The difference between KBC and a lottery


“Kaun Banega Crorepati” (KBC), India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is watched by between 15 and 20 million Indians. In parts it is great entertainment. But a part of it is pretty darned close to a lottery.

This season we added a box for satellite TV to the many boxes in our entertainment center. It’s come to the stage where I can no longer make out what the scores of wires behind my entertainment center connect. If something comes loose we’ll just have to move houses.

Anyway, we added satellite TV so my wife could watch KBC. However, it is great family entertainment and the kids and I also join in. Like most Indians, I get the first few questions right, but once they go into the lakhs of rupees per question range, my GK starts crumbling. In all these questions of varying difficulty, the questions the easiest are always the “Har Seat Hot Seat” questions.

As many of you might know, the HSHS question is not meant for the contestants in the studio. It is supposed to be a question for the viewing audience. If Jai Public thinks he knows the answer, he can call in and punch a few keys to register his phone number and his answer. SMS also works. The rules are here. (mute the speakers, there is a very irritating video player whose controls don’t work)

The HSHS questions are generally dead simple. One of the tougher ones that I remember was:

Mussoorie can be best described as a

a) something inane
b) hill station
c) something inane
d) something inane

If you think about it, it is quite probable that nearly everyone who is watching the show knows the answer to this one. Which is precisely what Star TV wants. Because you see the easier the question, the more money they make. The rates that BSNL/MTNL and Airtel charge for these calls and SMSs are premium rates. Regardless of the number of correct answers, there is only one award of Rs. 1 lakh that is awarded through random selection. I am pretty sure this scheme is nicely profitable for all parties concerned – the telcos and Star TV.

Except that this isn’t just any scheme. It’s a game of chance – a lottery. Let’s say that you paid Rs. 2.40 a ticket that would entitle you to be part of a random draw for a single prize of Rs. 1 lakh. That would be a lottery, right? Well, how different is HSHS from a lottery?

HSHS is basically a game of chance, with a thin veneer of a game of skill. Ironically, the thinner the veneer, the more people dial in and the more money they make.

Star TV will claim that HSHS is a “Contest” and not a lottery. Consumer product companies in India have run Contests since the beginning of time. In its simplest form a Consumer Contest requires you to buy the company’s product and answer a ridiculously simple question to win a prize (of course selected randomly). Which is of course a sham and a loss of revenue for the government (they should be taxing it like they would gambling). But perfectly legal.

KBC must like the results they are getting from HSHS because they have now extended audience participation to every question and morphed it into Khelo India Sath Sath (KISS). I am not surprised. Gambling is a universal vice.

In a different vein, I would love to lay my hands on the results data from HSHS or KISS (which I probably won’t especially after this blog post!). Here are some of the interesting questions/hypotheses that come to mind:

1. Let’s first assume that the difficulty of a question (D) is measured by the % of responses that go to the right answer. In other words, if the answer is b) the higher the % of total responses that are b), the easier the answer.
2. What is the curve between total number of responses (T) and D. Does it have a local maxima somewhere? That is, is there a value of D below which people will realize that the question is so easy that their chances of winning in a random draw are tiny and they don’t respond, bringing T down. I doubt it. Just because people don’t think that much. But still, an interesting plausibility.
3. What is the regional dispersion of the responses? My wife, who is Tamil, thinks that KBC is biased towards North Indians. I tend to agree. The “Fastest Finger” question in one round was to arrange “Bambe, Akkad, Bo, Bakkad” in the right order. That is hard core Hindi heartland. Difficult for anybody for whom Hindi is a second language.
4. What is the distribution of responses across fixed line and wireless? Across Pop Strata?

A really interesting exercise in human psychology would be to compare the response results for a show like American Idol with KBC. American Idol (Isn’t there an Indian Idol too?) also involves calling in with your vote. But you don’t vote to get a prize. You vote to get your favourite to go into the next round. My hypothesis would be that voting is heavier of course in the later rounds but also when the distribution of votes across contestants is more even. Basically, I-vote-when-my-vote-counts-the-most kind of a thing. In KBC, that would make D high, which would actually mean a lower response rate.


