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Game Shows: A Rich History, an Exciting Future

Game Shows: A Rich History, an Exciting Future

Have you ever imagined standing on a brightly lit stage, correctly answering a tough quiz show question and winning a lucrative prize in front of millions of TV viewers? If you watch game shows, the answer is almost certainly yes.

From sensational triumphs to scandalous downfalls, game shows have a rich and intricately intertwined history. Many current hits are reboots of successful shows from earlier decades.

The game show legacy continues to grow with new seasons for shows such as Press Your Luck, where contestants vie to answer trivia questions while avoiding the dreaded Whammy mascot, and Claim to Fame, in which players try to guess their opponents’ celebrity relatives.

Many of us can hum the theme songs from classics like Jeopardy! or The Price Is Right. Film buffs enjoy Oscar-nominated movies such as 1994’s Quiz Show and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. But what exactly has given game shows their enduring appeal for close to a century? 

The Magnetic Allure of Game Shows

Boze Hadleigh’s 2023 book Game Show Confidential: The Story of an American Obsession offers an overview: “There are three basic kinds of game show: a quiz show, concerning knowledge via questions and answers; a show that poses physical challenges, including the stunts — fun or silly, humiliating or worse — that made long-running hits of Truth or Consequences and Beat the Clock; and the panel show involving celebrities and everyday people, sometimes trying to guess someone’s secret or what their ‘line’ is.”

Game shows tap into the human psyche. They’re engaging and suspenseful, providing a combustible cocktail of fame and money. Testing your smarts against the people on screen, you can feel like a winner: “That could be me!” And it’s easy to get familiar with game show formats, which creates a comfort factor for regular viewing.

To understand how game shows originally captured a mass audience and how they’ve transitioned into modern times, let’s dive into their rich history.

Game Shows: The Early Years

Before TV and the internet, radio dominated. Historians widely regard a radio quiz show called The Brooklyn Eagle Quiz on Current Events as the first game show. Debuting in 1923 on WNYC, it included trivia questions created by a local newspaper. Successful nationwide radio quiz shows followed in the 1930s, notably Professor Quiz and Uncle Jim’s Question Bee.

After World War II, game shows truly took off via television. In 1950, only 9% of American households had a TV, but by decade’s end, that number hit 90%.

What’s My Line?, a panel game show — created by legendary producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman — ran for 17 years, starting in 1950. It featured celebrities such as Steve Allen and Arlene Francis striving to guess the everyday jobs of guests. The original Name That Tune presaged today’s music-themed game shows such as The Masked Singer. And You Bet Your Life, starring wacky host Groucho Marx, combined comedy with quiz questions.

America’s mania for quiz shows peaked and plummeted with the late 1950s quiz show scandals. The $64,000 Question got up to 55 million viewers per show. Revlon, the show sponsor, saw a 50% increase in sales in just six months.

Yet, when it emerged that producers of The $64,000 Question — as well as Twenty-One and Dotto — had rigged shows to favor certain contestants and boost ratings, public outrage ensued. Congress amended the Communications Act in 1960 to ban rigged game shows.

Romance and Glitz in the 1960s

Game shows on TV got a revitalized vogue in the 1960s. Romance was a big driver. Shows such as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game made their mark with double entendres and “before they were famous” celebrity cameos. Up-and-comers on The Dating Game included Farrah Fawcett, Tom Selleck and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Betty White — the future Golden Girls star — was constantly on 1960s game show panels. She wound up marrying Password host Allen Ludden. Later, White also occasionally hosted the show, where contestants strove to win prizes by guessing one-word clues.

With contestants such as Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes) and Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch), Hollywood Squares attracted viewers with celebrities giving humorous, goofy answers to trivia questions. It partially marked the beginning of the demystification of celebrity at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood (1927-69).

Classic 1970s and 1980s TV Game Shows

Some of TV’s longest-running game shows emerged from the 1970s and 1980s, finding ways to capitalize on current trends.

From Dallas and Dynasty to Roots and The Thorn Birds, family-themed soap operas and miniseries were huge. Similarly, Family Feud, the 1976-created game show, pitted families against each other, guessing the most popular answers to survey questions to win prizes.

Bob Barker became a game show institution by hosting The Price Is Right — with contestants winning prizes by guessing the price of merchandise — from 1972 to 2007 (when Drew Carey took over). The catchphrase “Come on down!” remains iconic.

Seminal TV host Merv Griffin masterminded the launches of both Wheel of Fortune (1975) with host Pat Sajak and the best-known incarnation of ‘Jeopardy! with host Alex Trebek (1984). Vanna White became a celebrity, flashing her toothy smile while turning letters on the Wheel of Fortune puzzle board. Trebek, a witty quizmaster, continued the tradition of Canadians succeeding in U.S. showbiz.

In a materialistic era, these shows brought the allure of winning big money. That never evaporated, as evidenced by legend Ken Jennings. He won more than $4 million with his Jeopardy! trivia prowess before getting named a show co-host in the 2020s with Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory).

Controversies also marked the 1970s and 1980s. Producer Chuck Barris — the creator of The Gong Show, a campy amateur talent show that debuted in 1976 — bizarrely claimed in his 1984 autobiography that he’d been a CIA assassin

Meanwhile, in 1984, an unemployed ice cream truck driver named Michael Larson appeared on the original ‘Press Your Luck’ and won more than $110,000. Larson had identified and memorized repetitive patterns on the game board in advance. It wasn’t cheating, but an embarrassed CBS banned him from returning.

The Modern Evolution of Game Shows

In the new millennium, game shows keep coming back. With proven appeal and lower production costs, they still entertain, despite ceding some ground to conflict-driven reality TV shows such as Survivor and Temptation Island.

With the advent of streaming, viewers can watch game shows 24/7 on the Game Show Network. Game show influence also abounds in life-or-death movie and TV franchises such as The Hunger Games and Squid Game.

As long as hits like Press Your Luck and Claim to Fame continue to delight viewers, we’ll enjoy new and revamped game shows for decades to come.

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