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September 4, 2000

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An Hour of Price: a True Survivor Story

       The day The Price Is Right first tried an hour-long show, Labor Day 1975, I was two weeks before entering my senior year at the University of Georgia. Talk about a survivor story. Oops, I vowed not to use that word.
       Oh, television had featured hour-long games in its early years. However, as the good network p.r. departments were spinning, even 25 years ago, this was a first. In most of the audience's mind, it was.
       Already a student of television history as a broadcasting major and still stewing over the loss of Jeopardy! and Split Second earlier in the year, I needed a game show boost. This was it.
       I saw right through CBS's touting a week of hour-long specials to celebrate the third anniversary of daytime Price. Networks didn't do something that dramatic for third anniversaries. This was a major experiment. Once I saw the changes, the wheel, the double showcase showdowns, the boost in the prize budget, I had not one doubt this would be a winner.
       In a sense, the expansion of Price to an hour was probably the biggest sea change for television game shows until the advent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The only thing comparable was in 1981, when syndicators finally threw in the towel on once-a-week nighttime games and went exclusively to Monday-through-Friday stripping, even if a game already had a daily daytime version.
       CBS was about to make drastic changes in its daytime lineup, which had been rusting for about a year in its soap ratings. The big day of change would be Dec. 1. Two key moves would include giving up on The Edge of Night, the venerable story of Mike and Nancy Karr---played by the great Forrest Compton and Ann Flood, after 19 years (ABC would pick it up and keep it alive another decade), and the addition of All in the Family reruns at 3 p.m. CBS had not aired a daytime rerun since wiping the slate clean in 1972. However, CBS did not wait until Dec. 1 to make the changes permanent on Price.
       Bob Barker and Johnny Olsen came on down for a full hour permanently Nov. 3, 1975. You knew this was going to mean copycat.
       NBC and ABC both tried to answer. Wheel of Fortune and Hollywood Squares aired for an hour each that week, as well. ABC convinced a reluctant Monty Hall to produce a week's worth of one-hour Let's Make a Deal episodes. Any hint of success would have seen those expansions continued. NBC even tried to sign the cast of Days of Our Lives for a one-day afternoon-long three-hour episode but could not reach agreement.
       At NBC, Squares was one week and back to a half-hour. Wheel continued as an hour until mid-January but a strategic CBS move shortcircuited its chances. Initially, The Price Is Right was slotted to follow Gambit from 10:30-11:30. When NBC announced the Wheel one-hour shows in the same slot, CBS merely flip-flopped its two morning games and went with Price 10-11. That last half-hour of Barker and company killed Chuck Woolery's first 30 minutes. In early 1976, Wheel was back to a half-hour in an 11:00 time slot, out of the head-on competition of Barker.
       ABC's countermoves were no more successful. In an effort to get attention for The Edge of Night move, ABC aired a 90-minute first-day episode Dec. 1 with lots of location shooting, a brassier orchestrated musical score and a dramatic shooting as a cliffhanger. The combination of Archie Bunker, the then-number one Match Game '75 and Tattletales shot down Edge.
       However, rather than its hottest game---The $10,000 Pyramid (which would not go to $20,000 until January), ABC chose the veteran and slowly-fading Let's Make a Deal to try for a week as an hour. Its host and co-packager, the legendary Big Dealer Monty Hall was not thrilled.
       Earlier this year in a phone conversation, Hall told GSCC about that decision. "I never liked them (the hour LMAD shows). Not that we weren't capable of doing an hour," said Hall. "I felt we were expanding the show just for the sake of expanding it. We didn't have enough time to prepare to do them right."
       Ironically, earlier in the summer of '75, Barker had guested on a late-night ABC special Hall hosted, The Great American Game Show. Shortly afterward was when the Price expansion developed.
       When CBS announced the full-time expansion to an hour of Price, ABC asked Hall, whose Deal was still pulling a then-respectable 7.9 rating, to do a week of hour shows. "We only had two weeks to put together a format for the hours," said Hall. "A lot of changes were happening with ABC at the time. They had brought over Fred Silverman from CBS and he was sticking his hand in daytime as well as nighttime. They were putting a lot of stock in this new game (Rhyme and Reason) with Nipsey Russell which had a lot of celebrities. Everyone was trying to find the next Match Game.
       "ABC wanted us to give away bigger prizes and add that Superdeal, with as much as $20,000 in cash to the winner," Hall said. "I didn't agree for two reasons. Every time we'd tried to kick up the prizes, it didn't make one difference in the ratings. I always said it wasn't how much we give away but the way we give it away. The other reason was: I told ABC, what if you don't stay with an hour? Then, the next week, we come right back with our regular format. How do we do that without looking like we're pulling back?"
       The rating actually declined slightly for the week of Deal hours and Monty said he's almost certain that was when ABC lost faith in the show. "Just three weeks later, they told us they were moving us to noon, which had been the kiss of death. Oh, the network said we were going to be their anchor. They needed us to shore up the bridge between the morning and afternoon. Six months later, they canceled us."
       Until NBC's ill-fated attempt to hybrid a Match Game/Hollywood Squares hour in 1983, The Price Is Right stood alone after all of the reaction shots failed. One may well argue until ABC saw WWTBAM worked better as an hour than a half-hour, The Price Is Right was unique for more than 24 years.
       A quarter century later, the wheel still turns for an hour every weekday, the $1 bids are still gambled and everybody loves Plinko. The only person who holds the answer as to how much longer it will roll on is Bob Barker himself. The next moment of truth comes at this time in 2002, when Barker's current contract expires.

       POST-GAME NOTES: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is on the longest string since the original 13 without a six-figure winner but the show will return to the #1 slot in the Nielsens this week....Beat the Clock is apparently going to be reformatted largely as a question-and-answer show, according to sources, rather than as the classic stunt game....Even with the spin about its younger demographics, you're seeing less and less of a promotional push for Big Brother. The show is falling many evenings below the level of Greed ratings and the network is not making any noises of doing this one again. If CBS does do another BB, I'd expect some changes in the format....BB will do a live two-hour finale Sept. 30 and I still believe, particularly with the orchestrated campaign of George Boswell's hometown folks, he walks with the $500,000....The John O'Hurley promos are running hot and heavy on To Tell the Truth stations....Expect some changes to the set and slight changes to the format of Wheel of Fortune Monday and new graphics for Jeopardy, which will beef up its numbers of special weeks this season....Upcoming in our interview roster will be TV's Ultimate Fan Paul Goebel; two more of the Ultimate Fan Search players, Tom Condosta and Jon Hobden; game show videotape merchandiser and the recent host/producer of the Ultimate Lucy Game Show stage event in L.A., Stu Shostak; and the great Tommy Oliver, former musical director for $100,000 Name That Tune.

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