ALL IN THE GAME
Jackpot! at 25
"I'm worth $130....and this is my clue."
The contestants looked, at first glance, like a cross between Howdy Doody's Peanut Gallery and a group attending a ball game at a high school reunion. The original theme song would go on to become one of the most recognized tunes in sports anthology history. The audience was arguably the most vocal of any question-and-answer game in the history of television. The show was the one which finally broke its host through on the map of that limited circle in the game show emcee fraternity.
Twenty-five years ago, NBC introduced a game which had hit written all over it and, by all rights, should have gone on for----at minimum----a four-to-five year run. That didn't happen. The Peacock should still hang his head and its legendary former daytime programming chief should be found, tarred and feathered for her sabotage.
Bob Stewart's Jackpot! had an unenviable task in more ways than one. NBC's Lin Bolen had tampered with the network's long-time linchpin of the noon hour Jeopardy! and moved it to a 10:30 a.m. slot Jan. 7, 1974. High noon would belong to the new Stewart show, going head-on against a struggling Password on ABC and either local news on many CBS affiliates or the fledgling The Young and the Restless, which was still yet to catch fire after one year as the Eye Network's breakthrough into a youth-driven soap (many affiliates aired then then-half hour Y&R at 1 p.m. at the time). The Hollywood Squares lead-in would be a boost but a major challenge was ahead for any new game to carry the anchor role into the afternoon hours on NBC.
Geoff Edwards had been waiting for a breakthrough show. A veteran of a couple of prime time shows and the radio wars in Los Angeles (and a one-time substitute host for Monty Hall on Let's Make a Deal), Edwards thought he'd found his niche in the spring of 1973 with Hollywood's Talking, a remake of a 1967 ABC game, Everybody's Talking with Lloyd Thaxton. The show had originally been created with Betty White in mind as a host but CBS execs nixed a woman in the host role. Edwards was tapped. With The Price Is Right as a lead-in on CBS, the afternoon game had a success track but three weeks into the show, creator Jack Barry and his producers began changing the rules to Talking and for three consecutive weeks, tampered with the end game. Viewers became frustrated with the show's inconsistencies and deserted Hollywood's Talking after 13 weeks. Its replacement, Match Game '73 became one of the biggest daytime hits in television history.
Jackpot! began a relationship between Stewart and Edwards which continues on a personal basis to this day. The show (which was called Bank-O until a month before its premiere) was tailored to Edwards' talents. The 15-contestant troupe was the largest ever for a television game and could have been chaotic but Edwards glided through them with relaxed humor.
In an interview, Edwards said Stewart, as a game show creator, was in touch with his audience. "He had a great sense of fun, he understood drama in a game show, and he always thought out of the box." said Edwards. "He also knew that he could have an idea during the commercial break, and I could do it for him with out requiring a detailed explanation. We were very much in tune with each other."
Within three months, Jackpot! had cracked daytime's top ten and as the summer months entered, had become a habit for college and high school students home for the summer. By September, the show climbed as high as number three in one Nielsen survey. The show also registered two of the longest audience reactions in game show history during that summer of '74.
The riddle-based game had its share of unscripted hilarity. None, however, topped the day of an answer from a fiftyish female contestant. The riddle: "We're called this when we march in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood what are we?" Contestant (after a long silence): "Faaaaaairies?" One of the longest laughs in daytime television ensued.
Arguably, the most memorable moment, which demonstrated how intense the studio audience was focusing on the show, came in July 1974. The show's "super jackpot" prize money was based on a combination of a randomly-picked three-digit target number and a random two-digit multiple. The maximum jackpot was $50,000. On one Tuesday show, the magic $50K was cracked. One could feel tension in the audience and virtually everyone in the studio and at home was pining for a super jackpot riddle to appear. It did. The riddle: "My first name is present tense...my last name is past tense. What am I?" Just as was happening across daytime America the same moment, the contestant went blank and the buzzer sounded, killing the only $50,000 riddle in the show's history. Trying to maintain of sense of humor, Edwards repeated the riddle and then gave the answer, "SEE-SAW." To say the audience was not hostile is to suggest Philadelphia fooball fans never jeer. The booing from the studio audience continued for more than two minutes, forcing Edwards to hide behind the bleachers and a cold cue to a commercial break. When the sponsors' messages were over, the audience was still booing and even booed some of the successful riddles in the final segment. When Edwards signed off by reminding viewers someone could get a chance at a $50,000 Super Jackpot riddle the next day, the audience let fly with another chorus of boos and kept it up during the closing theme and credits. Three weeks later, the biggest prize the show would ever award---$38,500---was won and divided by two players.
