Game Show Hosting Ethics: Advancing Gameplay While Maintaining Fairness

In a 1990 episode of Cheers, Cliff Clavin appears on Jeopardy and loses $22,000 on a spectacularly bad Final Jeopardy wager.

He led the game $22,000-$3,800 and yet risked everything in the last round and lost. It’s a very funny scene.

But it turns out that a similar wager once took place during an actual game, a summary of which can be found here.

Continue reading “Game Show Hosting Ethics: Advancing Gameplay While Maintaining Fairness”

Review: "All You Can Eat"

The television program “All You Can Eat” airs on H2 at 10:00 PM on Sundays. An episode consists of basically three things: stand-up comic John Pinette talking about food, people in the food industry talking about food, and “Modern Marvels.” I’ll get to that third part in due course.

Pinette is basically the only I reason I tuned in to “All You Can Eat” in the first place. If you haven’t seen his act, you should; it’s hilarious. Here is a good place to start:

Now, go buy his stuff.

On “All You Can Eat,” Pinette is a fine presenter, and he gets to tell a few jokes (most of which I assume he wrote, although the show has no writing credits of any sort at the end), but this is a television show, not a stand-up act. And besides, while I might have tuned in only to see him perform in a new medium—although if Twitter is any indication, I’m not alone—I imagine most viewers are interested in the main content, which is the food.

So what happens is, Pinette takes a minute to introduce a food or topic, and then the show cuts to the meat of the content (pun not intended…I don’t think), in which his only involvement is an inset occasionally pops up, during which he mostly interjects a couple humorous words or makes some facial expressions. (The latter are particularly hilarious when a man attempting to create traditional Italian mozzarella cheese in the U.S. describes his, um, processes.) Mostly, however, you get someone in the food industry, usually but not always a restaurateur, who talks about their product, whether it’s macaroni and cheese pizza, goetta, over-sized gummy bears, or whatever.

There’s a definite emphasis on unusual foods and preparations (see: the over-sized gummy bears), which I guess is the quirk with which the producers are trying to make this show unique, as you can find countless shows about food on other channels and at more convenient times of the week. I assume. I haven’t checked myself. But heck, there’s an entire Food Network.

Sometimes another place you can find about about food is the History channel show “Modern Marvels,” which will occasionally have food-themed episodes. That doesn’t mean your food show on basically the same channel (H2 is to History channel as ESPN2 is to ESPN) should straight-up lift bits of it. Yet, that has happened twice in the first four episodes. You suddenly hear the “Modern Marvels” narrator explaining a food process. The first time this happened, in the second episode, I recognized the narrator’s voice and didn’t quite understand what was going on until someone tweeted about it.

I understand that you might not need to produce new content about the same topic for which decent content that you have the rights to already exists. However, it would be a lot less awkward and ham-handed to create new, independent content instead of desperately trying to fill 3-5 minutes of a half-hour program.

(I also think, but I’m not sure, that they interviewed the same person about his burritos on both the first and fourth episodes. Can anyone confirm this?)

The show’s flaws are mostly minor things like that—there is no real single deal-breaker—but they kind of add up. The first thing that immediately strikes you in the first minute of the first episode is the weak laugh track. There’s also a lack of focus at times. They barely cover something and then move onto another thing. I really felt this way during the initial episode, but it gets better.

Mostly, though, to me, it’s just kind of boring. I don’t find myself craving any of the featured foods or being particularly interested in giant hot dogs. But, if you just can’t possibly get enough food-related content on television, go ahead and try it.

If you’re a fan of John Pinette, you also might want to check it out. But, for me, he’s not enough to save the program, and he’s also sufficiently limited by the format that it’s more worth it just to catch his stand-up on DVD or Comedy Central if his act is all you are looking for.

I really wanted to like “All You Can Eat,” and I still kind of do. After four episodes, I definitely don’t hate it. I grade it a 6.5/10, since there is some good material here. I’m just not sure there’s enough to keep me watching next Sunday.

Wrong on Watson

Well, that Jeopardy playing computer Watson sure crushed Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Why was I so wrong?

Timing.

This should have been so obvious, but the computer had a clear advantage on the buzzer. If all three players knew the answer by the time the buzzers were unlocked, Watson won nearly every time. Not to say that was the only reason Watson won. IBM’s people definitely did a good job with Watson, otherwise the buzzer advantage would have been meaningless.

