On the 26th of April 2009, David Cameron announced in a keynote speech to a Conservative Party forum that "the age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity." On the 29th of June of the same year, The Chase, an ITV quiz show hosted by Bradley Walsh, launched.
The Chase, which has now been running for over a decade, pits contestants against a champion quizzer known as the 'Chaser.' While prizes as large as £100,000 have been won on the show, it’s more common that the contestants do not win at all. If they do manage it, the prize money is split between them, meaning they usually walk away with under £10,000 each.
Obviously, these earnings aren’t bad for half a day standing on a TV set laughing at Bradley Walsh’s jokes, but in the context of the prizes that used to be available on British game shows, they’re certainly a nosedive. But when you consider the economic climate that The Chase exists – and has always existed – within, this adds up. More than any other TV genre, game shows like The Chase reflect the society and economy we’re living in – in real time.
This is firstly because game shows are simple and inexpensive for TV companies to make, meaning that they can move with the times potentially quickest of all genres. Speaking to the Guardian in 2015, Mark Darnell – who is currently the Head of Unscripted and Alternative Television at Warner Brothers – said of game shows, “They are easy to do and cheap to produce, so every country, no matter how poor, can afford to produce them.”
One show that spawned a huge number of international remakes was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a British creation first aired in 1998. The show was one of the most talked-about and referenced TV programmes of the late 1990s and early 2000s (largely due to the Charles Ingram cheating scandal), and over the course of its original, Chris Tarrant-fronted run, it awarded the £1,000,000 prize five times. Granted, in the UK the programme ran until 2014, well into the Tories’ austerity programme, but it’s hard to imagine a game show with stakes like these being pitched and commissioned under any prevailing economic mood but the delusional, capitalistic optimism of Britain under New Labour.
Interestingly, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was also a mirror to other more entrenched societal truths. A 2005 study on the behaviour of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire contestants noted, for example, that men outnumbered women when it came to taking part in the show. This was consistent with past studies which suggested that men are more comfortable with taking risks than women – just look at the Coughing Major.
Largely, however, it’s our immediate circumstances that game shows magnify best, and even when you look back further, this remains true. On the 28th of September 1981, Bullseye premiered on British TV. It was based on a combination of British pub games – darts and general knowledge quiz questions – and its prizes included then-mod cons like VHS players, Sega gaming systems, luggage, and caravans, reflecting the decade’s almost pathological sense of aspiration, which could grow to a sometimes nonsensical excess, as lucky winners lugged speedboats home to suburban Nottingham. Wheel of Fortune, which ran from 1988 until 2001, changed its prizes throughout its long run: a fully-furnished living room and luxury bathroom in 1988 became £20,000 or a car in 1995, reflecting changing appetites between the 1980s and more glamorous 1990s.
Since the turn of the millennium, game shows have merged with the reality genre, giving us a pretty clear insight into our collective mindset. While many reality game shows have final prizes – the great and now defunct Big Brother offered rewards between £50,000 and £150,000 over the course of its run – winning the money has become much less the aim of the game over time.
On reality TV game shows like Love Island, The Circle, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, all of which offer a cash prize (or in the case of The X Factor, a £1 million recording contract which includes a cash advance for the winner), becoming a popular, notorious, or otherwise well-known personality is much more important in the long term than actually reigning victorious.
Since the rise of social media and, in particular, the monetisation of it, people enter reality competitions like Love Island with the unspoken but clear intention to grow their social followings, because larger followings breed better and more lucrative sponsorship deals. Ultimately, these days it doesn’t matter if you won the show, or how long you spent on it – just that while you were there, you appealed to the audience. If you did, you’ll probably be able to live well from your time on TV for a while to come.
A good case in point is Kendall Rae Knight. A contestant on season four of Love Island, Kendall was dumped from the Island on the sixth day of the eight week season. Despite this, she has since amassed an Instagram following of over 943,000, and is currently promoting a clothing collection with the fast fashion website isawitfirst.com (this is basically the Instagram influencer golden egg).
Game shows have always rewarded individuals. They ask: are you the best quizzer, the fastest catch-phraser? As such, they prize aptitude in a manner that mirrors the system we all move around in – that is, capitalism. Reality game shows do the same thing (and have done since before social media) though the reward is not for capability, but for being yourself. As such, they reflect our individualistic era very well.
Millennials – the people taking part in most reality game shows right now – are often accused of rampant individualism and narcissism (we’re selfishly killing every single industry!), though psychologists differ on whether there’s any weight to this. What is certainly true, however, is that the economic and political climate that has surrounded not only millennials, but all UK citizens, for many years has been one which emphasises the individual, even in the case of Britain itself, and Brexit.
The emphasis of the Conservative government has not been on people bolstering each other in times of need, but on individuation, both personal and national. And while it’s important to add that many citizens either disagree with or have been actively harmed by this government’s approach, it’s also no wonder that the TV game shows we consume for light entertainment simulate the prevailing political and social temperature: as real time products of our society, it’s simply what they’ve done for decades.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.