The Price Is Right

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The Price Is Right

The longest-running game show in television history is The Price Is Right, a proving ground of consumer shrewdness that will serve future historians well as an artifact of capitalist ideology. As it entered its sixth decade on the air during the 1990s, the program continued to beguile millions of shut-ins, homemakers, and truant school children on a daily basis nationwide.

The venerable game show made its debut on NBC in November of 1956, with Bill Cullen as host. In its early days the program had a rigid format centered on contestants guessing the prices of various consumer items. It ran until 1965 in this incarnation, at which point it was canceled and seemed consigned to TV oblivion. But the show came back in 1972 with a new host, genial former Truth or Consequences emcee Bob Barker. He would remain with Price Is Right throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, logging more man-hours on network television than any other person in history.

Under Barker's stewardship, the show took on a less fixed format. A host of different price-guessing games were introduced, some with complicated rules that bewildered the participants. In "The Clock Game," for example, the contestant was given 30 seconds to guess the prices of two prizes. The price of the items was shown only to the live audience and the viewers watching at home. Barker provided assistance by telling the contestant if the prices he or she guessed were higher or lower than the actual price. The process continued until the contestant guessed the exact price. At the end of every show were "showcase" rounds in which the successful contestants could compete for expensive prizes like trips, cars, and furniture.

A number of staple features gave Price Is Right a distinctive look and sound. Announcer Johnny Olson added his unique voice to America's pop cultural consciousness with his booming exhortation to contestants to "Come on down!" Rod Roddy succeeded Olson after his death in 1985. And "Barker's Beauties," an ever changing stock company of leggy models who presented the prizes, were on hand to hook male viewers. Over the years there were a number of notable onstage mishaps as well, including a woman who lost her tube top while "coming on down" and a refrigerator that nearly toppled over onto a contestant.

One of the more unusual aspects of Price Is Right's long television run was the bizarre behavior of its host and star, Barker. A onetime karate student of action hero Chuck Norris, Barker seemed the epitome of blow-dried, hair-dyed emcee cool on stage. Off the set, however, he often courted controversy. An ardent animal rights activist, Barker enraged the producers of the Miss U.S.A. Pageant in 1988 when he stopped hosting the show to protest the fact that fur coats were being given to contestants. The next year, in response to ads Barker had run in Variety accusing them of negligence and incompetence, the American Humane Association, an organization that monitors the treatment of animals in show business, slapped the host with a $10,000,000 suit for libel, slander, and invasion of privacy.

Litigation against Barker was not confined to his political activity, however. It reached into his personal life as well. In 1994, Dian Parkinson, a former Price Is Right model, sued Barker for sexually harassing her during their years together on the show. According to the suit, Parkinson claimed Barker frequently called her to his dressing room, told her that "Daddy's bored," and then forced her to perform oral sex on him. The case was eventually dropped.

Such shenanigans might have been the kiss of death for any other game show host, but not for Barker, who kept rolling along even after he stopped dying his hair (with network approval) in 1987. The new, silver-maned Barker gave no indication of slowing down, and Price Is Right continued to do well in the ratings. Like its host, this revered television institution has proven that a little snow on the roof does not preclude the existence of a considerable fire in the furnace.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Schwartz, David, Steve Ryan, and Fred Wostrbrock. The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows. New York, Facts on File, 1995.

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The Price Is Right

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