  1. Siddharth says:

    Basab, try plotting a curve between ‘number of comments on your blogs’ versus ‘understanding level of the blogs’. I think you will find it difficult to prove the correlation as a result of any one parameter alone. Likewise, trying to establish a correlation between (D) and (T) only is very simplistic. ‘One’ act is usually the result of ‘many’ wills. I would tend to think that (T) also depends on show’s ratings, time of the show, ease of sending a response thru SMS etc., Who’s the Anchor?, whether the question is asked before or after a commercial?, and so on. In summary, (T) is a function of (D), (E), (F), (G), (H),… But what matter’s most for the viewers is entertainment, and money matters only to the companies. No body complains when you go to a fair and try hoola.. throw 3 or 5 rings around a bar of soap or a bottle of soda. Sometimes just enjoy things as they are. Being analytical or conclusive always is going too far. Don’t post a blog just because you have to use the setup (Sorry!)


  2. Anuradha says:

    The SMS responses to questions is the whole business model for these programs, otherwise how do you think they are affording the anchors they have, ad revenue obviously can not pay for it. And in the end it is the way we are paying for the entertainment that these programs provide us.
    I agree with Siddarth that you are doing over-analysis this time.



  3. Shefaly says:

    Basab, gambling to voting is a very big leap in one post. Both phenomena work to very different economic models of expected return and probabilities associated with the whole choice set of returns. The rational economic being actually does not go to vote, which any basic textbook in Economics will easily explain. The rational economic human being also understands that the chances of winning in a lottery are very small, and therefore does not gamble unless he has access to some information that others do not, in which case he is operating with an information asymmetry which improves his chances over that of others’.

    Programmes that ask people to call or text in – esp on premium rate lines – without explaining the chances of ‘winning’ are coming under scrutiny of the media watchdog in the UK, and may need a licence soon. See:

    So Star TV chaps are taking a chance on the general public’s ignorance about probability, nothing more.

    On a lighter note, the book ‘Q&A’ by a former Indian diplomat is an interesting story of an illiterate boy who becomes a Crorepati mainly by going through strange life experiences.


  4. Daz says:

    Any ur point is????


  5. Basab says:

    Anuradha, the ends (paying for good entertainment) don’t justify the means (running a lottery). Here is an excerpt from the link that Shefaly just sent – “Those of the televised quizzes with questions so easy they do not involve any real skill do qualify as lotteries, the Gambling Commission said.” I wish I had read this article before I posted. The case being made is the same.

    Shefaly, thanks for the link. The comparison between voting and responding to an online quiz is a bit of a stretch, I agree. But it would be interesting data nevertheless.


  6. sunita says:

    KBC is justlike any other serial….vastly popular since people are normal people you see on the roads everyday…and the “common man” pulse is the USP.

    If HSHS Questions are equivalent to gambling, so are all the questions asked after a cookery show or after any serial…a very basic “matter of fact” question!!!!

    Its a thin line differentiation and the more we analyse the more we worry, and then we want policies governing shows, politicians fighting in the parliament….news channels covering and debating them….

    So sit back and enjoy and lets worry about the more pertinent issues in India.


  7. varun Dabke says:

    Hi Basab,
    I really wish you do some analysis and write a post on Sanjaya Malakar and if some one benifits from this.


  8. KK says:

    For the lines “loss of revenue to the Government”…I suppose Government already is having a big pie in it. Government has already released Contest Postcards which is costlier than the normal postcards…I suppose Indian Government will not loose a chance to Tax the middleclass Indian so they must be receiving additional taxes due the smses…Its foolish at the educated class end to send these costly smses and waste their time for these foolish programs..


  9. Santosh says:

    Basab, nice analysis of KBC. Let me see if i have the key aspects of their model right, get a top celebrity to host a game show, thereby attracting lots of eyeballs. Leverage the extent of the interest by getting them to participate in a lottery – in which all participants are aware that it has 20 million other participants!

    Shefaly, is the rational economic human being also the average human being (or Indian in this case)?

