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MIT, Come On Down: You’re on The Price Is Right!

By Maria Schriver

What are you doing this Independent Activities Period? Richard A. Hovan ’03 appeared on television and won $10,000.

On Jan. 10, Hovan and nine other MIT students piled into an RV and set out for California to appear on The Price is Right.

The trip to California was months in the planning. After trying all summer for reservations, the group contacted CBS in October to reserve seats for a taping this January.

T. K. Focht ’04, one of the roadtrippers, has been watching the show for over 20 years.

“I'm one of the more rabid [fans],” Focht said. “Most people are generally fans or at least can be made fans.”

Hovan chosen to ‘come on down’

In an audience of 320, with fewer than 10 contestants on each show, the MIT students were by no means guaranteed that someone from their group would become a contestant.

Hovan, the only member of the group to compete on the show, was lucky enough to be one of the first four audience members to be called down to contestants’ row.

After outbidding the other three contestants on a dinette set, he became the third player on the show to make it up onto the stage for a pricing game.

Hovan lost the game, but had better luck in the “showcase showdown.” He bid within $1,000 of the actual price of a set of three vacations, good enough to win the prizes.

Students studied for the show

These were not, of course, typical contestants. In true MIT style, Hovan and company rigorously studied prices of the products that are typically featured on the show.

The students noticed that the show often reuses the same items, and tried to remember the prices of the most common items. Hovan and his friends made flashcards of the items and got to work.

“The whole idea is to watch the show and get an idea of what things cost,” said Dennis O’Connor, director of program practices for CBS.

O’Connor said that specific models of prizes are not reused, and for cars, the options change, changing the price somewhat.

Unfortunately, the MIT tradition of never-ending studying did not pay off for Hovan. None of the items he had studied were on the show, with the exception of the very first prize, which had been on the show the day before the group left Boston. Hovan did not win this prize.

Hovan looks to friends

Hovan told himself before the show that if he was a contestant, he “didn't want to look like that guy that always turns around [for audience help].”

“But as soon as I got up there, it was seriously impossible to think,” Hovan said.

Hovan turned to his friends for help, especially Focht, who Hovan said is “amazing at pricing.”

The group had agreed that if anyone became a contestant, they would all choose what to do with their prizes, rather than trying to split anything.

Because it is not possible to exchange prizes for money, Hovan now has to find time to take the three trips, and a place to put a new dinette set.

The students said that the trip was not just about winning the prizes.

Focht said he was “just really happy to see the show” and would not have been disappointed even if no one from the group was a contestant.

“Just to see it was insane,” Hovan said.

“Roadtripping is as fun as it gets. Even after 6,800 miles, we still didn’t hate each other,” he added.

Hovan said the best part of the show was the end, when all of his friends rushed up on the stage to celebrate with him.

Despite his memorable cameo role in the 1995 Adam Sandler classic Happy Gilmore, host Bob Barker was “really nice,” according to Hovan. Barker asked each of them where they were from and took their questions.

Behind the scenes

Ever wonder how contestants are chosen to “come on down”? The morning of the show, audience members line up outside the studio, and producers walk by and perform interviews. Producers choose the contestants, but do not inform them that they have been selected until they are actually called down to the famed “contestants’ row.”

This process sounds tedious, but CBS officials have found it worth the trouble.

“If you go random, you might get someone who’s a snooze. They want people who are exciting,” O’Connor said.

Hovan noticed that most of the audience members and other contestants were college students. O’Connor said this is likely when shows are taped during a college break. Plus, “young people are willing to stand outside at 3:00 in the morning, waiting to get in.”

On The Price is Right, audience members are chosen to “come on down” and compete with three other contestants to guess the prices of prizes. The contestant whose guess is closest to the actual price without going over moves up to the stage to play one of several games in which they try to guess the price of a prize or of household items in order to win a prize.

The game ends with a “showcase showdown” in which two contestants, selected by spinning a huge wheel, each bid on one of two showcases of several prizes each. Again, the player whose bid is closest to the actual price without going over wins their showcase.

The show will air on Feb. 3 at 11 a.m. The group of students who were in the audience will watch it in the second floor lounge of the student center, exactly where they have been watching it regularly for over a year.