- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

It’s enough to warm the heart of George Gallup. “Power of 10,” a TV show based entirely on public opinion surveys, recently became the top-rated prime-time program in the nation, helping CBS win first place in the network ratings race.

There is no sex, swearing, autopsy scene, gunfire or explosion. There are lots of numbers. Contestants are challenged to predict percentages of actual surveys that gauge lifestyles, beliefs and behaviors — testing whether they have their “finger on the pulse of the American majority,” according to producer Michael Davies. Statistics are overseen by Rasmussen Reports, the real-life pollsters who normally gauge favorability ratings for presidential hopefuls and Congress.

Surveys showcased on the program have revealed, for example, that 7 percent of Americans say they have been abducted by aliens, 9 percent say Elvis Presley is still alive, 15 percent have sampled pet food and 19 percent think the world would be a better place if America “ruled all of it.”

Who knew?

Another 29 percent of us do not consider driving over the speed limit to be breaking the law, while 54 percent have asked themselves, “What would Jesus do?” when trying to make a big decision. Two-thirds said that given the choice, the government should save New York City rather than Los Angeles in the event of a giant asteroid strike.

On the home front, another 79 percent of Americans said that as an adult, they have told their father that they love him. This is reassuring news. Half of us also make our bed every morning, and almost half of us have admitted to dancing the macarena, which may or may not be reassuring news. What’s more, almost a quarter of us have wept over a bad haircut, while 41 percent have snooped inside someone else’s medicine cabinet.

The public mind-set also reveals a preoccupation with weighty matters: 21 percent of us think obese people should pay more taxes because “they cost the government more in health costs” while 27 percent of American women have been asked if they were pregnant when they weren’t. By the way, 22 percent of American men think they look good in a Speedo bathing suit, and 31 percent have worn their hair in a ponytail.

From a harsher realm, a third of us think women in the military should not be allowed in combat, 67 percent have fired a gun, 56 percent said they hate the New York Yankees more than the Boston Red Sox, 60 percent think they are smarter than President Bush, and 44 percent think people in prison should not be allowed to watch TV. Oh, and two-thirds would notify authorities if they spotted a Mexican crossing the border into the United States illegally.

We repeat: Who knew?

Once, data and statistics were far from the Hollywood mind-set. However, the sudden success of “Power of 10” brings new meaning to the phrase “cast of thousands.” Numbers have become the stars, propelled to fame by an audience intent on finding personal context in a restless and often anonymous world.

As the percentages parade by, viewers wonder if they belong to the demographic that has been abducted by aliens or think chubby people should pay a fat tax.

“Sometimes they take too long to get to the answers. But hey. It’s show biz,” said one pal who has yet to miss an episode.

“Is Elvis alive? Would I try Mighty Dog or do the macarena or, worse, the hokeypokey? This is all about what’s normal and what’s not normal. It’s about possibilities. It’s about what’s out there,” he concluded.

Knowledge of what’s out there, though, is worth serious cash. The winner gets $10 million, though the network is fairly picky about who appears on camera. Among questions CBS producers ask would-be contestants: “How well do you really know what Americans think?” “What is the hardest decision you ever made in your life?” and “What do you like about polling?”

Like them or not, polls have catapulted out of research and academic arenas into entertainment and beyond. They are fierce marketing, media and political tools; the goofier ones yield quick, rejuvenating little snapshots of life. Our apologies to Mr. Gallup, but polls also have come within reach of the common man. Anyone can devise his or her own personal survey on any topic through online resources such as www.polldaddy.com.

Comedian Drew Carey, who is hosting “Power of 10” before he takes over Bob Barker’s old spot on the “The Price Is Right,” is convinced the polling show might be — (sound effect: audience gasping) — intellectually stimulating.

“I’m always interested in what Americans think about things, and I like the idea that this is a show that could shake up people’s perceptions,” Mr. Carey recently told Associated Press. “I really do think that people’s perception about things is wrong most of the time.”

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and the hokeypokey for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washington times.com or 202/636-3085.

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