“The program that gives real people a real chance to win real big money”, that’s how the British version of the game program always started Deal or No Deal. The originally Dutch program, with more than seventy international spin-offs, returns after twelve years on RTL 5, presented by actor Buddy Vedder.
These are the rules of the game: twenty-four participants receive a box each episode, containing an amount unknown to them. The lowest is one euro, the highest is 200,000 euros. It is his turn to open all the boxes, with their own box being the last. The aim is to get rid of as many low amounts as possible, because after opening a number of boxes, the bank always calls with a bid that the participant can accept (deal) or refuse (no deal). The bank’s offer depends on how many high and low amounts are left.
It is logical that such a program exists. You grow up with the idea that you can have a comfortable life by studying well and then working hard. Half a century ago, this may have been true for a certain group of non-marginalized people (white, cisgender male, with no physical limitations, for example). However, that has long since ceased to be the case: even a rented house in the Randstad is often unaffordable for full-time working single millennials and Gen Z’ers without wealthy parents.
Then you have such game programs, where you might be able to go home two tons richer with luck. With that you buy a small studio in Amsterdam. Or a real apartment elsewhere. If you pay off your student debt, you finally move out of the eleven square meters that should represent your room, you buy a car that doesn’t break down every six months. Or buy a mountain of avocado toasts.
Tonight Jan Piet will play, not a millennial. He has no urgent debts or big life dreams, but he is older and would like to buy a sandwich maker and a convertible for him and his wife. For this man retiring in eight months and one day, such a game may be the only way to have his desired sandwich maker-and-convertible combo. He takes home 9,600 euros, and says he has never seen so much money together. “It feels very nice.”
But if you know that the gross average income in the Netherlands is 37,000 euros per year, it is alienating to see how easily amounts higher than an average monthly salary are brushed off the table. And for some of these Dutch people, for the very poor group that people rarely talk about, even 50 euros is a lot of money.
Crumbs for the plebs
What is really alienating, however, is not even that Jan Piet refused 10,500 euros when he believed he could win more. It is that such games of chance, in which poor(er) people can ‘win’ a better (or good) life if they are lucky, or try hard enough, are often made by very rich people, who watch as the plebs have a few crumbs trying to win. call it panem et circenses, the Hunger Games, or an episode of Black Mirror, but with boxes, and less blood.
Deal or No Deal raises, unintentionally, existential questions. Does meritocracy, one of the basic tenets of our capitalist system, really exist if you can just win 200,000 euros in one night? And, why don’t you just give the money to the people, instead of asking them to entertain us first? Apparently that money is there, given the large number of similar formats produced by the same billionaire producer(s). Is there any ethical way to be a billionaire at all? And, most relevant to this column: is there an ethical way to make such a game show?