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Last night, after “Modern Family” ended and before the new sitcom “Happy Endings” began, in that wasteland of ABC television’s programming called “Cougar Town,” my wife and I flipped through the four channels our digital antenna pulls in searching for a half hour of interim entertainment. We landed, for a brief time, on “Minute to Win It.”

As we watched two normal-looking, relatively attractive young women compete against each other at a “game” that involved balancing six dice on a tongue depressor clenched in each of their mouths, I had the feeling that something was very wrong. At that point, it was just a feeling, like a disturbance in the force. But, because I was sitting bored on the couch, that feeling turned into a tweet, which read, “Minute to Win It embodies embodies everything that is wrong with this country. Ugh.”

I probably would have left it at that hyperbolic statement if not for a good friend of mine, who is always quick to challenge any of the many broad statements I make, questioning me – also via Twitter. As he said, “You know I won’t let you get away statements like that.”

So, I spent all last night thinking about why I felt that this otherwise innocuous game show embodies everything that is wrong with the United States. I had some ideas by the time I woke up this morning, but lacked a framework. That is, until I read the New York Times’ front page story about the conviction of inside trader Raj Rajaratnam of the Galleon Group.

If you haven’t read the article, I recommend it. Peter Lattman and Azam Ahmed’s telling of the story is so riveting that, even though I hardly ever read any news about finance, I devoured their piece. Rather than telling Rajaratnam’s story directly, they tell of his “web of friends,” the various coworkers and colleagues who provided him with illegal information.

Suddenly, it became clear. Raj Rajaratnam was the game show host, he was “Minute to Win It’s” Guy Fieri. And his “friends” were his contestants.

See, the premise of “Minute to Win It” is that normal people will do absolutely any ridiculous thing you ask them to do if you wave enough money in front of them. In addition to the tongue depressor game I mentioned above, there was also a challenge that involved bouncing pencils into glasses. That, if I remember correctly, was going to earn the contestant $100,000. And these, my research reveals, are relatively low key compared to some of the other games.

Similarly, the Times’ piece features a cast of characters, some pitiable, others infuriating, who will do whatever Rajaratnam asks in order to make an extra buck, or an extra five hundred thousand bucks. Both “Minute to Win It,” and the Galleon scheme operated on the fact that, if the prize is great enough, people will do anything. Fieri’s minions perform humiliating stunts, and Rajaratman’s break the law. And both are compensated accordingly.

It isn’t enough, though, to point out that people will do anything for money. Aside from the fact that capitalism is a system that exploits that weakness, there isn’t anything particularly American about it. The problem, I think, is much more systemic. The culture of Wall Street created the perfect opportunity for a person like Rajaratman, and the countless others like him, to thrive. But, at this point, I’m going to leave his case alone as I’m a bit out of my depth in discussing the particular failings of Wall Street.

When it comes to “Minute to Win It,” it seems clear to me that the very fact that the show is successful, that people watch it and imagine themselves similarly humiliated for cash, is a loud endorsement of this culture of greed. But, perhaps even more disturbing, is the person of Fieri himself. This is a man who rose to fame by winning a game show, “The Next Food Network Star.” This afforded him the opportunity to host his own cooking show, and then to go on to host “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” in which his job was to travel around the country eating the most unhealthy, and sometimes flat-out disgusting, food you can imagine.

Now, as the host of “Minute to Win It,” he’s the guy to emulate. He’s the person that holds the cash in front of his contestants’ faces and tells them what to do. Guy Fieri is the man to be. This overweight, middle-aged, game show winner-turned-host who dresses like a rebellious 15 year old is a person to emulate in American culture. Contestants on “Minute to Win It,” and those who watch it, believe that if they just do what the man with the spiky bleached hair says, they could achieve a portion of his bankroll, if not his fame.

Admittedly, this possibility is alluring. Just as those in Rajaratman’s network saw him as their way to a better life, so too is it easy to imagine “Minute to Win It” as a quick (a minute!) way to easy fortune. Last night, after one contestant won a significant sum of money in the pencil bouncing game, I turned to my wife and said, “That could pay off our student loans.” She, mercifully, changed the channel.

So, okay, I was definitely being hyperbolic when I tweeted that “Minute to Win It” embodies everything that is wrong with this country.” It doesn’t embody everything – just the limitless greed that, more and more, characterizes American culture.

 

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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0 Responses to “Minute to Win It,” The Galleon Group, and All That is Wrong with America

  1. Andrew says:

    Mr. Fitzgerald,

    While Guy Fieri is the human equivalent of Cheese Whiz (I wish I could claim I came up with that on my own), I am not really seeing how the little games on Minute To Win It are any worse than the games on The Price Is Right. There’s a few that are skill, most are luck, and you have the chance to win prizes. Are you indicting game shows as a whole? Or are you trying to say that by stripping away all the additional parts (like the sets and color and plot) and leaving just the money and the task, Minute To Win It is doing a better job of embodying the simple greed that is the core of these shows?

