There is a total of $1.3 trillion of outstanding student debt in the U.S. right now. Nearly 44 million Americans carry some debt from tuition related expenses. The average student now carries $37,000 in debt. A new game show hopes to alleviate those obligations by doing something novel: paying them off.
“Paid Off,” a show launched by network TruTV kicks off sixteen episodes this Tuesday. The show hopes to offer some real world help to individuals who are struggling with student debt and to also raise awareness around a problem that affects so many Americans.
The format of the show is traditional: Three contestants face off to answer trivia questions. The categories are education-related, there questions in categories such as “-ology,” for example.
Depending on how many questions a contestant answers in a speed round, the show will pay up to 100% of their outstanding student debt. Contestants must have student debt in order to be eligible to appear.
Though the theme of the show is comedic, show host and creator, Michael Torpey, makes sure the social message of the larger problem being solved is never far from viewers’ minds. A segment dubbed the “super-depressing fact of the week” recurs in every episode.
Torpey, a New York-based actor who is best known for a role on the Netflix drama Orange Is the New Black, met a woman who would become his wife in the late 2000s. Torpey’s parents had paid his student loans off, a gift he calls “unbelievable.” But his future wife, a Barnard undergrad and NYU post-graduate student, was struggling with student debt, still about $40,000 large at the time.
The couple struggled with those loans for years until Torpey was booked in a national commercial, a Hanes underwear ad opposite NBA great Michael Jordan.
“Her debt was a burden slowing her down from the whole reason she went out to get the college education to begin with. We looked at her debt amount and said, ‘Let’s just do this. Let’s write a check and wipe this thing out to give ourselves a clean slate,’” Torpey says.
“That experience woke me up to what student debt is doing to our students, to people who were doing everything right.”
Torpey conceived of the idea for the game show after that.
“I know what we are doing is a little ridiculous,” Torpey said. “But in a way the show matched my family’s story. The only way we could pay off student loans was because I booked an underpants ad? That’s insane.”
He enlisted the help of the non-profit Student Debt Crisis to make it a reality. TruTV would get involved after being pitched the idea from the show’s production company.
The network’s executives acknowledge the unorthodoxy of the show but believe that uniqueness is will attract viewers.
“We’re a comedy channel first and foremost,” senior vice president of development and original programming at TruTV Lesley Goldman told The Washington Post. “But we fell in love with this idea because of the unique hook of a game show taking the bite out of a student debt crisis. It seemed so incredibly innovative, relatable and timely.”