So I suppose I was wrong for two reasons–neglecting the computer’s timing advantage, and underestimating IBM’s team.

Well, there was also a third reason. I am still unhappy about the way IBM handled Deep Blue vs. Kasparov. IBM retired Deep Blue after winning the 1997 match despite being a game behind Kasparov overall. (In 1996 and 1997 combined, the score was Kasparov 4, Deep Blue 3, and 5 draws.) They clearly were only looking for the publicity, and they made their coup and then rejected Kasparov’s request (or demand, or offer, depending on whom you ask). Watson is more of the same, so I was less willing than I should have been to give them credit in my preview.

Congratulations, IBM–everyone thinks your hot stuff again. And you really did a good job programming your machine. I only wonder, though, if Jennings had picked up one or both of the Daily Doubles in Double Jeopardy of the second game, and had won the match, whether you would have gone Deep Blue on Sony.

Probably.

A Christmas Post

“Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11

“Ho ho ho, Merry Fishmas” – Mr. Burns (“The Simpsons” Season 12)

It seems doubtful that the writer of that episode of The Simpsons (Rob LaZebnik, it turns out) was thinking much of symbolism when he concluded the episode with Mr. Burns as Santa Claus on a float throwing fish entrails on the crowd of a parade while shouting “Merry Fishmas.” Fish just happens to mostly rhyme with the first syllable in Christmas; Mr. Burns is evil; that was probably, and perhaps hopefully, the extent of the joke.
Yet let’s pretend it went beyond that. Most people are aware of the fish as a Christian symbol. Of course, in the episode they were gutted fish, being used in a parade by a bad rich man. The joke couldn’t possibly be a statement on how materialism has “gutted” Christmas of its meaning, could it?

No, I don’t think so either. Now, please disassociate Luke’s Gospel from The Simpsons as quickly as possible.

And Merry Christmas everyone.

Thoughts on the Jeopardy!-playing Computer

Jeopardy! announced the other day that the IBM computer “Watson” will be competing against two human opponents in three shows to be aired in February 2011. Of course, the foes will be no ordinary players: they are Ken Jennings, the 74-time champion, and Brad Rutter, who beat Ken Jennings in the “Ultimate Tournament of Champions” in 2006.

Watson is programmed to answer questions and can happen to play Jeopardy!, and it is apparently good enough to beat humans. However, there’s actually a distinction to be made between making a computer that can play Jeopardy!, and making one that can beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy! The distinction is important, too, and that can be seen in a similar IBM endeavor from over a decade ago.

That would be Deep Blue, the chess-playing machine that got two cracks (as Deep Thought in 1989, when it lost 2-0; and as Deep Blue in 1996 when it lost 4-2) at champion Garry Kasparov before beating him 3 1/2-2 1/2 in a 1997 match. Deep Blue was designed to play chess, obviously, but it was built specifically to beat Garry Kasparov. Kasparov was the best player in the world at the time (and may still be, despite his retirement five years ago), which is why he was IBM’s target, but in order to beat the best player in the world it was programmed to beat that particular player’s style.

What does this have to do with IBM’s newest adventure? Watson is meant to answer questions in natural English, and Jeopardy! is just the manner by which IBM is testing its ability to do so. And whereas there is just one step between making a chess-playing computer and a Kasparov-beating computer, Watson has two steps: from answering questions to playing Jeopardy! to beating Jennings and Rutter. The second step does is not an explicit one in the developing of Watson, and it does not seem that IBM is putting quite as much stock in Watson as it did Deep Blue.

In short, I expect the computer to finish third. It is playing the two best Jeopardy! players of all time and is not preparing to beat them specifically–IBM is just getting it to be as good as it can. (It is of note that this is only fair; regular opponents don’t even know who they’re playing before arriving on set.) It should make for good television at least.

More on Deep Blue
Deep Blue never played an opponent besides Kasparov in an official match, and once it beat him, it was retired–not just retired, but dismantled. And Kasparov never got a rematch, one he desperately wanted.
Of course, since Deep Blue was built about 15 years ago, if you brought an identical computer back today would stand no chance of winning, whether playing Vishy Anand (the current chess champion) or the latest edition of Fritz. The reasons should be obvious as to why a 15 year old computer is not very good  compared to a new one.