ALL IN THE GAME
Barker: Will He Say When?
How do you write about someone who has written his own legend? We were planning a two-column series about one of the worst days in game show history----late September 1969----when the AP story cleared the wire.
The words, in themselves, are the kind one has fleeting thoughts of when considering the classic emcee legends who are still with us. Bob Barker Hospitalized as a headline before one reads the full story congers thoughts of the ilk when one receives a phone call at 3 a.m.
As active as Barker has been, at 75, being rushed to an emergency room with exhaustion would be no surprise. Yet, something told me that would not be the rest of the story. Barker's surgery at George Washington University Hospital is not close to the crisis such would have been 15 to 20 years ago. Repairing a blocked artery to the brain is a relatively routine procedure today. My close friend, Memphis broadcasting legend Lance Russell, has had the surgery and he's doing great.
Yet, the short-term ordeal Barker will encounter raises the issue of when the most enduring of all emcees will say when. Tom Kennedy, who would play on my emcee all-time, all-star team any day, says not to bet on that day coming any time soon. "Mr. Barker has elephantine resiliency," says Tom, who hosted arguably the best non-Barker syndicated version of The Price Is Right, during the 28-year history of the CBS version of the show.
If one re-examines Barker's career, what may be the most amazing portion of it is he has only hosted four network games. His immense skill with audiences stuck like glue with viewers when Ralph Edwards introduced him in 1956 as the host of Truth or Consequences, a game Edwards himself originated. Aside from T or C and Price, Barker presided over Chuck Barris' The Family Game for six months in 1967 and three weeks of The End of the Rainbow, another Ralph Edwards Production, in the late '50s (The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows does not list Rainbow as a game but some histories do, citing enough twists and variations on This Is Your Life to be classified as a game).
Barker has set a record which no emcee will ever eclipse, not even Pat Sajak, if Wheel of Fortune endures until Sajak is 70. Bob will go down as the only host in history to preside over two series which have lasted more than 15 years each. The long-running success of Truth and Price can be chalked in no small part to its emcee. When Monty Hall hosted an ABC late-night special, The Great American Game Show, in 1974, he asked Barker to recreate one of his classic Truth or Consequences stunts---a simple game in which a woman had to choose which of four boxes a flower would pop out of, on cue. The game, itself, was innocuous. Yet, Barker was brilliant in making the contestant appear funny without ever one time attempting to "top" her.
Few folks, except perhaps those of us who are game show junkies, how Barker's selection as host of The Price Is Right was publicly withheld until the final month before the show's premiere in 1972. More publicity was pushed on Dennis James as the host of the nighttime syndicated Price in local newspapers. This was not an easy situation for Barker. While he had been imbedded in the public mind for 16 years with T or C, Price had been Bill Cullen's domain. Over nine years, Price had cemented Cullen's career. Critic Paul Jones of The Atlanta Constitution openly questioned how Barker could step into the role. "When the audience starts yelling, 'Higher, higher'....or 'Freeze, freeze!'....how can anyone else but Cullen make order out of the chaos?," was the question of Jones. At the time, however, Jones had not seen an advance look at the remodeled Price.
Bill Cullen didn't give many interviews about the new version. However, six months after the show returned on CBS, Cullen said he had been sounded out about doing the revamped Price and when he saw how much physical movement would be required, he backed away. Cullen's bout with polio as a youth restricted him to shows where he could sit behind a podium.
By the time Barker had been with the show nine months, he had claimed The New Price Is Right as his domain. CBS had enough faith in the show to gamble in March 1973 by moving Price to 3:00 in the Eastern time zone to launch an afternoon game show block. The move worked, particularly after CBS paired Price with Match Game '73 later that summer.
Barker's immense skill with an audience brings to mind one memorable sequence from 1978. A male student from the University of South Carolina was called by Johnny Olsen to "come on down!" The exchange between the host and the 20-year-old was classic Barker:
Barker:: What are you studying at the University of South Carolina?
Barker said, in an interview with Tom Snyder on Tomorrow in the mid-'70s, he watched every new game show to see how the newer, younger emcees performed. "The reason a lot of them don't succeed," said Barker, "is they don't listen to what the contestant has to say. They're so busy worrying about what next, they don't listen and when you don't listen, you miss some great laughs and some golden opportunities."
Student: Pre-law, sir.
