Game Shows

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Game Shows

It is not surprising that the game show has been one of the most enduring mass media formats. Combining entertainment and competition, celebrities and ordinary people, populism and the promise of instant success, game shows have tapped into elemental parts of the collective American psyche. America's most acute "quiz mania" occurred during the decades from the 1930s until the mid-1950s as a new incarnation of the American dream in which ordinary people, through luck and pluck, could rise from rags to riches overnight.

One of the first quiz programs appeared fairly early in radio's history. To increase its readership, Time magazine aired current events quizzes over the radio with The Pop Question Game, which lasted from 1923 to 1926. Other early radio contests of the 1920s included The Brunswick Hour Musical Memory Contest, The RadioDigest, Do You Know, and Ask Me Another. The Depression years also encouraged Americans' interest in game shows and quiz contests. Because listening to the radio was still free in an era of tight budgets and unemployment, people flocked to their sets for diversion. Local movie theaters picked up on the game craze by offering bingo games and bank nights to lure people in with the promise of affordable entertainment and the possibility of winning prize money. People were attracted to quizzes for these practical purposes, but the shows also tapped into more elemental needs and desires like the pursuit of fame. During the Depression people experienced both economic and social hardships, often feeling like they were "lost in the crowd," their individual needs abandoned by governmental and financial institutions. In 1932, workers at the Houston radio station KTRH tried to counteract this malaise by taking a microphone outside and asking passersby their opinions on the Roosevelt/Hoover election and other more random questions. First called Sidewalk Interviews and later renamed Vox Pop, the show, which offered prize money to its participants, lasted until 1948, and spawned similar interview shows all across the country.

Professor Quiz, originating in 1937 in Washington, D.C., was the first genuine money quiz. The show not only awarded money to individual contestants, but also sent money to people who submitted questions used on the air, immediately increasing participation from the on-air contestants to, potentially, the entire listening audience. In this way, even the early radio quiz shows spurred national interest and involvement, making them games of mass culture and mass appeal. Professor Quiz, for example, was so successful that within two years it had inspired over 200 variations, including a very popular version called Dr. I.Q. Other shows emphasized mental acuity by asking difficult questions. Of these, The Answer Man was one of the most popular, running for 13 years. It combined information and entertainment, becoming a frequent bet settler and voice of authority. The format of another show, Information Please, was designed to stump a panel of experts rather than the common man. Indeed, appearing as the weekly guest on the panel was a source of prestige, and often attracted entertainers and politicians to sit with the regular panelists. Created by Dan Golenpaul and launched in 1938, Information Please was so popular that in 1939 it had boosted sponsor Canada Dry's sales by 20 percent. In addition, in one of the first quiz show promotional tie-ins, there were items of spin-off merchandise, including Information Please home games and the still-active Information Please Almanac and Yearbook. This game and others like it (including a version for younger participants called Quiz Kids) gave the public new role models beyond sports and film stars, adding credibility and worth to intellectuals and academicians. Quiz language even entered the vernacular: the phrase "the $64 question," meaning a particularly tough question, came from Take It or Leave It, a popular gambling-based game show.

Like other media programming, quiz shows reflected the interests of the times. The Big Band influence of the late 1930s led to the creation of Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, which ran for 13 seasons, Melody Puzzle, Beat the Band, and So You Think You Know Music, among others. During World War II, "quiz programs and audience-participation shows stressed themes of patriotism and sacrifice, while boosting morale and offering a measure of 'escapist' cheer," in the words of historian Thomas DeLong. These shows often featured members of the armed forces, asked questions about the War itself, encouraged enlisting, raised money for war bonds, and frequently awarded war stamps and bonds as prizes.

After the war, quiz shows once again returned to emphasizing individual pursuits and pleasures, clearly expressing America's post-war preoccupations. Consumption and the possession of goods were seen as a solution to many personal problems and served as psychological and material relief after war-time rationing. Beginning in 1946, manufacturers shifted their production away from military products and back to domestic goods, but these items were still in short supply. Many game shows whetted the consumer appetite by taking place on location in department and grocery stores—traditional sites of merchandise display and mass consumption. Their titles included Bride and Groom, Second Honeymoon, Missus Goes a-Shopping, and Give and Take. In 1948 the four major radio networks alone gave away about $90,000 a week in merchandise spread over 54 programs, totaling $4.5 million by year's end. Go For the House offered the grand prize of a fully furnished $7,000 house; Break the Bank presented the chance at a $5,000 jackpot; and Stop the Music, hosted by Bert Parks, featured, in addition to a wealth of prizes, a jackpot that accrued weekly. This show and others like it, in which the studio called a random person who was listening to the show at home, even sparked an increased purchase of telephones so that people could feel as if they had an equal chance of participating.

