Note: The Banker on “Deal or No Deal” is a totally fictitious character. If the show’s producers can use him to make the game more dramatic, the author of this article can use him for the same purpose, right? Any resemblance to real bankers working in real banks is totally coincidental and your problem, not ours. The author keeps most of his money under his mattress.
All I wanted was an interview with the mysterious “Banker” from the prime time game show “Deal or No Deal,” but the production company insisted on where and how the meeting would take place and I felt I was in no position to quibble. So there I was, parked in an alley behind a TV studio in West Hollywood at 10 o’clock at night with all my car doors unlocked, when I heard one of them open.
“Don’t look behind you,” a whispered voice told me. “Don’t look in the rear view mirror, and... ewww! When did you last clean up this back seat?”
“I don’t often have passengers back there,” I replied nervously, “just groceries. But why the super secret ‘Watergate/Deep Throat’ treatment? You’re acting more like a money man for Tony Soprano than one for Howie Mandel.”
“The Banker is supposed to be a TV villain," he explained. “Like Simon Cowell, Omarosa or Squidward. Sitting in a stadium skybox looking down on everybody, making Don Rickles put-downs of the contestants for hapless Howie to repeat, and low-balling the buyout offers until there are 3 or 4 cases left.”
“So you really are offering the contestants less than you could to make a deal?” I asked.
“Do the math, man! A dozen gambling sites have pointed out that at the beginning of each game, the average payout for the suitcases is $113,477.54... Some database consultant put an Excel spreadsheet that calculates it on his Web site...”
“A funny way for a consultant to promote himself," I pointed out.
“Our first offer averages 10% of the value of the remaining cases, the second offer, 20%. We don’t get close to a ‘statistically fair’ offer unless the player has eliminated all the big values and is playing for peanuts, or it gets down where somebody other than the math nerd from “Num3ers” can figure it out. But then, there’s also a thing called the ‘median average’ which is just the exact middle of an ordered list of numbers. For our numbers, that’s between $750 and $1000, so anything over a grand is, in theory, all gravy. There’s a scholarly paperwritten by a team of economists analyzing contestants from the European versions of the show for risk aversion and the “break-even effect...”
“The people playing the game sure aren’t economists.”
He seemed annoyed with me now. “The last thing we want are contestants acting like economists. They’re randomly picking one out of 26 amounts, then trying to figure out how they did by watching the other 25 revealed one by one. There are 403,291,461,126,605,635,584,000,000 different ways the game can play out.”
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“Is that 403 million billion billion 291 billion...?”
“I’ll write it down for you. But I think of the game like a Christmas tree. You’ve got this perfect pine tree with millions of individual needles, but if you don’t get close enough, it just looks like every other pine tree, so you hang a bunch of decorations on it. We’ve got Howie Mandel, a very likable guy as long as you don’t give him a hat with a hidden camera in it. We’ve got 26 Vanna Whites and half of them have already shown more personality than Vanna did her first year on “Wheel.” Silver briefcases, a fifteen-foot tall game board and music stolen from “Millionaire” for dramatic affect. And don’t forget the players - the ‘casting’ department keeps getting these Type A personalities with heartwarming backstories, plus a ‘peanut gallery’ of friends and relatives to give support and contradictory advice. And the Big Bad Banker is like the star on the top of the tree.”
“You’ve been working on that analogy for a while,” I noted.
“Hey, the show debuted the week before Christmas.”
“You have been throwing in some odd little extras,” I pointed out. “Like the pony.”
“Maybe we went a little too far when we brought in the guy’s daughter then trotted out a live pony to include in the offer," he admitted. “How could the guy say “No Deal” to that on national TV and not feel like a schmuck? So, he ended up making one of the quickest “Deals” in the series and settled for $156 grand less than he had in his case — not counting the horse. So the next time we offered a player a little something extra, it was hair plugs for her husband. But sometimes the little manipulations are so corny, they’re cool. Like the guy who proposed to his girlfriend when the offer got to $160,000.”
“I wonder if she’d have said yes if it was just $160.”
“Even The Banker isn’t that cynical," he snorted. “It’s just a game. It’s like playing Texas Hold ‘Em against a top champion, except neither of you get to see your own cards and you’re playing with somebody else’s money. Think about this — when a contestant has lost their shot at all the big amounts, they usually just want to keep playing the game to the last case. But the audience doesn’t mind. We had one show where two players finished with $50 and $8 and our ratings didn’t suffer in the slightest.”
“Doesn't sound like Must-See TV,” I said.
"But we've still the most consistently high-rated show on NBC," he wailed. “Doesn't matter if we've got big winners or big losers, or ponies or hair plugs, or even a rerun! The naysayers predicted America would be bored with us by now, but we're still beating everything on at 8 o'clock!"
"Except for 'American Idol,' " I couldn't resist pointing out.
He stammered, "Yeah, and they've been playing the same game every week for five years!"
“You’re sounding more like a TV producer than a Banker.”
“Okay, to be perfectly honest, I’m not The Banker. I just work for him. You can call me The Teller”
"Well, you told me," I said, and pushed the red button on the dashboard. I knew that ejector seat would come in handy one day.
Wendell Wittler is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.
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