For the Vietnamese, it’s not just a game

October 23, 2006

HANOI — The game-show contestant was sweating.

The final question would determine whether she would win the round and walk away with the prize. “What animal is the bridge on the Mekong Delta named for?” a female host asked.

Before Trang, the contestant, could react, her rival blurted out the correct answer: monkey.

“I didn’t do too well,” Trang said glumly, a forlorn figure on a set bathed in bright lights and festooned with tinsel and colorful balloons.

Her pain will be broadcast to the nation when the game show episode airs later this fall. Talk about jeopardy: She is only 9 years old.

Vietnam is awash in television game shows. Its eight major television stations air more than 50 of them, many in prime time. There are programs geared toward children, or teens, or seniors. Some cater to niche audiences, such as the show that tests soldiers on military life — still revered in this nominally communist nation.

The game shows reflect Vietnam’s rapid economic development.

In the last decade, a middle class has emerged. Pit toilets are giving way to modern conveniences, cars are replacing motorcycles, and 90 percent of Vietnamese households have television sets. Game shows are helping to influence Vietnam’s first TV generation just like television transformed American culture in the 1950s.

In a society where education is seen as the way to economic freedom, Vietnamese say these TV programs serve as mass education. They are teaching people about world history, healthful living, and modern lifestyles.

Some Vietnamese see game shows also as a chance to get their 15 minutes of fame. Others hope that old friends or long-lost relatives will see them on TV and contact them. Many regard game shows as a kind of public IQ test.

“I want to test my intelligence,” said 9-year-old Trang, who acknowledged that her parents pushed her to sign up for the show “Fairy Garden.”

But there is also fear that the idiot box will live up to its name and that Vietnam will turn into a nation of couch potatoes.

“When TV has so many shows like that, it’s not good for the youth because they spend most of their time watching TV without doing anything,” said Nguyen Chau, a sociologist at Hanoi University of Foreign Studies. “They waste their youth.”

As in China, the government controls the TV stations here. Before game shows began taking off in the last few years, programming focused mainly on government announcements and dreary education-oriented fare.

The Communist government has been flexible with game shows because they don’t have political content. Private entrepreneurs have been allowed to produce the programs, and networks are buying licensing rights and importing games from the United States, Japan, and Europe.

Among the most popular: Vietnamese knockoffs of American shows such as “The Price Is Right” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

Every week, thousands of Vietnamese such as the Phams and Vus line up for a chance to play on television.

Pham Hong Nga, 32, and her husband waited four years before producers of “Sunday at Home” told them this summer that they might be selected soon. After that, the Hanoi couple never left the house together. They took turns going out at night so they wouldn’t miss a phone call. Nga, a mother of two, says she went to bed every night with her cellphone next to her.

The call finally came on a recent Thursday evening.

“I was so excited I couldn’t talk,” said Nga, who has since been preparing for the show by reading up on plumbing and cooking.

The prizes are a big draw. “Sunday at Home” offers housewares and appliances. Other game shows, such as “Fairy Garden,” give out books and scholarships.

One of the richest is “Ai La Trieu Phu?” or “Who Is the Millionaire?” Except that in Vietnam, the winner gets 100 million dong, or about $6,500 — about 10 times the average annual income.

No one has correctly answered the 15 questions to win that prize in the two years that the show has aired.

Television producers say that if people are hooked on game shows now, the genre, having started in Vietnam just a decade ago, will only get stronger.

Chau, the Hanoi sociologist, says the trend may be short-lived. Calling game-show watching a cheap, passive form of entertainment, he says people may favor other leisure activities as their incomes rise. 

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