“What do you mean: Go on TV? I can’t go on TV. I don’t want to go on TV.”
“But Ma’am, you applied to be on the show. You beat tremendous odds just to get a call back, and then you went through the test, got short listed, tested again, got shorter listed, and you knew all along that the ultimate goal of this process was to play for a million on Television.
“Now, I’m telling you: You made it. We will fly you to Beirut and you will have your chance to win that Million.”
“No way I go on TV. I consider myself a winner already.”
“But Ma’am, you are really good with this trivia business. You have a real good chance at going all the way.”
“No Way. Thank you, but no way I go on TV.”
For a few weeks in 2008, I was Saint Peter. The pearly gates were equipped with metal detectors. Heaven was three floors under street level. Heaven was the glamorous and glittery studio that hosted the taping of the Arabic Edition of The Million Dollar Carrot.
Actually, the massive former right-wing Christian militiaman, who stared you down as you walked through the metal detector at the entrance of the studio facilities, fits more the image of Saint Peter. I think his job was to diffuse bombs with an intimidating stare. Also, the elevator’s alleged destination was minus-three, but to this day I cannot confirm where it actually takes you. It was by far the smoothest elevator ride I’d ever taken, and thus it was hard to know for sure whether it was going up or down. It might have moving sideways, diagonally, or even teleporting. The only thing I know is that we got off when the display read “-3”, and that was where we taped the Million Dollar Carrot.
I was in charge of casting contestants to chase that carrot.
The one hour primetime slot during which the show would air had enough minutes for an average of three contestants playing the game, opening and closing credits, the host introducing the contestants and explaining the game, promotional plugs, and of course commercial breaks during which some of highest priced thirty-second slots would be played. So the visible part of the process of a contestant going all the way and winning the million lasts around 15 minutes of television airtime.
[Insert Tip of the Iceberg cliché here. Or better yet, let’s make it a carrot cliché]
But that’s just the visible leafy part of the carrot. Carrots as we all know are invisible roots that grow underground, or in this case on the fourth floor of an office building 12 kilometers south of minus-three.
The invisible process starts months earlier in that faraway office. From the outside you can still see a couple of bullet holes marking the facade of the office building. It is not too far-fetched to think that it was Saint Peter’s militia that left its mark there 3 decades earlier. The office is in the Ras Beirut district, which at the time these bullets were fired used to be under the military control of an alliance of militias that were fighting against Saint Peter.
Inside the office, the only thing that remained from that era was the asbestos. I had convinced myself that if you’re informed about the presence of carcinogens in the air your nose will know to filter them out. This hypothesis has yet to be scientifically disproven, and it is what keeps me frequenting smokey bars.
It was a world away from the studio though. It was neither glamorous, nor glittery. My office had bare white walls, a cheap desk, a telephone, a headset, and a desktop computer whose ON/OFF button had a 50% success rate on a good day. Also unlike the studio, the office had a window, and mostly survived on natural light. That window just happened to look into the hearse exit on the backside of a major hospital. Coffins do not leave hospitals through the front door; it’s just bad for business.
The production budget for the show that particular season allowed for two one-million winners. A third one-million winner would be just bad for business. There are actually insurance policies taken out just in case an accidental third million is won, but I didn’t have to worry about that. My job was to bring in as many potential million winners as possible. It was always going to be a long-shot to win the Million despite the tagline of the show that made it seem only a few multiple-choice answers away. The process has morphed over the years and adapted to the changing technology and geography of the show. In 2008, the potential of making money off of the SMS habits of a mass viewership was lucrative. Therefore, the first step to the million was to send a simple SMS that often cost a fraction of one unit of the currency currently printed in your country; tip jar coins basically. The SMS contained a name, a number that represented the candidate’s claimed age, and a word that is what people would use to answer the overused question: “So, what do you do in life?”
These 3 pieces of data along with the phone number and country from where the SMS originated would end up in a massive spreadsheet. My job was to look at that spreadsheet, call as many of the numbers as I could, and bring in as many potential million winners as possible. I wasn’t alone. We were a team of three, but no matter how long we worked and how much caffeine or other performance enhancers you pumped into the team, there was less than a 10% chance that you’d ever get a call from The Million Dollar Carrot team.
The call included a trivia quiz, some personal questions, and a bit of random chit-chat. Those who get perfect scores on the multiple screening tests would automatically make it on the show. However, there were less than 10 of those at the end of the casting process, and we needed around 80 contestants for the entire season. Here’s where judgment on the other criteria kicks in. This judgment comes from some personal questions and a bit random chit-chat.
