The big prize on ‘dystopian’ new US game show ‘Paid Off’? Winners get their student debt erased
The show hopes to raise awareness of the US$1.38 trillion burden of US college debt, a particularly American problem
It’s the new American game show aiming to make a difference in a country where millions of university graduates battle for years to repay the crushing burden of student debt.
Paid Off offers recent college graduates a glimmer of hope. The prize isn’t a Hawaiian vacation or a new car – it's a cheque to repay the winner’s entire college debt.
College debt is a particularly American problem and one that is growing. According to the US Federal Reserve, Americans currently owe US$1.38 trillion in college debt, a figure that has more than doubled in the last 10 years.
“My wife and I struggled with student debt and could only pay it off because – true story – I booked an underpants commercial,” says host Michael Torpey introducing the quick-fire trivia show.
“But what about the other 45 million Americans with student loans? Sadly, there are just not that many underpants commercials,” he deadpans.
The College Board, a non-profit organisation, says the average cost of a US degree is US$34,740 a year at a private college, minus living costs.
The majority of the most prestigious universities in the United States are private. Many students borrow either the entire amount or a substantial part.
Paid Off made its debut on July 10, broadcast on TruTV, a subsidiary network owned by Turner Broadcasting best known for comedy reality shows and for whom recent college graduates are a key audience demographic.
While the vibe is light and funny, some have criticised the show as “dystopian”. But Torpey – previously best known as an actor on Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black” – says he is seeking to raise awareness and hopes to enact change.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” he advises. “Call your representatives right now and tell them we need a better solution than this show.”
Ryan's win on #PaidOff last night was an amazing moment, but we must remember it's a drop in the bucket. Call your reps (202-224-3121) and tell them the student debt crisis needs a better solution than a game show. #DebtFreeCollege pic.twitter.com/nu4xsY79ei
— Michael Torpey (@TorpeyMichael) July 25, 2018
Lesley Goldman, the network producer, says the programme is “a comedy game show that shines a light on a national crisis.”
“Student debt is a reality for millions of people and if it takes this absurd game show from Michael Torpey to spark a conversation about it, we’re thrilled to work with him to bring his vision to life,” he said.
While Goldman, who is senior vice-president of development and original programming at TruTV, declines to reveal audience numbers, he says the “buzz” and reaction on social media has been “outstanding.”
So far only 16 episodes have been filmed at the Turner Studios in Atlanta. “We’ll see if there’s an appetite for more episode orders in the coming weeks,” says Goldman.
TruTV did not fix an upper limit on a contestant’s debt, but Goldman says they tried to maximise the production budget for the 16 episodes “to ensure we could have the highest impact possible to all of our contestants.”
A Democratic member of Congress from California, John Garamendi, last fall introduced a bill designed to ease the college debt burden by allowing students to refinance their student loan interest rates and allow borrowers in medical or dental residences and internships to defer payments.
To date, the bill has remained dead in the water.