I think this article on Wheel of Fortune has a good point conflated with a not-so-good point. The not-so-good point, in my opinion, is that Wheel is somehow a throwback to an earlier time when money didn’t matter so much and the thought of losing a lot of money wasn’t painfully real (“here is a place where no one really needs the money, the most anachronistic thing of all”). I doubt there was ever such a time. The good point is that Wheel of Fortune offers a world where money and possessions are easy to get and just as easy to lose, and none of it really matters. But that’s true of most game shows, and particularly true of game shows that can sustain themselves every day for decades, like Wheel and Price is Right and Jeopardy!.
I remember that when I watched one of those shows as a kid, an older relative came in and heard me and another viewer discussing the cash and prizes as though they were basically insignificant: I said that winning $1000 was not really winning anything at all. The older relative pointed out that $1000 was a lot of money and that I shouldn’t be talking about it as if it didn’t matter. I replied that it mattered in real life, but it just didn’t matter so much on these shows. The fun of watching a game show is that it provides an escape into an alternate world where large sums of money become meaningless, and new cars are easily available: it’s like our world, except the scale is completely different. Amounts of money that would seem large to these contestants in regular life are so unsatisfying that they’re always trying for more; prizes that are practical and useful around the home are the most boring prizes you can win. And when a contestant loses, you don’t feel like they had a chance for a better life and had it taken away from them; you just feel like they had a chance to win, and they lost. (The losing is more unpleasant on Jeopardy!, but it’s not really about the money, it’s the humiliation. Not knowing the answer to a direct question is the ultimate humliation on a game show.) Game shows are like sports for non-athletic people: there are winners and losers, there’s a score, and none of it really matters. But that was as true when these shows began as it is now; I don’t think the Great Recession suddenly altered the way we watch game shows.
And speaking of game shows, here’s the late Dick Clark in a complete episode of Pyramid, promising someone that if she wins, her dream will be fulfilled and that she’ll be able to start her own business. And that kind of promise, which would seem cruel in another setting, seems strangely unreal in a game show setting. I’m sure it’s real to the players, who would like to get the money; but to the viewer, hope and humiliation alike are just part of the game.