Most of the perfect scores are eager to get on the show as it represents a real chance for a significant financial gain. Except we all know that the carrot doesn’t always work. The exchange I started this story with was with one of these perfect scores. She was a woman from Saudi Arabia. She was one of the most impressive trivia whizzes I spoke to, and I spoke to many. She answered every question I asked her correctly. But I never got to ask her the question I really wanted to know the answer to. Perhaps, I didn’t do it because it wasn’t professional or maybe because I already knew the answer. She was a woman from Saudi Arabia.
Perfect Score. A Woman. Saudi Arabia. These were pretty much the criteria for casting.
Perfect score is a no brainer.
The men on the spreadsheet outnumbered the women by a good 5-to-1 ratio. I’m sure there is a good anthropological explanation for that ratio, but as far as TV casting was concerned we needed to make sure the number of those who made it on air was evenly split between the two pre-postgenderism sexes. That meant that women had a 5-times better chance to get the initial call. After that, the merit tests were the same and there was no drop-off in qualifications in the pool of female candidates as opposed to their male counterparts.
There was a considerable drop-off, however, if you compared regional casting results. Candidates from the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on average performed way below average. Perhaps there was a cultural bias in the set of questions used to quiz the aspiring millionaires. It mattered not. A good chunk of the viewership and most of the advertising revenue of the show came from the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We needed to cast Saudis on the show. We could not alienate viewers. Sportsmanship is confiscated by the ‘roided up Saint Peter at the door. Being Saudi automatically gave you an unfair advantage over nationals of other countries in reaching the Lit Seat.
Some might call it the Hot Seat, but Television is about light and not temperature. Also, I can assure you, having sat in that chair, that the temperature even under the powerful studio lights is near freezing. You cannot risk sweat on TV for it reflects light and creates a glare that messes with the image. Also it makes sense to call it the Lit seat as it is surrounded by 150 unlit seats. These are reserved for the studio audience. The studio audience applauds and cheers on cue. They are also paid $10 a head.
The studio audience arrives at the studio facilities on 3 buses that travel between 70 and 120 kilometers to reach “minus three”. They are herded to their seats by a condescending contractor that delivers studio audiences according to the specs demanded by the show. With the lights on the foreground their unlit silhouettes become merely a patterned wallpaper; wallpaper that applauds and cheers on cue. As a client, you just give the contractor your pattern preference: youthful, business casual dress, average girth, uniform height, and so on.
“I’m a farmer and I do this in the off season,” said one studio audience member as he sipped a coffee between shows. “We do 2 shows in a day. That’s $40 for my wife and me. In some shows we get to see famous singers that we’ll never get to see in Akkar (an impoverished rural area in northern Lebanon). On this show, we get to learn stuff. The host is so smart.”
“And good-looking,” added the wife.
“Is he as handsome in person as he is on TV?”
I heard this question many times during the casting process. “He dyes his hair!” I would scream in my head. He also reads his lines off of a teleprompter. He might be smart and handsome, but he definitely is not what you see on TV. Gameshows may be portrayed as unscripted and spontaneous television. However, great effort is put in to avoid surprises. Contestants rehearse walking onto the set and sitting on the Lit Seat. They have a practice run so they don’t freeze under the lights. Winning the million is rehearsed to test the confetti machines. The confetti is then swept up and tossed, although it looked perfectly recyclable to me as it is impossible to tell used confetti from new confetti. Contestants time in the chair is estimated based on their casting scores. Idle chatter is increased and decreased according to the airtime needs.
We would tape 2 shows a day that would air weeks later. During that period of time, the tapes of the show are worked on for hours to create the manicured final product. Beyond the hair dye and the faux-knowledge that he’s fed, any gaffes by the host that may hurt his authoritative image are edited out. On the show, contestants would sometimes seek the help of a friend via phone. On air, the process is smooth and the friend always answers after 2 or 3 rings. In the chaotic control room where the attempt to connect with the friend takes place, this process sometime takes many minutes that feel like hours. During these minutes, exchanges like these have happened:
-“Mishaal needs your help on the Million Dollar Carrot.”
-“Noof needs your help on…”
“I changed my mind, I don’t want to help her anymore.”
-“Samir needs your help…”
“Can you call back in ten minutes?”
-“You have reached the voicemail box of….”
These awkward pauses are edited out.
In the control room, as well as in the editing suite, the vocabulary used by the team consists purely of words that cannot be said on air. It’s probably subconscious overcompensation.
At the 250,000 level, two questions away from the million, the executive producer seeks help from a friend. As the show breaks for commercials and dramatic build up, the network’s top brass confer, assess the contestant, and make the call on how hard the last 2 questions should be: fairly hard or impossibly hard. A starstruck young auditor from a multinational accounting firm is present at all times.
It’s television and ratings decide.
The woman from Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly have gotten a fair chance.