No Deal” on the same channel featured a top prize of P3 million — and suddenly P10,000 looked like a pittance.

“JUST THE feeling that there is a pot, an option, gives something to people who have nothing,” comments Bautista. “That’s actually a critique of our society, when you come to think of it.”

Unfortunately, there are far too many Filipinos who have almost nothing. In the most recent Social Weather Stations survey on poverty, 46 percent of the respondents rated themselves as “poor.” According to official statistics, close to 40 percent of families live below the poverty threshold.

Interestingly enough, indications are that among the most popular form of entertainment for this segment of society is watching TV. Studies by media survey firm AC Nielsen shows that the majority of television viewers belong to the D and E classes, the poorest of the poor.

Some observers say TV shows that are practically giving away huge amounts of money are actually exploiting the poor. This, they say, was most apparent in the “Wowowee” tragedy of 2006, where 71 people were trampled to death in a mad rush to get inside the Ultra stadium where the show was going to be held. Over 30,000 people had come — and camped out in front the stadium days before — hoping to win the P1-million cash prize and giveaways that included two houses and lots, 15 passenger jeepneys, two taxicabs with franchises, and 20 tricycles.

The fact that the program offered jeepneys, taxicabs, and tricycles among its prizes does show an effort to encourage enterprise among would-be contestants; its producers could also argue that all they were doing was giving people a leg up. Where they may have erred, however, is in failing to provide real criteria and means through which those who join and eventually win the prizes could feel that they truly deserve these.

In any case, the network aided those who were injured in the stampede, and it later put up a foundation for the families of those who perished. But a recent Supreme Court ruling says the justice department can go ahead with a preliminary investigation on the possible criminal liability of several ABS-CBN executives in the tragedy.

AS FOR “Wowowee” itself, the show doesn’t seem to have changed much almost two years after the Ultra stampede. During a recent show that was jampacked with games, the prizes ranged from P30,000 from one sponsor to a jackpot of P1 million for “Pera o Bayong” (since last September, the segment has not been offering P2 million because people were apparently no longer thrilled once they spotted a “1”).

School beauty queens had been the pre-selected contestants for that show and they competed with one another in naming the title and composer of songs. Each correct answer was worth P5,000. They then faced off with three other people chosen from the audience. (Sample question: 1 – 0 equals?) By the end of the segment, one beauty queen had won P65,000. She then moved on to the “Pasalog” portion, where two skimpily clad girls shook balls with compartments that contain dice. If the side of a die with the label of a sponsor faces up when the compartment is opened, the contestant will win cash prizes.

The jackpot that day was P440,000. But luck was against Ms. Beauty Queen and she went home with only P65,000.

The show’s highlight, however, was obviously “Pera O Bayong,” which had the names of its 50 contestants announced the day before. The contestants took turns lining up behind the signs “Oo (Yes)” and “Hindi (No)” in response to questions like “Red sauce ba ang carbonara (Is carbonara a red sauce)?” until only one was left. This contestant then made an excruciating choice: “Pera o bayong (money or straw bag)?” Three bayongs contained prizes like P1 million, a car, and a house and lot. The rest contained cheap items like a pencil.

CLINICAL psychologist Dr. Violeta “Doc Bolet” Bautista. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

At rival “Eat Bulaga,” a carnival of parlor games was also going on. To pick who got to spin the roulette in “Taktak Mo o Tatakbo,” contestants were made to line up behind two letters and then pick cards with questions regarding a person, song, or thing. The answers all start with the letter they had lined up behind. Somehow, the contestants dwindled to just one, and the spinning of the roulette — and feverish dancing to the “Taktak” song — began. The smallest amount on the wheel is P10,000, and there are also special jackpot prizes. Sometimes, the “manager,” will allow the player another spin at a special wheel in exchange for money. A lucky contestant could go home with thousands of pesos.

Another regular “Eat Bulaga” game is “On the Spot Jackpot,” in which contestants are pre-selected from a certain group of people — say, feng shui masters or television dubbers. They each stand on a numbered spot on a raised grid, and if the cartoon girl Twinky draws their number, they take their place in front of celebrities holding drums. Each drum has a slip of paper and cash worth P5,000 to P25,000. The lucky winner of the P25,000 then goes on to choose from among three vaults, which contain fake gold bars with slips of paper inside ranging from P50,000 to P200,000. The contestant is offered increasing amounts of cash as the paper is slowly slid out of the bar he or she chose.

A 38-year-old call center agent who once participated in one of “Eat Bulaga’s” games won some P250,000 (reduced to P200,000 after taxes) by answering a short list of trivia questions. She describes the experience as “fun.” But, she says, “mas masaya ‘nung nakuha ko na ‘yung tseke (it was even more fun when I got the check).”

EVEN OUT-and-out game shows that cater to a more upscale audience do not offer much beyond the lure of winning cash. In the now defunct “Break The Bank” in the youth-oriented Studio 23, for instance, contestants were first asked a question that had a giveaway answer before they could pick a briefcase that could contain their prize. They were made to choose between the contents of the briefcase or the cash amount offered by the banker. The catch was while the banker’s offer was a sure thing, the briefcase could contain anywhere from P1 to P100,000.

Some TV producers are aware that game shows can foster unrealistic hopes. “Game shows are like prayers, they keep you hoping and hoping, they deflect us from looking into the real issue of unemployment,” says one producer who declines to be named.

Tape Inc.’s Ferre also says that TV producers have a moral responsibility to discourage contestants from believing that winning on a game show is the answer to poverty. She says that this is why “Eat Bulaga’s hosts always ask contestants what their occupation is. “What we want to convey is, you have work, and you work hard,” she says. “We hope (the money you win) helps. If you drive a jeepney, we hope that you don’t stop working but rather, that you’re able to own your own jeep.”

Ferre says that “Eat Bulaga’s” primary purpose is not to give away money, but to entertain its viewers. “Eighty-seven-point-nine plus plus Filipinos are entertained, only one wins,” she says. “The winner only becomes a medium for ordinary people to empathize.”

Marilou Almaden, ABS-CBN’s business unit head in charge of game shows, says that for some viewers, watching such programs is more about the thrill of trying to trump the contestant, rather the prizes.

Psychologist Bautista, for her part, says that for the poor, these shows can also serve as coping mechanisms. She notes, “For a moment you forget about the difficulties of life, for a moment you have hope. And then of course the entertainment that goes with it is another way by which you forget. So you’re able to move on to the next day, because you’ve had a gulp of fun and excitement.”

Almaden says that despite all the criticisms hurled their way, she is proud to be producing game shows. “A lot of people say that we’re giving false hopes to people,” she says. “But I want to see it the other way, that there are people whom we actually help, in the small way that we can.”

She says that she cries whenever she sees the joy etched on winners’ faces. “In my group’s little way,” says Almaden, “wow, we can actually make dreams come true.”