    As an aside, while “Diners, Driven Ins, and Dives” does certainly contain unhealthy food, I would say that when compared to food television as a whole, its in the better half. Unlike similar shows (like Meat and Potatoes, Man vs. Food, etc) Fieri at least focuses on local businesses, and shows how they create their food from raw ingredients, rather than simply pigging out at the end product. To me, that these small businesses survive in the face of the larger restaurant chains is an interesting story to tell. I often wish it was hosted by someone (anyone) else, but at least the content is there.

  2. John says:

    Haven’t seen the game show in question, but from the description it sounds like a number of others on TV that I avoid because I find them incredibly distasteful. In analyzing why, I think it is primarily because they tend to publicly humiliate and degrade people made in the image of God. And the people go along with it happily for …. a little mammon.

    To me, that’s at least as bad as what Raj Rajaratnam and his friends did. They took a known risk for the sake of greed, and they might be humiliated publicly before it’s all over, but they didn’t seek that from the start — didn’t intentionally trade public degradation of themselves and others for the sake of greed.

  3. JMJ says:

    How is greed an inherently American problem? Isn’t it universal? and doesn’t it manifest itself in various ways?

    Isn’t laziness a form of greed? Working overtime? The stock market? Interest on a bank account?

    I am a Canadian by upbringing, Indian by birth and American by residence. I see greed all around, everywhere I’ve lived and everywhere I look. No one country nor ideological framework (e.g. capitalism vs socialism vs. whatever) has a monopoly on greed.

    Now monopoly…that was a game about greed…

  4. JMJ says:

    BTW, if you appetite has been whetted (is that a word??) for finance related journalism, read Matt Taibbi’s work for Rolling Stone. Fantastic writing.

  5. Albert Pujols says:

    Uhh, its a game show…I think you’re taking yourself a little too seriously here (and maybe short on ideas to write about). Yes, there are things wrong with this country…a game show on prime time TV may be an indicator of cable tv’s pervasiveness and the inability of the major networks to develop an audience to something other than the least common denominator, however, I don’t think it spells the end of civilization as we know it.

  6. Bigfoot says:

    “When it comes to “Minute to Win It,” it seems clear to me that the very fact that the show is successful, that people watch it and imagine themselves similarly humiliated for cash, is a loud endorsement of this culture of greed. But, perhaps even more disturbing, is the person of Fieri himself. This is a man who rose to fame by winning a game show, “The Next Food Network Star.” This afforded him the opportunity to host his own cooking show, and then to go on to host “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” in which his job was to travel around the country eating the most unhealthy, and sometimes flat-out disgusting, food you can imagine.”

    Bigfoot not smart, but he knows judgmental douche when he reads it.

  7. Bigfoot says:

    Bigfoot also think it funny that Jonathan and Guy have same spikey hair (although Jonathan’s is much more hipster “unkept”)…maybe they meet up at same stylist, make amends and hug.

  8. Joshua Keel says:

    Can I just like Bigfoot’s comments?

    Seriously, Jonathan, not to be too hard on you, but I think you’re just stretching the argument a bit too much. I agree with your conclusions, but I can’t find them in Minute to Win It.

  9. Matt S. says:

    Honestly, this is why I don’t even own a television.

    Ignorance, in this case, really is bliss.

  10. Chad McMath says:

    The show is stupid. But given the chance, I’d bounce pencils in a cup for a $100,000. I’d be silly not to. And that’s not greedy. What’s greedy is working 65 hours a week and sacrificing time with family, etc. just to bring in more money.

  11. Gary Horsman says:

    I’m not sure what people perform as tasks on ‘Minute To Win It’ are all that humiliating. Many of the games are not all that different than the ones we played as kids at summer camp or as teens and adults at parties or family gatherings, just to goof around and for little or no compensation.

    What irks me about the show is the disingenuous, frothy ‘enthusiasm’ manifested by the contestants and the audience. It feels so artificial that it translates poorly through the screen. That may have flown in the 1950s when television was a new medium and producers were still gauging what worked to engage an audience. But now we’re in 2011 and the audience is media-savvy enough to know when they’re getting a whitewashed performance that just screams false enthusiasm. You’d have to be a moron to believe the folks on TV are that excited about what’s going on in front of them.

  12. Cindy Douma says:

    Jonathan,
    Not to be disrespectful, but I think you have a bit too much time on your hands to be comparing the Galleon Group fiasco to Minute to Win It. It’s just a game show … good, clean fun! People have been dying to do anything to win money on game shows for decades, so this is nothing new. And let’s not overlook the major difference. Game shows are legal. Mr. Rajaratnam’s endeavors were not.

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