    – Santosh


  10. Sajag says:


    Nice analysis. However,

    Just came across the line on “KBC is biased towards North”.

    First of all, let me clarify that I do not belong to North or South (and especially I see the division is intense in Tamilnadu – TN). I am from India or for people who talk of North-South, I am from East India. And Hindi is not mother tongue, rather 3rd language. Also I am not telling everything Hindi is beautiful or lovable.

    Now, coming to Chennai, a place where I have stayed for over 5 years. There are certainly some of the very good things about the city and certainly some of the worst I have come across.

    And KBC has a localized version of it there. So, people do not watch KBC in TN/Chennai.

    Now about bias:

    1. Chennai is the only metro in India where if you speak Hindi, you will be immediately an outcast.

    Now shall I learn Tamil? What advantage it will serve me India? I can manage to stay in any part of India by speaking Hindi though!

    Though I know Tamil, I am sure it is of no use, as I have seen across India/World.

    2. Chennai is the only metro in India where Hindi news channel gets cut off.

    Imagine people who come from Hindi background or know Hindi, but can not afford satellite channels. Will they watch day and night Tamil serials?

    3. Chennai is the only metro in India, where even in Central office departments, Hindi is prohibited.

    I can understand if it is RTO, PWD of TN.

    But what about railways, postal service etc?

    Can you imagine a poor person coming from any place other than TN to Chennai Central (where booking happens) and the railways staff clearly refuse to talk in Hindi.

    How that person will get a ticket? I have seen a very old couple from Vanaras having a nightmarish experience there. Their only fault was that they wanted to see Rameshwaram (considered to be holy by Hindus)

    4. Chennai is the only metro in India where every mark on road/transport/public services is either in English or Tamil.

    Is every person supposed to know English even he is not from TN?

    What about someone who is very poor and fall in while passing through Chennai?

    5. Chennai is the only metro in India where auto drivers (and perhaps the worst in the India/World) will refuse to take you can not speak Tamil.

    Now, not everyone can not immediately speak Tamil.

    Other option being public transport, which though not completely ruled out, is very a very tough thing.

    How many person will you ask before you come to know that someone finally understands English or Tamiligsh (it is somewhat different like Hinglish.)

    6. Chennai is the only metro in India where you will be asked which part of India you belong to when you shift your house.

    Well, I am not from “North”. But, still the look they give. For “Northies” anyway, you know…

    7. Chennai is the only metro in India where even if you stay for your entire life, you will be considered as an outsider (only exception may be if you are film star).

    It is very sad, but true.

    8. Chennai is the only metro in India where LTTE is tremendously supported.

    I have been to Punjab and Assam. But have never seen such kind of public support from people in high positions.

    My belief, any kind of terrorist activities is evil.

    Can any other “metro” in India provide such things or display such kind of behavior? I can say a big NO as I have been to all of them.

    KBC is actually a Hindi version and saying that it is biased towards North is not fair.

    Finally, why I am writing all these things?

    1. I guess you are from Orissa. And of course you have been across India/World.

    Perhaps you will in a very good position to understand the fact.

    2. You are from one of the best institutes from India (also I think your wife is from IIM-A), you can very well understand the pain of staying in such a place, where talent though valued, is very regional.

    May be that is reason why not a single software company of repute (as far as I know Infy/Wipro/TCS/Satyam/CTS/PCS/i-Flex/HCL etc.) came from Chennai/TN. As here it is about team culture, acceptance.

    Any Chennai with its very good infrastructure (and of course transport service) along with talent pool, never saw the explosive growth that Bangalore has seen.

    The opposite is also true. I am a big fan of M.S. How many people in India know MS as they a Lata Mangeshkar. Or even a trival one like how many know a Vikram (also a strong fan of him) as compared to a Amir Khan?

    3. Your blog is one of the best, which I have come across in the net.

    And I wanted to provide my comments.

    Above all, people from different regions/cultures not only provide a stimulating environment to work, but a high competing and hence better life also. And hence, may be the US is the best nation in that respect.

    And hopefully it helps to open up some eyes. Yes, I do not know whether you will publish this or not 🙂


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