Jackpot! should have been on its way. However, two classic notorious roadblocks killed it---network tampering and two days of pre-emptions. Bolen, whose stormy history as NBC daytime boss led to a quick one-year success in the morning and just as quick a collapse, interfered. "Lin panicked when our numbers took a slight drop. Not a big hit, just lost our leading edge," remembered Edwards. "She then put together a focus group of women who said they loved the show, but they did not like the riddles. She basically made us cut the soul out of the show and use Hollywood Squares type questions." Edwards said the first week of the new format, he and Stewart knew the show was in trouble. "At the lunch break we sat on the metal stairs backstage and tried to tweak the show to save it from utter disaster. We did some fixing, but Jackpot! was never the same again."
In January of 1975, President Ford called a news conference to announce a series of appointments to his new administration. NBC News chose to pre-empt Jackpot! at the noon hour to carry the Ford conference live. CBS News did not and continued with The Young and the Restless. Much in the same fashion as in 1966 when a similar pre-emption of Password gave ABC a huge sampling for the premiere of The Newlywed Game, a ratings track indicates Y&R began a slow, steady rise in the ratings and Jackpot! started a gradual erosion from that January blackout.
Yet, Jackpot! still held its own and its numbers were higher than any other noon show NBC has aired since. Bolen struck again. Wanting to premiere Heatter-Quigley's new Magnificent Marble Machine to capitalize on the arcade popularity, Jackpot! was moved to 12:30, where it suffered from a number of affiliate pre-emptions, particularly in the South, to run local news and agricultural midday shows. Atlanta's WSB even chose to run the syndicated Liar's Club instead.
This all happened just, as I recall, as the show was on the verge of becoming ingrained in the American psyche. I was on the broadcast crew for the University of Georgia freshman basketball games in those years and at halftime, assorted giveaways were announced over the coliseum speakers from ticket drawings. A group of rather wacko students sat in a group in the upper corner of the arena and when the announcer would call out, "Number 15," someone would stand up and yell, "JACKPOT!"
Lin Bolen would ultimately be fired as NBC's daytime guru and was never heard from again after producing the short-lived game Stumpers in the late '70s for NBC. Geoff Edwards made an even bigger mark during the four-year run of the nighttime Treasure Hunt, as well as doing several other Bob Stewart games for NBC. But Bolen sabotaged a show which had the potential of very long legs.
Jackpot! would be revived for cable and syndication in the '80s. Edwards would return to do the Hollywood-based syndicated edition and last year remembered two distinctive reasons why the show didn't make it. "The syndicator (Syndicast, which had also undercapitalized The Mike Douglas Show, when it took over Mike's distribution from Group W in 1980) ran out of money, so as a cost-saving measure, we did 130 shows in 17 days," Geoff recalled. The taping schedule may have been the most grueling in television history. "We shot 10 shows a day, with 10 minute breaks between shows to reset the stage, I had that time to change clothes. They would start the show whether I was there or not. More than a few times I was knotting my tie as I was being introduced. I rehearsed Thursday and shot Friday, went to Sacramento on Sunday for The Big Spin, and then back to shoot Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday." Despite promising ratings, Syndicast went bankrupt and the revival died after 26 weeks.
To this day, Edwards believes----as do many fans who fondly remember the original----the NBC version should have taken its place among the long line of the network's daytime hits. "I do think we could have gone for a number of years as a very strong number two," Edwards says today. "NBC would give a lot of money today for the numbers we had then." I only wonder if Geoff really enjoyed wearing all of those designer leisure suits from Before Six. I may ask him some time.
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