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Series / Debt

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The set and logo from the first season.

"Drowning in a sea of bills? Then it's time to play Debt! The game show where three debt-laden Americans just like you compete to have us pay off all of their bills and go home with nothing!!"
Opening Narration, as read by Wink Martindale

Debt is an American Game Show hosted by genre veteran Wink Martindale which ran on Lifetime from 1996-98, and could be argued as the Ur-Example of the show that revived the whole genre after an early-1990s swoon. It got good ratings but was canceled after two seasons when it was learned that some half of those ratings came from viewers who were men.

Three contestants began the game, each with fairly sizable amounts of debt (ranging from $6,000 to $10,000); the three contestants' debts were averaged to the nearest dollar for parity. The object of the game was to eliminate your debt by answering pop culture questions, each worth "negative dollars" (i.e., -$100) that would subtract from your debt.

  • Round 1 - General Debt: Five categories were shown, each with five clues worth from -$50 to -$250. One of the players picked a clue, which was read as a first-person clue (e.g., "I'm the TV show about a bar 'where everybody knows your name'."). Players would then buzz in and answer it with a second-person response (e.g., "You are Cheers, Wink!") Wrong answers added to your debt. One clue was called the "Debt-O-Nator", and was worth -$500 for getting it right. In the second season, the rules were changed so that players simply picked the category and had all five clues read in increasing order, the Debt-O-Nator doubled the value of one category's clues, a -$1 toss-up was asked to award control at the start (originally the player with the most real-life debt started off), and players no longer had to answer in second-person. The player with the most debt remaining after time was called was eliminated.
  • Round 2 - Gambling Debt: The two remaining players were shown a category, and would bid on how many of the five clues they could answer correctly. The value of the category either went to the player who fulfilled their bid, or the other player if the bid was not completed. Categories were worth -$300, -$400, -$500, -$750, and -$1,500; whoever had less debt remaining (or was so far ahead the other player couldn't catch up) won the game.
  • Round 3 - Get Outta Debt: A 60-second Speed Round where the player tried to answer 10 questions in a given category correctly. Successfully doing so effectively eradicated their debt by winning a cash prize equal to it. Otherwise, they got the money earned in the front game.
  • Round 4 - Bet Your Debt: The player was offered a double-or-nothing gamble by answering one final question based on the contestant's chosen pop culture specialty. If they got it right, they doubled their winnings; if not, they lost the money and settled for a Consolation Prize.

This show provides examples of:

  • All or Nothing: Played with; the whole premise of the show was for people to walk away with "nothing"; i.e., no more debt. Early in the run, contestants who were unsuccessful in Get Outta Debt had to answer their specialty question correctly in order to claim their front game winnings; in these cases, Wink would mention "It's all or nothing, and what you want is nothing."
  • The Announcer: Julie Claire is the show's main announcer.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Brought in by the "Debt Security Guard" when tempting a contestant with Bet Your Debt, but only if s/he won Get Outta Debt.
  • Bonus Round: Get Outta Debt and Bet Your Debt, collectively.
  • Bonus Space: Round 1's Debt-O-Nator.
    • In the first season, this was "the hardest question on the board" and was valued at $500.
    • In the second season, the Debt-O-Nator was issued to an entire category and was worth double the dollars.
  • Canis Latinicus: For whatever reason, Wink occasionally referred to the contestants as "contesti" during the show's opening.
  • Catchphrase: "Let's get this party started!"
  • Complacent Gaming Syndrome:invoked Having only five clues in each category of Round 2 made it so the vast majority of the time, the opening bid was four questions. This would then force the other player to bid a perfect five or tell the first player to complete their bid.
  • Consolation Prize: Players eliminated in the first two rounds got a Debt-branded piggy bank and a savings bond ($200 for the Round 1 loser, $500 for the Round 2 loser). Players who bombed on Bet Your Debt got either a $1,000 or $1,500 savings bond, depending on whether or not they had won Get Outta Debt.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The first-season game board looked kind of like a horizontal Jeopardy! board.
    • In early episodes, the show's logo very strongly resembled that of Visa credit cards.
  • Game Show Host: Wink Martindale, best known for Tic-Tac-Dough. Commonly known as one of the cheesier hosts in the business, he turned it up to eleven for this show.
  • Golden Snitch: Averted; Gambling Debt ended as soon as one player was mathematically eliminated from contention. In some runaway games, this could happen as quickly as the third category.
  • Let's Just See What WOULD Have Happened: The Bet Your Debt question was always asked, even if the player decided not to take the gamble.
  • Non-Standard Game Over: Gambling Debt could end as early as the third category if one contestant got too far behind of the other, making it mathematically impossible to catch up.
  • Opening Narration: As described at the top of the page.
  • Rules Spiel: Pretty much all the rules, but most notably "All of our questions use the 'I am/You are' format, and you will be penalized for an incorrect answer."
  • Shout-Out: In the first season, the piggy bank was Hamm from Toy Story. It was changed to a generic piggy bank in the second season.
  • Speed Round: Get Outta Debt.
  • The Stoic: The "Debt Security Guard", a bald and bearded man (nicknamed "Mr. Clean") whose only role was to present the Briefcase Full of Money when Wink explained Bet Your Debt. During one famous instance where a Bet Your Debt winner ripped off his toupee, the guard put it on and danced a bit.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: If you add a negative number (the value of the clues) to a negative number (the player's score), the sum would be even lower, thus the contestant would end up going deeper into debt. Presumably they simply opted to overlook this, otherwise the game wouldn't work.
  • You Wanna Get Sued?:
    • The original logo looked almost exactly like the Visa card logo and, after threats of a lawsuit, was changed to a more generic red title surrounded by a light-green border.
    • The first round was changed after threats of a lawsuit from Columbia TriStar Television, successor in interest to Merv Griffin Enterprises, claiming too much resemblance to Jeopardy!.

We'll be back next time with three new big spenders, and we'll do the best we can to get 'em out of... DEBT!