Why the vowel buying?
June 13, 2008 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Do the producers of Wheel of Fortune purposely select contestants who are really bad at the game?

Every time I watch Wheel of Fortune I'm amazed at how terrible the players are. Not only do they seem unable to solve a puzzle without every letter revealed, but their strategic decisions make no sense either.
For example, the contestants LOVE to buy vowels. As soon as they win any amount of money they're buying every vowel they can. Apparently it hasn't occurred to them that they can guess the answer without them. Like, try imagining the missing letters people.
So the only explanation I can think of is they have a quiz. Like an anti-jeopardy quiz to weed out people that can make good decisions. Is this what happens? Is there some secret strategy that I'm missing?
posted by muddylemon to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think a lot of it can be explained by nerves. They are being filmed (in most cases) for the first time in their lives. The strategic mistake that drives me nuts watching the show is wasting a $250 spin on a letter that appears 4 or 5 times. When it's clear they know the word they should be playing to maximize revenue and hold out as long as possible trying to pop the the big number.

My family has sort of made a hobby of criticizing game show strategy, you probably don't want to get me started on this :)
posted by COD at 5:56 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


They have a quiz. Like an anti-jeopardy quiz to weed out people that can make good decisions.

Maybe it's the same quiz. Instead of pass-fail, it's jeopardy-wheel.
posted by rokusan at 6:00 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, I'm pretty sure that in your lifetime, you're only allowed a maximum of one regular-game try at either Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune. As in, if you've appeared as a regular contestant on Wheel, you can never be a regular contestant on J!.

I think most people who are quick-witted enough to blow the average Wheel contestant out of the water would probably not want to throw away their chance to one day play Jeopardy! in order to play Wheel of Fortune, which, no matter how good you are, you may end up not winning much just out of bad luck.

Beyond that, they probably don't invite people who seem way above the average player, because it's not the type of game show that would benefit much from having a big winner the same way J! or Millionaire would. Better to have a competitive game, plus they probably don't want the contestants getting the puzzles way before the people at home do. That would take some of the fun out of it.
posted by lampoil at 6:35 PM on June 13, 2008


I always wondered the same thing about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. They MUST have to test their contestants and weed out anyone with an IQ over 80.
posted by Jess the Mess at 6:35 PM on June 13, 2008


I expect that the atmosphere in the studio is a lot more chaotic and distracting in real life than it seems when you watch on TV.
posted by winston at 6:43 PM on June 13, 2008


I remember Merv Griffin being interviewed before he died a while back, and in essence he said that they don't select for dopey folks, but they do "cast" their contestants--- i.e. they like a mix of large, loud stay-at-homes, dweeby middle managers with mustaches, and bewildered young'uns, etc...
They want it to reflect their audience demographic, but they also want the at-home audience to feel a wee bit superior.
It guarantees repeat viewership; everyone (the advertisers being "everyone" , natch) wins.
Add the lights and camera and adrenaline and you can get flustered pretty fast.
posted by Dizzy at 6:55 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can't find any good reference, but I've read rumors that the initial Jeopardy quiz, at least, weeds out those who score both too low and too high. Game shows are interested in making money, not running a meritocratic or fair system.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:23 PM on June 13, 2008


I tried out for non-College Jeopardy and got all the intro questions right, but got weeded out when the people running the tryouts found out I was 19 - they said I was too young for what they wanted on the show.
posted by mdonley at 7:30 PM on June 13, 2008


(They may not be that dumb. If you buy a vowel, you don't have to spin, and there's no chance of going bankrupt.)
posted by smackfu at 7:30 PM on June 13, 2008


(Also, there are only five vowels, and you can be pretty certain that any phrase is going to contain a reasonable number of vowels - 25%? - so you're very likely to fill in a good number of letters with any given vowel)
posted by amtho at 8:22 PM on June 13, 2008


Considering the various 'stresses' that are associated with game shows, I'm fairly sure game theory, combinatorics and probability theory are the last things that are going to be running through their mind.
posted by oxford blue at 8:55 PM on June 13, 2008


I've also heard that buying vowels is encouraged in the contestant briefings which might contribute to it.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:56 PM on June 13, 2008


One of the problems of judging these people is that you can sit there and make 100 gueses and when you finally figure it out you suddenly assume youre better than those people. In reality you're not spinning the wheel, being distracted by other contestants, worrying about the money you are trying to win, worrying about looking like a jackass on tv, etc. This gives you a huge advantage. Also did you get up and get a sandwich or go to the bathroom? They can't.

