Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Monday, June 06, 2005
A diller, a dollar, a $240,000 Scholar
The New York Times
June 6, 2005 Monday
Late Edition - Final
Section E; Column 5; The Arts/Cultural Desk; Pg. 1
Smart Kids' Reality TV: Vying for Scholarships
The high-stakes process of winnowing the nation's brightest teenagers for admission to the most prestigious colleges has long been a reality show waiting for the right producer to figure out how to put it on the air.
And now, someone has.
Tonight at 8, ABC will show the first of six installments of "The Scholar," in which 10 high school seniors pursue a scholarship worth as much as $240,000 by outsmarting, out-talking and out-preening one another before a panel of actual college admissions officers. That sum is intended to cover tuition, room and board at an Ivy League or comparable institution for four years, as well as incidentals like books and travel.
There is plenty of tension -- in tonight's episode one boy, on the brink of tears, says he cannot bear to inform his immigrant parents that he has just lost an early round of the competition. Still, nobody on "The Scholar" loses: at the least, each contestant will walk away with a $20,000 scholarship. (The grand prize is being supplied by an education foundation created by Eli Broad, a California billionaire; the rest of the money has been given by Wal-Mart.)
The producers decided not to put the contestants in demeaning situations, relying instead on team-based puzzle-solving or one-on-one quizzes that would hardly be at home in the insect-crawling (and eating) scrimmages of shows like "Fear Factor" (on NBC) and "Survivor" (on CBS). And therein lies a question: will teenagers, the program's target audience, watch 10 of their peers, chosen largely for their high grades and College Board scores, as they compete in a genteel arena combining elements of the vintage programs "Queen for a Day" and "College Bowl" while sharing a home like those on MTV's "Real World"?
"The question is, will the audience be riveted by something that isn't humiliating?" said Tom Werner, the producer of "The Cosby Show" and "Roseanne" and one of the executive producers of "The Scholar." "Certainly there are high stakes in this. You're playing for some kids' futures."
Moreover, in a nod to the cottage industry that has risen up around the admissions process -- including test-prep guides and rankings -- Mr. Werner added that, at the least: "I think people that are interested in getting their kid into college will watch this."
Mr. Werner, who is also chairman of the Boston Red Sox, is not the only high-profile producer involved in "The Scholar." In addition to his partner, Marcy Carsey, he is joined by Jon Murray -- a creator and producer of "Real World" and the Paris Hilton vehicle "Simple Life" -- as well as a seemingly unlikely collaborator, the actor Steve Martin (and his producing partner, Joan Stein.)
Mr. Martin, who worked his way through the California State University in Long Beach and U.C.L.A. (he left before graduating to take a job as a writer on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"), said he was drawn to the program because he found the admission process it depicted to be eye-opening.
"I didn't know it was so complicated, so sophisticated," he said.
The program struck a far more resonant chord with Andrea Wong, who, as executive vice president for alternative programming at ABC, is responsible for its lineup of reality fare. In listening to the pitch by the producers of "The Scholar" last year, Ms. Wong reflected on her own college admissions odyssey in the mid 1980's, in which she was placed on the waiting list at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before being admitted two months later.
"It was one of the most stressful times in my life," Ms. Wong said.
"The Scholar" seeks to replicate, in front of the camera, a highly secretive ritual that usually takes place behind closed doors: the agonizing effort, by schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many others, to assess the academic potential, leadership qualities, activities and character of thousands more applicants than they can possibly admit.
Part of the show's authenticity lies in its origins. It was conceived by two former admissions officers, Jaye Pace (formerly of Columbia University) and Shannon Meairs (late of Pepperdine). In assembling an on-camera admissions committee for "The Scholar," they recruited two current Columbia admissions officers (Peter V. Johnson and Shawn Abbott) and one at the University of California at Berkeley (Marquesa Lawrence).
While the three admissions officers are supporting characters, the stars are the students. In a parallel to the actual college admissions process -- the program was taped in January, before most knew where they had been accepted -- each had to write an essay, supply grades and test scores and submit to extensive interviews. To assess how camera-ready they were, each was also required to provide a tape.
The 10 finalists were selected from among about 5,000 applicants recruited through Web sites or their guidance counselors. That rate of acceptance -- about 0.2 percent -- is far lower than that of Harvard, which was 9 percent this year.
The competing students have diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as life experience. Most were able to demonstrate at least some financial need, and each was able to point to an obstacle that he or she had overcome, whether it was scoliolosis (Melissa, from Tarzana, Calif.), the dangerous streets of Oakland, Calif., (Max) or racism (Gerald, of Commerce, Tex.)
One of the contestants, Milana Zaurova, 17, who lives in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and is a senior at Bronx High School of Science, said that the chance to compete for even the $20,000 scholarship (she was careful not to give away how far she progressed) was a huge relief to her family. Though admitted to Columbia, Princeton, Duke and Cornell, among other institutions, Ms. Zaurova said that her parents -- her mother, who is divorced from her father, is a Russian immigrant who works as a speech therapist -- earned too much money to qualify for much financial aid, though too little to pay full tuition.
"I felt so proud to be part of the first unscripted series to prioritize higher education," Ms. Zaurova said. "These days, all you find are shows like 'Who's Your Daddy?"'
Jeremy Tran, 18, the son of Vietnamese immigrants (his father is an auto mechanic) who now live in California, said that he, too, would not have otherwise qualified for much financial aid at the schools to which he was admitted, including Berkeley, Stanford, Yale and Harvard.
In addition to whatever money he had won, Jeremy said that it was fun to be treated "like celebrities." Mr. Tran also said that he had come away with a more sophisticated eye, in terms of how he watches reality programs, including his own.
"I'm more critical of myself," he said. "Like, 'Why do I look so sleepy in that shot?"'