Encouraging women's return to the domestic sphere after their war-time factory work, many shows blatantly pandered specifically to perceived female desires. Ladies Be Seated, hosted by Johnny Olson, involved women performing pranks for merchandise. Perhaps the most unfortunate example of this genre was Queen for a Day (1945-64), which was more an audience-participation show than a quiz show. On this program women told various tales of woe, from dead or out of work husbands to sick relatives and impending house foreclosures. The "winner"—the woman whom the judges deemed to be in the worst straits—received prizes meant to fulfill her special wishes. In 1946 alone over 40 companies supplied $250,000 worth of products to the show. Queen for a Day did not showcase the intellect of the common man, but instead spotlighted and exploited the financial and emotional burdens of the common woman, an early form of mass media therapy and confessional that presaged the daytime television talk shows of the 1980s and 1990s. Another show, Strike It Rich, similarly exploited people's misfortunes, but also required them to answer questions to receive cash and prizes. Various sponsors telephoned the "Heart Line," offering donations to these needy people while at the same time receiving on-air promotions. New York Times critic Jack Gould said at the time that the show "callously exploits human anxiety to sell the product of a soap manufacturer and does it with a saccharine solicitude that hits the jackpot in bad taste."

Successful radio emcees of the 1940s included John Reed King, Bert Parks, Bud Collyer, Jack Barry, Johnny Olson, Bill Slater, and Bill Cullen, and many of them were equally successful when the quiz shows went to televised broadcasts. The first televised quiz shows appeared in 1941 with Uncle Jim's Question Bee (hosted by Bill Slater) and Truth or Consequences (hosted by Ralph Edwards). Indeed, many of these former radio shows easily translated to television, and were often broadcast simultaneously in both mediums. New shows were also developed to take advantage of the visual aspects of television and its burgeoning stable of talent. Telequizzicals and Pantomime Quiz were both based on charades, and the latter featured guest appearances by actors such as Roddy McDowell, Jimmy Durante, Lucille Ball, Steve Allen, and Danny Thomas. In 1949, Pantomime Quiz won television's first Emmy as its most popular show.

However, tremendous popularity often brings a backlash, and, in the late 1940s game shows experienced a wave of negative publicity. People began to feel that the shows emphasized money at the expense of talent and intellect. The 1950 film The Jackpot, starring Jimmy Stewart, depicts the problems a man faces after winning prize money, which, far from bringing instant happiness, almost ruins his life. In effect a morality tale, the film points out many of the reservations people had about instantly winning, rather than earning, money and merchandise. In addition, in 1948, the FCC, in an attempt to improve the quality of programming in general, tried to outlaw most quiz shows as a form of a broadcast lottery, which was then illegal. After many legal maneuverings, the courts ruled in 1953 that banning quiz shows from the airwaves would constitute censorship, and thus allowed them to continue. The standard game shows of the late 1940s and early 1950s nevertheless sank in popularity and were replaced with comedy shows. The game shows that did appear on the air were, not surprisingly, influenced by this new trend and included such offerings as Tag the Gag, Stop Me If You've Heard This One, Draw Me a Laugh, Draw to Win, Doodles, Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life, and Beat the Clock. The last, the most popular of the comedy-quiz shows, was born of the prolific game show production team of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman. Beat the Clock, combining circus influences and sight gags, required people to successfully perform very difficult stunts in a limited amount of time. Future playwright Neil Simon helped write the show's stunts, while future actor and screen idol James Dean auditioned them in front of test audiences.

