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Who Wants to Be a Ratings Millionaire?

In search of that old must-see sparkle, NBC played the get-rich-quick game-show card last week with a five-nights-only airing of Deal or No Deal — already a ratings winner in 35 countries — in which a contestant picks one of 25 briefcases that might contain a million dollars, and deals with an unseen “bank” that tries to buy that case for as little as possible. The trick seems to be working — NBC’s audience grew throughout the week. So what’s the fuss about? I watched Thursday’s show and found Kojak-bald host Howie Mandel explaining that for contestants to win, “they’re going to have to be lucky, gutsy and have a great sense of timing.” In other words, they have to gamble, which appears to be a verboten word — you hear talk of “odds” but never the “g” word — probably because it reeks too much of vice or lack of self-control. But really, there’s no skill involved beyond knowing when to quit while the quitting’s good: no trivia knowledge, mental agility or gamesmanship required. It’s a lotto game writ large, and represents the other end of the spectrum from an encyclopedic throwdown like Jeopardy. Still, it’s not unsuspenseful — you inevitably ask yourself the titular question as the stakes rise — but it’s little more than watching people agonize over taking free money or risking it for more. Not quite a game show, so maybe they should allow the more respectable “g” word and call it a gaming show.