Game Show Boom

The coronavirus pandemic boosted game shows all across the spectrum.

Drew Carey during a taping of The Price is Right

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The topic is TV game shows. I have three questions for you (answers at bottom):

1. Which one bombed so badly that it was canceled after just one episode?

2. Who’s hosted a show for the longest stretch?   

3. And finally, what current show is the most searched on Google?

If you answered any of these questions correctly, congratulations, but you win no prize here, sorry. It does mean, however, that you’re likely among the millions of Americans devoted to the game show genre, which has been a TV staple for decades. (The first, Truth or Consequences, debuted in 1941.) While they’ve not entirely defied the laws of TV-land gravity, game shows as a category are the medium’s scrappiest survivors — its hardy cockroaches, if you will. And I don’t mean that in a negative way.

Unexpectedly, the coronavirus pandemic boosted game shows all across the spectrum. How so? First, they don’t demand socially distanced live audiences. And with the exception of host salaries — I have it on good authority that top network stars can earn an astonishing $300,000 per episode — they are inexpensive to stage. Consequently, when the lockdowns ended last year, producers got their buzzy-bingy-blingy competitions in front of studio cameras pretty quickly. They were, in a sense, first responders, coming to the aid of viewers — a certain demographic in particular — starved for new content.

“We’re living longer, and the elderly are big game show people,” Bob Eubanks told me when I phoned him for his take on the indefatigability of the category. Eubanks, you may recall, hosted The Newlywed Game, which ranks among the most successful game shows of all time. He understands the way this stuff works. And he has a sure grasp of how older Americans consume television. “The shows are a mental vacation from everything that’s going on,” he said.

Of course, we gravitate to the shows for many reasons beyond their inherent fun, not the least of which is our obsession with money and freebies, even when they’re not ours. And, too, a validating sense that most of the contestants are no better than us. Watch a dozen different samples and you’ll see folks displaying a range of human traits, from cunning and greed to stubbornness, vapidity, and love.

Popular pre-pandemic franchises managed to retain their audiences as COVID restrictions eased. (One of those, the highly regarded Jeopardy!, angered its famously smarty-pants fans when it fumbled the selection of Alex Trebek’s successor.) Additionally, several chestnuts were brought out of storage and given a polish. (Jay Leno is doing his version of You Bet Your Life, which ages ago had a great run with Groucho Marx at the desk.) It’s no surprise that some of the category’s classics have been dusted off for the current era. Nostalgia is TV’s comfort food.

That’s essentially the point made by Bob Boden, a veteran game show producer in Hollywood, when I checked in with him. “These shows are a perfect antidote to the turbulent world we’re living in,” Boden said. “And they’re definitely in a renaissance period.”

Pat Finn, who was the longtime host of Shop ’til You Drop, echoed that assessment. “Game shows do so well now because they’re an escape from what’s happening in the world,” he told me. “They’re more engaging than many other TV shows — but they’re not taxing your mind.”

So, a final question: Is it fair to conclude that audiences are drawn to game shows mainly because they constitute minimally invasive entertainment? Correct answer: definitely.

Answers: 

  1. Jackie Gleason’s You’re in the Picture, 1961
  2. Pat Sajak, 40 years at Wheel of Fortune
  3. Family Feud

In the January/February issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about showbiz award season overload.

This article is featured in the March/April 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Photo by Cliff Lipson / CBS, © CBS Broadcasting Inc. All rights reserved 

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