A Great Time to Be a Game Show Fan
This is our last get-together of the century and what an end it has been for us game show devotees. After a drought far longer than the one my town endured last summer, to see networks scrambling to develop hit prime time quizzes is a phenomenon I never thought I would see again in my lifetime.
Many have written to ask why a college professor has a profound interest in game shows. After all, the world of academe is supposed to be after loftier pursuits, such as getting government grants to research why people say the word "ain't." Or examining why caves are cold.
Truth be told, I'm still relatively new (seven years) to the halls of ivy. I was a television newscaster and news director for 20 years before I moved into teaching. Just like many of you, my college years in the early-to-mid '70s were centered at the noon hour in a major dilemma: Password or Jeopardy!? Split Second or The 3 Ws? However, my roots with game shows drift back far earlier.
I owe, indirectly, my devotion to TV games to my father. I learned to read and write at the age of 17 months. My father says three of the first words I ever said were, "Strike It Rich." By the time I was three, I was talking about Tide, Duz, Revlon and Hazel Bishop. One of my earliest memories was at three and a half. Bedtime was usually 8 o'clock for me. However, one Tuesday night, my father allowed me to stay up to see a fellow named Bob Bennett from Kingsland, Ga., take a crack at The $64,000 Question. We later found out Bob was told if he didn't know the answer, the producers would be glad to tell him because he was a jolly soul who went over well with the audience. Bob was one of the honest ones who refused help. He missed but he drove back to south Georgia in a new Cadillac.
After Bob's miss, Daddy let me sit up until 10:30 every Tuesday night to see Question. I still recall the young Robert Strom working complicated math problems on a translucent chalkboard in that isolation booth until he swept the $64K. I memorized the think music, the theme song, the language Hal March used to lead into all the questions. I even fired off a letter in my erratic child's handwriting to apply to be a contestant. Only problem: I applied S&H Green Stamps to the envelope. The mailman had a huge chuckle from that one.
When Question moved to Sunday nights for that last short run in November, I had no idea what was about to happen. My mother reminds me frequently how I was heartbroken when Ralph Paul appeared on camera on an August morning in 1958 and abruptly told the audience Dotto was gone. Ralph's short announcement was like an obituary to me. I didn't want to see Top Dollar.
My parents bought me assorted home versions of the television games. I had almost all of them: Question, To Tell the Truth, Name That Tune, The Price Is Right, Strike It Rich, Break the Bank and a first edition of both Concentration and Password. Oh, what I wouldn't give to have had more perception than a kid. I lost virtually all of those games (with the exception of my 33 1/3 rpm album from the Name That Tune game. I keep promising to send Jay Florentine, George DeWitt's son, a cassette of that game album. Jay, that's my New Year's resolution. A girl I dated in my first year out of college had a $64,000 Question game in her mother's attic and kept promising me she would give it to me. Some people suggested I only dated her merely to get the game. If so, it didn't work. I don't have it and she never delivered.
Those were the years. The games never totally died after the scandals shot down the big-money shows. Yet, we never saw a complete revival until the mid-1970s when the FCC's Prime Time Access Rule opened that 7:30-8 p.m. time period in the Eastern and Pacific time zones. Local stations grabbed every game they could get because they were cheap and drew excellent ratings. Yet, network television still shied away from games in prime time after ABC unloaded its final three in 1971.
Oh, an occasional stab would be made. CBS tried I've Got a Secret for four weeks in the summer of 1976 but threw it against Happy Days when it was the number one show on television. Ed McMahon's Whodunit? and Dick Clark's Krypton Factor would show up briefly in the late '70s and early '80s. The most prolific try was for six weeks in the summer of '86 when The Price Is Right was given a shot but against The Cosby Show and Family Ties. Guess what happened.
My father and I would make another connection in the 1970s when I was home from college for the summer. We watched Password and Split Second religiously for two years when he came home for lunch. Those were wonderful days. I honestly believe he enjoyed Tom Kennedy and Split as much as he did Question 20 years earlier. Like me, he couldn't believe it when ABC prematurely unloaded the show because of a new daytime executive trying to "remake" the network.
I truly held onto faith the day would come when the right game at the right time with the right elements would strike lightning with viewers and a network would take notice. Yet, by the late '90s, I was beginning to be convinced those hundreds of pundits were right: the audience perhaps was too sophisticated, possibly younger people were too interested in the interactivity of computer games. Could it be the game show was going the way of the weekly western on television?
When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire debuted in August, I told my father about it. He said he'd give it a try. I hoped he would because I could always gauge a game show by his reaction. He's 73 now and not the demographic producers seek. Yet, after three nights, he told me: "That Millionaire is good. It's the best thing since $64,000 Question." It should have been. It was Question. Only differences: bar stools instead of isolation booths, more plateaus and an inflated jackpot and a higher-tech light show. Otherwise, you find little unique. The $64,000 category on WWTBAM is even a subtle tip of the cat to the show that started the big bucks rage four decades ago.
I joked the other day how the biggest story we had two years ago was the premiere of Figure It Out and whether Summer Sanders could stop saying "awwwwwsommmmmme." What a difference five months have made.
What a difference five months have made for The Game Show Convention Center. We have earnestly strived to turn this into the definitive stop for daily news on game and quiz shows and so many of you have responded so favorably. Even my mother-in-law reads it regularly. I cannot thank you enough for the encouragement we have received from all over the country.
As we wind up a century that is the most exciting period in 40 years for people who enjoy what we do, I also feel extraordinarily blessed. Without mentioning names (they know who they are), I have had the great joy in 1999 of making the acquaintances both online and by telephone with some of the legends of this industry, the children of several emcees who have passed on, and some of the genre's great panelists and producers. I treasure those relationships.
So why does this college professor have such an affinity for game shows? Pure and simple. The men who have shepherded these programs for more than a half-century have been the purest of broadcasters. They have a gift and a skill which only other broadcasters can appreciate. They have had the gift of working without scripts and the skill to communicate with audiences and viewers, talents so many of the young people I teach struggle to grasp every day. The legacy they have left is worth preserving and, if nothing else, we hope TGSCC serves as their historical online archive.
Steve Allen told me a month ago: "It's unfortunate. There's a built-in bias in our business against people who have emceed those shows. It still exists today---and it's wrong. People who have been their critics do not appreciate the talent it takes to successfully do those kinds of shows." Art James related to me after a recent chat, "This is one of the highest-level conversations I've ever had about my career. Most of the time, I usually get someone who, within the first four or five minutes wants to get into what they call the greed and the mindlessness of game shows and they have no appreciation for what we do."
Forty-one years ago, when F.J. Beverly allowed his son to sit up to the ghastly hour of 10:30 to see something which had the country captivated, he was charting a course for that three-year-old to be a genuine historian of something which critics are so prone to overlook. It doesn't take brain surgery to figure out why game shows have endured. As Pat Carroll recently said: "The next party you go to where people play games, look at their faces. They enjoy games because it takes their minds off the pressures of the world and allows them to be themselves. Life, itself, needs to be more like that."
I unapologetically love game shows and will as long as people choose to produce them. Because of the success of two people on bar stools and a senior citizen emcee, who has made it chic to be over 60 on television again, the networks have decided we're not too sophisticated to enjoy a few games every week. As the new century begins, let's enjoy this era while we can-----collectively, we're fickle. As Larry Munson said when my University of Georgia Bulldogs won a national championship in 1981, "Savor it. It may be a long time before we ever see another one."
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