Front Game Rules (first season)
In the game of Debt, three players who are in the red by anywhere from $6000 to $8500 compete for the chance to win enough money to pay off their bills (or as they said on the show, "Go home with nothing!") At the beginning of the show, the debts are averaged to make things fair. In the first season, the first round consisted of 5 categories, each with 5 questions ranging in value from -$50 to -$250. A box was picked, the clue was read, and the player who buzzed in got to guess. If correct, the player had that amount reduced from his/her debt. All questions used an "I am/You are" format, and players were penalized if they gave an incorrect answer.
One question in the round was the "Debt-o-Nator", which was the most difficult question on the board and worth -$500. At the end of the first round, the third-place player was eliminated from the game and given a $200 U.S. Savings Bond. The remaining two players advanced to the next round, "Gambling Debt."
In the second round, a category was shown, and the players would bid back and forth with how many questions out of the 5 available s/he could get right. Bidding would continue until one player bid all 5 questions or one challenged the other to "Prove it!" If the player could satisfy the bid, s/he won the value of the category; otherwise, it went to the other player. Categories were worth $300, $400, $500, $750, and $1500. Play would go on until all five categories were used or until one player couldn't catch up. The loser took home a $500 savings bond; the winner continued to play the end game.
Front Game Rules (second season)
In the show's second season, the rules were tweaked in the first round. Now, the players only chose categories; the questions were then asked one-by-one in order. Also, control at the beginning was determined by one quick toss-up question, worth -$1. The "Debt-o-Nator" now used one full category, with each question being of double value. Also, it was no longer necessary for the players to prefix their answers with "You are..."
The end game was played in two parts. First was "Get Outta Debt," which consisted of a 60-second speed round. The player was given a category and then had to answer 10 questions within 60 seconds regarding the category, passing as necessary. Success or failure of this task determined what was at stake in the second part of the end game. If you got 10 right before time ran out, you'd win an amount of money equal to your debt. If not, you'd receive the amount you accumulated during the front game.
That money was yours, unless you decided to "Bet Your Debt." In the second part of the endgame, one more question was offered, the category of which is one the contestant's fields of specialty (A particular movie, the songs of a certain band, etc.) If the player went for it and answered correctly, their winnings were doubled. If they're wrong, they lose the money and instead have to settle on a savings bond for $1500 if they won the last round, $1000 if they didn't.
To date, this has been Wink Martindale's last show. Wink, who is best known for his work on "Gambit" and "Tic Tac Dough", has been involved with a total of 21 game shows - the third most in television history. Ahead of him are Tom Kennedy (22) and Bill Cullen (24).
Debt premiered on Lifetime on June 1, 1996 - the same day Family Feud host Ray Combs committed suicide by hanging himself.
Early in the run, the "Bet Your Debt" round was a must-win situation for those who didn't succeed in the "Get Outta Debt" segment. You had to win the last round to claim the money you had picked up earlier in the game; otherwise, it was the savings bond for you.
Debt holds the proud distinction (at least, in my mind) as being the first TV game show to mention the band They Might Be Giants. They were the answer to a Debt-o-Nator clue in the first season:
Unfortunately, there were no music connoisseurs among the contestants, and the question was a deadball. The eventual winner was unsuccessful in Get Outta Debt, went for the gamble, and blew that too. That's what happens when you snub TMBG. : )
Debt is also among the most criticized shows in terms of its grammar and arithmetic. Some shows opened with Wink referring to the players as "Contesti," but an "i" can only be used as a plural for words that end in "us". (Alumnus/alumni, focus/foci, hippopotamus/hippopotami) Also, all the questions were valued in terms of negative dollars. Although it serves only to add to the gimmick, negative dollars would add to a player's debt, not subtract. WWYC? IDK.
In some cases, game show fans should not overlook this show - it was the very first game show premiere since the genre went into a funk in the early 90's. But, there were some definite flaws in the show. First of all, Wink's job was to do little more than read cue cards for the entire run. He had no room to ad-lib anything, and that hurt his performance. The first round was a blatant rip-off of Jeopardy, and the second round stole elements from Name That Tune and Wipeout. Still, the payoffs on the show were quite impressive for something done on cable, and the Bet Your Debt element was a terrific dramatic vehicle. It's a shame this show isn't still on the air.