The early 1950s also saw the winning combination of Hollywood talent and intellectual prowess in popular panel games which featured celebrities and were hosted by academicians. The number of veterans who had recently completed their studies with the help of the GI Bill meant that there were more educated people who found entertainment both as contestants and audience members for quiz shows. The stars who appeared on these panels also benefited from this arrangement—the work paid well, afforded good publicity for an entertainer, showcased comedic talent, and often helped revitalize the careers of older comedians and actors. What's My Line, which began in 1950, was one of the longest running shows on television, becoming a Sunday night fixture on CBS for over 17 years. In this program panels, by asking yes or no questions, were enlisted to guess the unusual occupation of the night's guest. Over the years, panelists included such well-known entertainers as Steve Allen, Fred Allen, Arlene Francis, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Ernie Kovacs, and Jane Powell. Special guests included actor Frederic March, Mike Todd and his new wife Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Milton Berle, and Art Carney. What's My Line inspired a slew of more and less successful imitations including The Name's the Same, I've Got a Secret (with Bess Myerson, Henry Morgan, Betsy Palmer, and Bill Cullen), and To Tell the Truth (with Kitty Carlisle, Peggy Cass, Tom Poston, and Orson Bean). The panel shows amassed devoted followers who tuned in every week to witness the banter of their old friends; these followers were so loyal that they guaranteed the success of the shows even in the face of the quiz show scandals of the mid-and late 1950s.

The $64,000 Question (1955-58) was the first big-money television quiz show and was inspired by Take It or Leave It's "$64 question." Incorporating a televisual aesthetic that would reappear in shows like The Price is Right and The Wheel of Fortune, The $64,000 Question was described by Newsweek at the time of its first airing as "vaguely sleazy … compounded of beaverboard and sequins, liberally decorated with the name of the sponsor." The show was also referred to as the "Mount Everest" of quizzes because, to reach the peak prize, contestants had to return in subsequent weeks to risk their winnings to date for double the amount, beginning at $8,000. The $64,000 Question along with The $64,000 Challenge and Twenty-One created ongoing televisual dramas that pitted contestants against each other and provided suspense for the viewing audience. In addition, these shows created overnight folk heroes in their winners, who were equal parts intellectual and common man. Many were offered university lectureships, commercial endorsements, and guest appearances on television shows.

Although audiences believed that the player-against-player drama was naturally inspired by the tension of the games themselves, in actuality many of the contestants were coached by show producers. Twenty-One was the first show to blatantly use coaching as a method to create more on-air drama and to force larger stakes in order to draw a larger viewership. Out of greed and actual financial need, Herbert Stempel, a homely Jewish ex-soldier working his way through the City College of New York, knowingly participated in the fraud perpetuated by producer Daniel Enright. While Stempel had a photographic memory, Enright continued to coach him about the correct answers to questions to be posed on air. When Enright realized that Stempel was not a popular contestant, he recruited Charles Van Doren, tall, aristocratically handsome, and an Ivy League graduate who wanted the prize money to be financially independent of his family. Although Van Doren was at first reluctant to cheat, the producers convinced him that his repeated appearances on Twenty-One would be a good influence on national attitudes about teachers, education, and intellectual life. He relented, lasting 15 telecasts, accumulating $143,000 (the most single amount ever won on a quiz show), marriage proposals, a regular spot on The Today Show, and a teaching position at Columbia.

Stempel, angered at having to "take a dive," began to expose the quiz show rigging to journalists, who in 1957 discovered more jilted contestants and began formal investigations into the fraud at this and many other shows, including Tic Tac Dough and Dotto. Van Doren, after numerous protestations to the contrary, finally testified before a grand jury in 1959, admitting his collusion in the rigging of Twenty-One. The next day, he resigned his position at Columbia and the day after that was fired from The Today Show. Eventually he took a position as a columnist for Leisure magazine, and found regular employment at the Encyclopedia Britannica. Ironically, Van Doren was seen by many as a sympathetic figure, and the media compared him to "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who fixed the 1919 baseball World Series.

The scandals not only ended the impressive reign of the quiz shows, but also forced larger cultural discussions about the nature of American morality and the role of television "entertainment." To the media's chagrin, the general public lacked outrage, believing the issue to be irrelevant. Some in the television industry, in fact, claimed that the print media exaggerated the scandal in order to penalize a rival medium; yet these same people took steps to minimize the scandal's fallout, canceling all dubious shows and temporarily banning canned laughter and applause. CBS even went so far as to cancel Edward R. Murrow's six-year-old and respected Person To Person interview show because it was "rehearsed."

