Fox's new game show embarrasses adults

Sunday, March 18, 2007
Host Jeff Foxworthy checked on fifth-graders' work on "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?," which premiered Feb. 27. The 12.2 million people who tuned in Thursday helped the family-friendly show win its time slot for Fox. (MIKE YARISH ~ Fox)

NEW YORK -- How tough could this be? That's what Fox reality show guru Mike Darnell thought when the people pitching "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" asked him to answer six questions they would use on the game.

Three wrong answers later, a hit show was born.

The new game has passed some tests of its own on the way to humiliating adults and making children across the country feel smug -- the 12.2 million people who tuned in Thursday helped the family friendly show win its time slot.

Contestants try to answer questions from elementary school textbooks while real fifth-graders stand by to offer help. Unless you're an accountant, the math is the most frightening: On one show, the pint-sized experts easily got the answer when host Jeff Foxworthy asked how many sides are there in a trapezoid.

Trapezoid? What the heck is a trapezoid?

"Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" premiered less than eight weeks after Darnell heard the initial pitch from Mark Burnett and Zoo Productions -- a blink of an eye in television terms.

"It's this unbelievably relatable idea of adults not being able to help their kids with their homework. Every parent goes through it at some point," said Darnell, who's already having trouble with his 8-year-old daughter's math problems.

In the original pitch, the show was titled "Do You Remember Grade School?" Darnell hated it, picking a new title that goes for the jugular.

He also required every contestant who misses a question or falls short of the ultimate $1 million prize -- everyone who has played so far, in other words -- to look directly into the camera and say, "I'm not smarter than a fifth-grader."

"Every show needs a catch phrase," Darnell said. "I thought it would emphasize the moment of embarrassment."

Most of the questions do not have multiple choices that could jog the memory. That only increases the probability of brain-freeze when the adults stand onstage before an audience and cameras.

One geography question from Thursday's show: If you cross the northern border of the United States, what country would you be in?

Well, that's Canada, of course. Right?

Is it?

Yes. But the contestant asked for extra help from the children to make sure she got it right. (And for the record, the answer to the trapezoid question was four sides.)

Having fifth-graders onstage to help the adults, as opposed to competing directly against them as the title might suggest, only increases the humiliation potential. Foxworthy, in his drier-than-toast manner, is there to stick the needle in further.

"It's fun to watch people come on and make fools of themselves," said Marc Berman, analyst for Media Week Online.

"It's sort of like the 'Gong Show' of game shows, in a way. It's amazingly addictive."

Fox executives carefully mapped out a plan to give "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader" the best possible chance of success. Its first four airings came directly after TV's most popular show, "American Idol." They averaged 21 million viewers and held more of the "Idol" audience than any other show that has followed it.

The show's regular time slot on Thursdays -- television's most competitive night -- is a stiff challenge and a traditional graveyard for Fox. This week was specifically chosen for its time slot premiere so "5th Grader" would go up against NCAA basketball instead of "Survivor."

Considering that the two comedies Fox scheduled for the time slot last fall averaged 4.2 million viewers, the "5th Grader" audience was a significant step up. It was Fox's highest rating for a non-special in the time slot since "World's Wildest Police Videos" in 1999.

Now Fox needs to see if the audience will keep coming back. In a vote of confidence, the network ordered 13 additional episodes this week.

"The show is great, we love it," Darnell said. "We think that people will follow it there, but we're crossing our fingers."

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