Barker:: Ohhhh, pre-law? Well, I'm sure if you're studying something with as much depth as pre-law, you're a very, very good student. You've made very good grades, haven't you?
Student: Nawsir. I partied too much.
Barker's ire can be tested, particularly when he feels misled. The last time TV Guide featured game show hosts on its cover, in a legendary 1984 collector's item issue, Barker was pictured with Wink Martindale, Monty Hall, Pat Sajak and Jack Barry. Two weeks later, a letter appeared from Barker and the emcee was none too happy. "You can imagine my embarrassment at some of my remarks appearing in the story. I was told I was being interviewed for a story about Bill Cullen," wrote Barker to the magazine. While TV Guide denied culpability, at least two of the other emcees profiled confirmed they had been under the impression they were being probed about Bill's career, since he was premiering on Hot Potato that week.
In 1980, The Price Is Right endured a genuine scare. ABC premiered reruns of The Love Boat opposite Price in the mornings and the first month, Boat averaged a 48 per cent share of audience, knocking Price down 20 share points. For 39 weeks, Love Boat outpointed Price until the Pacific Princess episodes began their third run. The little engine refilled its tank and eroded Love Boat week by week. By 1982, The Price Is Right even knocked off The Young and the Restless to become network television's number one daytime show for nearly a year. Since 1983, Price has continued to perpetually hold the runner-up slot.
Barker displayed guts in the late 1980s when he let his hair turn white on the air. In a world where barely ten years earlier, here-today, gone-tomorrow NBC daytime chief Lin Bolin decorated her game show hosts in leisure suits and called them "my studs," Barker was admitting life does change after 60.
In 1984, I sat across a lunch table from the affable ABC affiliate representative for the Southern stations, Warren Denker. At that point, ABC had tried and failed with 17 shows to compete with Price. I confronted Denker and said, "The next time the contract expires, why doesn't ABC just try to make a pre-emptive strike and offer enough money to steal The Price Is Right away from CBS. You did it in the '60s when you took Let's Make a Deal away from NBC." Denker cited the usual network claptrap about how Price's demographics were too old and "Price Is Right is not a saleable show!" As I told Denker, "But for the affiliates, it would give us a whale of a noon news lead-in, no matter what the demographics. And you'd have Bob Barker."
That's one reason why The Price Is Right hangs in there year after year, despite its huge audience of over-45s (except in summer when the college students migrate back to the show). The demos may be horrible. You may be seeing commercials for AARP or phone-order retirement insurance. But tamper with Price in the East and the CBS stations would scream. A healthy portion of them win only one local newscast half-hour a day----their 12 noon news----and much of it can be credited to the huge lead-in numbers they get from Price.
My mass media students asked me a pertinent question Friday morning after hearing of Barker's hospitalization on the news. Queried one, "If (Barker) doesn't get well soon, do you think they'd get a younger guy to come in and take over the show?" I had a quick answer: "Not on your life." The Price Is Right is so symbiotically glued to Bob Barker, no one---not Regis Philbin, not a resurrected Bill Cullen---could hold the millions. Someone younger? Take a look at what happened with Doug Davidson in 1994, though Doug didn't do a lot to help himself.
Bob Barker is to The Price Is Right as Raymond Burr is to Perry Mason and James Arness was to Matt Dillon. If he were to come back from surgery and decide it's time to say when, The Price Is Right would come to an abrupt end. In my opinion, the show would have to go away for at least ten years----just short of a full generation----before you could resuscitate the show with a different face. By that time, who knows what the shape of network television will be as the technology spirals toward on-demand video.
However, I'm with Tom Kennedy. I believe the elephantine resiliency will kick in for Bob Barker. George Washington University Hospital officials have seen their phone lines jam and faxes and e-mails flood from people wanting to send get-well wishes. If ever CBS doubted the impact this man has had on his audience, this should prove it.
I do not doubt, for a second, barring unplanned complications medically, the man who used to tell us he hoped "all your consequences are happy ones," will walk back onto the stage of the Bob Barker Studios at CBS in mid-October to the biggest standing ovation, probably in daytime television history. You'll see an eruption from the audience unlike any since Allen Ludden's dramatic return to Password Plus in 1980 after four weeks of treatment for cancer.
Want to bet the day of Barker's return draws the largest audience for Price in at least 15 years? That day will render those four babbling women on The View as irrelevant as their show already is.
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