The Price Is Right, which first aired in 1956, weathered the scandal days to become one of the most popular game shows in America. Originally hosted by Bill Cullen, it encouraged the American consumer ethos by not only awarding prizes, but also rewarding people who were good shoppers—people who could come closer than their rivals to guessing the retail prices of goods (anything from a box of detergent to a yacht) without going over, would then win those goods. After a three-year hiatus, The Price Is Right returned to the air in 1972 hosted by the avuncular Bob Barker. It featured a glitzy studio and beautiful models who caressed the items "offered up for bid" and were as objectified as the goods themselves. Chosen middle-American audience members were exhorted by the announcer to "Come on down!" to be the next contestant, echoing the populist strains of the early quiz shows.

The quiz shows of the 1960s, in order to distance themselves from the scandals, renamed themselves "game" shows, and stayed away from big money prizes. Jeopardy, created by former game show host Merv Griffin in 1964, reversed the normal question and answer format by providing an answer and requiring contestants to supply the question. It was wildly popular especially among college students who regularly skipped class to watch it. Its original host, Art Fleming, was replaced by Alex Trebek in 1984. The 1970s saw a decrease in the number of and enthusiasm for game shows. As Thomas DeLong has written, "It seemed clear that prize money had become less of a riveting attraction to viewers and contestants alike. For the thousands who lined up at a game show studio with the hope of being selected as a contestant, it was less the promise of dollars and merchandise. The lure was television itself." Producer and game show host Chuck Barris, who referred to his shows as "popcorn for the mind," capitalized on this new attitude with the double entendre-filled The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. Let's Make a Deal with Monty Hall also lured Americans looking for televised attention—the most outlandishly costumed people were chosen out of the audience by Hall to be the day's contestants. These shows reflected the increasing desire among the populace for fame rather than fortune. The longing to appear on television in front of millions of viewers seemed to take precedence over anything else—even prize money.

Notable shows of the 1970s included The $100,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark, and new versions of old shows like Super Password, The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime, The $128,000 Question, and Tic Tac Dough (with game show veteran Wink Martindale). Family Feud with Richard Dawson, added a twist that seemed particularly suited to the conformist backlash of the late 1970s. Rather than coming up with the right answer to a question, Feud's teams of families had to guess which answer most people would give. Among the most outstanding shows beginning in the 1970s was the wholesome Wheel of Fortune, combining the children's game of Hangman with a Las Vegas-like spinning wheel to determine prize money. Originally hosted by Chuck Woolery (who later went on to host Love Connection and Scrabble), Wheel gained its greatest popularity in prime time when it was hosted by Pat Sajak and featured the fashionably bedecked former Miss America Vanna White as the letter turner. Still a favorite in the late 1990s, this show is often televised in conjunction with Jeopardy during early prime time hours, and the two together are a study in contrasts: Wheel relies partly on luck, celebrates the simple accomplishments of the common man, and encourages a camaraderie where contestants clap in support for one another. Jeopardy, in contrast, maintains a more reserved atmosphere. It is strictly an answer-and-question game that hearkens back to the intellectual challenges of Twenty-One and Information Please, requiring smart players to answer difficult questions before their opponents do.

Game shows have had a difficult time competing with the drama found in the daytime talk shows of the 1980s and 1990s. No longer do producers have to pay or reward people to come on television and tell their stories—people do it for free just for the temporary chance at fame and the spotlight. The Price Is Right has remained daytime television's game show mainstay, accompanied mostly by soap operas and talk shows. Prime time hours during these decades have witnessed the entrenchment of The Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, and the resurgence of Hollywood Squares, a celebrity-based show, modeled on tic tac toe. In addition, in the late 1990s, shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune have developed interactive computer games that allow people to play at home, and The Gameshow Network, which televised both classic game shows and new ones, debuted in 1998, at once reviving the game show format and relegating it to a single marginalized cable network.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Anderson, Kent. Television Fraud: The History and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1978.

DeLong, Thomas A. Quiz Craze: America's Infatuation with Game Shows. New York, Praeger, 1991.

Holbrook, Morris. Daytime Television Game Shows and the Celebration of Merchandise: The Price is Right. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.

Stone, Joseph, and Tim Yohn. Prime Time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s TV Quiz Scandal—A D.A.'s Account. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1992.