Pioneers of Television
I stood yesterday and looked up at the sign for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, wondering about a town that would change its name for a game show.
In 1950, the town of Hot Springs decided that the opportunity to have the popular radio program Truth or Consequences broadcast near what is now the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway merited changing the name.
And so we might correctly say that game shows changed the American cultural landscape--even if, as Truth or Consequences moved from radio to television, the second television host, a then-unknown Bob Barker, was listed under "free donuts" on the studio marquee. As the narration in the game show episode of the "Pioneers of Television" series tells us, it was difficult to lure a Los Angeles audience at eight in the morning in 1956. Host for nineteen years of the show that made his name, Barker chuckles that he did, finally, receive billing over the donuts.
It was food that drew me to my favorite game show, Supermarket Sweep. In this show, contestants identify products by container, slogan, and category, literally buying increments of time that cushioned the team's final spree through the supermarket set, where one contestant at a time sailed down aisles gleefully tossing expensive items into the cart. The team with the highest bill won, and this understanding of grocery price structures, I explained to my mother, was a useful life skill.
While not quite educational programming, game shows illustrate the vexed relationship between money and unusual skillsets: in the world of a game show, you are rewarded for how high you fly your freak flag. The game show format, then, is set up to celebrate knowledge dispersal within time constraints, applying pressure to the contestant in order to shower them with prizes for doing what we, the viewers, cannot.
The game show format itself is credited as saving ABC as a network, with The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and Let's Make a Deal capturing significant audience shares. Let's Make a Deal host Monty Hall characterizes his role as "building drama from indecision," and this narrative proved powerful enough to draw a costumed cross section of America audience willing to trade up for prizes or "zonks," a lifetime supply of a food product or an animal meant to be less desirable.
Part of the appeal of shows like Let's Make a Deal rest in the audience members' excitement to be "on" the show; anyone in the audience might be chosen to participate, and the democratic invitation from Rod Roddy to "Come on down!" and play The Price is Right with Bob Barker seemingly extends to the imagined viewer audience members who can imagine themselves, as the theme music plays loudly, bounding up to a set podium.
A successful game show, this "Pioneers" episode suggests, triggers a response from the audience at home, an interactivity with the on-screen action we now associate with children's shows, where engaged youngsters shout answers at appropriate places in the program. Not only do we fantasize about the prizes, we armchair contestants answer as if the host might hear and tend to take the contestant's mistakes as personal affronts. This sort of audience engagement is attributed to the original version of Password, a show that gave the audience in the studio and by remote the answer which they watched one half of a team try to guess from one-word clues fed by her (often celebrity) team partner. The show host would whisper the password at the audience before a round began, and a revamped version is currently whispered to be in development for CBS with Regis Philbin. Philbin, who single-handedly introduced the monochromatic silk tie/button up shirt trend that swept men's fashion a few years ago as host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, is often credited with ushering game shows back to prime time slots and national attention. He joins a long tradition of game shows hosts who crossed over from other television formats, and stands as a recent example of the celebrity game show emcee. The tradition of mostly excluding women from the host position continues.
In the final round, miniature syntactic worlds are perhaps the game show format's most impressive contribution. What is a game show? I'll wager all my winnings on (what is) questioning answers, audience diversification, and cheering for someone else to win, Alex.