A couple of years ago I was a contestant on Win Ben Stein’s Money. I didn’t win, but my name got put into the producer’s file of “good game-show contestant types.” As a result, I’ve been asked a couple of times since then to audition for other game shows. A couple of weeks ago, I auditioned for an upcoming show called “On the Cover,” and in so doing I figured out some interesting things about the selection process.
In both shows’ auditions, the first step was a 30-question quiz. After the quiz had been graded, the producer read the names of those who had “passed,” and everyone else was dismissed. But neither time did he reveal the number of correct answers that were required in order to pass. During the “Ben Stein” audition, I wondered why not. During the “On the Cover” audition, the reason became clear. Before giving the quiz, the producer explained to the participants why cheating on the quiz (say, by looking at your neighbor’s answer sheet) would be a bad idea. Show contestants, he said, are matched against others with similar scores on the quiz. If you cheat, you might increase your chance of being on the show, but only by increasing your chance of getting trounced in front of a national audience.
And that’s when I realized the reason for the secret pass-bar: If people knew the pass-bar, they might deliberately miss questions in order to get matched against inferior contestants. If the pass-bar were 20, for instance, and if you knew the answers to at least 25 questions, you might deliberately miss four (or if you're really confident, five) of them. The secret pass-bar makes it more difficult to game the system that way. (Though not impossible; if you knew the answers to all 30, you might guess you could safely give wrong answers to two or three, because it’s hard to imagine the pass-bar being set that high.)
But why should the producers care whether people end up mismatched? The obvious reason is that a close game is more interesting to watch. The more important reason, I suspect, is monetary. In a game where a single person has a chance to win a large prize while the runner-ups get a pittance (as was the case on “Ben Stein” and will be the case on “On the Cover”), matching the best contestants against each other reduces the expected cost of prizes, because only one of them can go home with the big prize. Matching the worst contestants against each other increases the number of episodes in which the big prize is not awarded.
As an added bonus, “departing contestants” like me can console ourselves with the knowledge that we were pitted against known equals (or near-equals), not just a random draw from the contestant pool.