On top of it you should step back and see what youre actually doing when these shows are on. You are probably saying a lot of letters at once and when that letter comes up you go "AHA! I knew it, but if you were playing for real you could only pick one." I used to watch Jeopardy with my brother and I made a rule that the first thing we say is our only and final answer and we lose points if we get it wrong. Suddenly the game is a lot more difficult as you need to pick your battles and shouting "Julius Caesar, no , I mean Mark Antony" is wrong even if the answer is Mark Antony.

So there's some real confirmation bias that makes everyone feel like a super-genius but I think that if you actually got on these shows you'd be humbled pretty quick. This your classic "Oh my kid can paint that" attitude. Actually your kid cant and judging people performing or being quized from your chair isnt going to lead to a fair assessment of their IQ or skills.

Lastly, some of these shows do pick certain personality types. I heard the Millionare and the rest avoid the guy with an encyclopedia in his head and lean towards people who are not risk averse. I wouldnt be surprised if they all avoid the freakishly smart as having the same guy win over and over leads to making the audience feel dumb and bad ratings.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:01 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I always thought that maybe they did that so they could get more money on the board. I've never really watched the show closely enough, so maybe I've misunderstood, but don't they receive the dollar value of their spin if they pick the correct letter?

Of course, this doesn't explain the vowel-buying.
posted by sunshinesky at 9:13 PM on June 13, 2008


Well, I'm pretty sure that in your lifetime, you're only allowed a maximum of one regular-game try at either Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune. As in, if you've appeared as a regular contestant on Wheel, you can never be a regular contestant on J!.
I was a Jeopardy contestant and this was never mentioned. You can't be on Jeopardy more than once (unless they bend the rules for some Tournament of Champions sorta deal), but there was nothing said about Jeopardy/Wheel crossover.
I can't find any good reference, but I've read rumors that the initial Jeopardy quiz, at least, weeds out those who score both too low and too high. Game shows are interested in making money, not running a meritocratic or fair system.
I have never heard this, and I do not believe it.

My assumption is that the Wheel producers cast contestants they feel their audience will be able to relate to, thus increasing viewer retention.
posted by jtron at 9:15 PM on June 13, 2008


They may not be that dumb. If you buy a vowel, you don't have to spin, and there's no chance of going bankrupt.

This is a good point that bears repeating. Strategically, if you haven't figured out what the answer is and you don't have any easy word groups (e.g., SIMP_E), your absolute best odds are to buy a vowel. Because no matter how much you win, it's the person that solves the puzzle that keeps the money. If you can't figure out the answer, there's no "hold on a minute and let me ponder this" allowed--you either guess a letter or you spin. Buying a vowel buys you an extra five or ten seconds to look at the clue before guessing your next letter following the spin. Those five or ten seconds might be all you need to realize that RA_IO is radio--I'd say that's worth a few hundred bucks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:20 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always wondered the same thing about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. They MUST have to test their contestants and weed out anyone with an IQ over 80.

To get onto WWTBAM you have to call a premium-rate phone line - cost is about $2 in my country. I have read that in the first season WWTBAM made more from people phoning in than they have spent in prizes in the entire ten years the show has been running.

With this in mind, a calculating person would not spend money trying to get on the show as the chances of getting on and winning big are very small.
posted by Mike1024 at 6:03 AM on June 14, 2008


I tried out for non-College Jeopardy and got all the intro questions right, but got weeded out when the people running the tryouts found out I was 19 - they said I was too young for what they wanted on the show.

Same thing happened to me! Ageist bastards.

Do the producers of Wheel of Fortune purposely select contestants who are really bad at the game?

The amount of money the show gives away in prizes and cash is minuscule compared to the amount of revenue the show generates. I'm sure they aren't concerned about smart contestants who might win too much money; they are concerned about finding interesting contestants whom viewers will enjoy watching. A large audience means they can charge a fortune to advertisers.
posted by HotPatatta at 8:34 AM on June 14, 2008


I tried out for Wheel of Fortune. First, I showed up to a general call and took a timed quiz on paper. Those with the highest scores on the quiz were invited to stay and play practice games. They drilled it into us about buying vowels. Personally, I don't need no stinkin' vowels, but I bought them too, because I wanted to get on the show and that's what they wanted us to do. My theory is that it's for the benefit of folks playing along at home. I think it's a more enjoyable game for the casual watcher if they can guess too, before some Wheel superstar solves the puzzle in a nanosecond with no letters on the board.
posted by xo at 1:19 PM on June 14, 2008


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