When you get right down to it, game shows are the television equivalent of a Twinkie. They're addictive. They're not particularly good for you. And they will probably last forever.
They've been a part of TV history from the beginning. From the 1950s to the '70s, the genre produced one hit after another, from "The $64,000 Question" to "Match Game." Even during the 1980s, when networks shifted away from games toward scripted programming, syndicated series like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" became ratings winners. In 1999, a game show -- "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- became the most talked-about show on television.
When "Millionaire" disappeared from prime time last season, it might have seemed as if the game show boom had gone bust. Don't make that your final answer; phone a friend instead, or trade it for what's behind Door No. 2, or use your immunity idol. Because game shows are arguably bigger than ever. It's just that, like a contestant dressed as a giant cantaloupe on "Let's Make a Deal," they look a little different, and like "Joe Millionaire's" Evan Marriott, they're masquerading as something else.
Whether it was "The $10,000 Pyramid" or "The Dating Game," the key to any successful game show has always been putting real people in stressful situations so the folks at home could see how they'd react. Which is precisely the premise behind the vast majority of the so-called reality shows that are now the talk of television.
After all, what's "Survivor's" slogan? "Outwit, outplay, outlast."
What does differentiate the reality-driven game shows from their come-on-down predecessors is that this new breed has made the games more extreme by, for the most part, taking them out of a studio and setting them in the (allegedly) real world. They also serialize their game, spreading one contest over the period of several weeks to bring viewers back.
"Fifty years ago, someone answered a question on the radio hoping to win $150," says Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of NBC's "Dog Eat Dog." "Today, a woman stands there in France shoveling dung in the hopes of winning a million. When you think about it, the two are really no different. They're both contestants. It's just old style and new style. Game players used to have to answer hard questions. Now they can eat a bug on 'Fear Factor.' Executives are afraid to use the term, but most of the reality shows are game shows in disguise."
"The Bachelor," "Joe Millionaire" and "Elimidate" are twists on "The Dating Game." The challenges on "Survivor" are part "Beat the Clock." "Celebrity Mole" is "Battle of the Network Stars," only the stars have much less wattage. "American Idol" is "Star Search." Which, by the way, is also back.
Take away the immunity challenges or the roses or the song-and-dance competition from any of these shows and you'd be left with nothing more than a bunch of people sitting around making catty comments.
"There's something that works about the game show structure, especially when you put real life around it," says Alex Duda, executive producer of the syndicated dating show "Elimidate." "You can watch reality shows as a drama, but at their core there's usually a game. They allow people to be their ultimate selves. The difference between traditional game shows and the new ones is that in a studio it's harder for people to relax. They aren't comfortable standing there with an audience watching them."
This morphing of the traditional game show into wild reality show has been coming for a while, according to one veteran of the industry.
"I think that one of my shows, 'The Dating Game,' was sort of the progenitor of all that's come after it," explains Chuck Barris, who before writing the autobiography that inspired the movie "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" produced that show as well as "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show." He also hosted the latter. Barris noted that before "The Dating Game" premiered in 1966, "game shows were all about questions and answers or stunts. 'The Dating Game' was spontaneous, with no script, no correct answers. You can see that in everything now from 'Joe Millionaire' to 'The Bachelor.' "
Not only do these shows have roots in other classic series, but the classic shows themselves are also doing well. "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" continue to be the top-rated shows in syndication. New versions of oldies like "The $10,000 Pyramid," "Family Feud" and "Hollywood Squares" are also holding their own. "Win Ben Stein's Money" was a staple at Comedy Central for several years. Meanwhile, there are upcoming prime-time appearances of "Let's Make a Deal" on NBC and "The Price Is Right" on CBS, and daytime editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Weakest Link" continue to thrive.
There's also the Game Show Network, a cable channel that is pulling in good ratings by mixing reruns of familiar shows with new games such as "Lingo," "Russian Roulette" and "WinTuition."
"Game shows have historically had peaks and valleys, but they're a staple for the industry because they personify one main rule -- they reach the largest audience for the least amount of money," explains Barris. "And because they're not expensive, if they fail, they can be easily replaced."
Adds Bob Boden, senior vice president of programming for the Game Show Network: "Game shows are an undying format because our culture has always been dedicated to playing games in one form or another. It's part of the American Dream to win something, and there's really no greater magic than hearing your name called to come on down. Or even watching someone else experience that."
They're all about participation, coupled with often intense human drama.
"They empower the audience," says veteran host Chuck Woolery, whose credits include "Love Connection" and Game Show Network's new "Lingo." "People at home get to learn something, to feel like they already know something and to admire someone else who is going through the process."
And, as 'Wheel' and 'Jeopardy!' executive producer Harry Friedman puts it, "if we book the contestants right, viewers will be seeing themselves out there."
Televised game shows have been offering this vicarious thrill for more than five decades now.Shows such as "The $64,000 Question" or "I've Got a Secret" were some of television's earliest hits. Because the genre was so cheap and easy to produce, the fledgling networks cranked out countless knockoffs with names such as "Do You Trust Your Wife?" and "Dollar a Second." Game shows ruled prime time until stories of cheating scandals emerged in the 1950s.
Robert Redford's Oscar-nominated 1994 film "Quiz Show" focused on the most notorious show, NBC's "Twenty One." Producers on that show admitted in 1958 that they'd given answers to telegenic contestants. The outcry exiled game shows from prime time for years.
Still, by the mid-1970s, game shows were back with more than a dozen on the networks' daytime schedules.
In the 1980s, however, most of these shows vanished. David Schwartz, author of "The Game Show Encyclopedia," says that networks expanded their soap operas and gave most of the rest of their daytime hours back to local affiliates. "Local stations decided they could make more money running a syndicated show like 'Regis and Kathie Lee' than with a network game show; they started dropping the games," he explains.
There were a few exceptions, however. Talk show host-turned-entrepreneur Merv Griffin launched "Wheel of Fortune" into syndication in 1983, and it quickly became a hit. The next year, he also brought back a new version of the old "Jeopardy!" game, with Alex Trebek as host. And in 1987, MTV brought in a generational shift with "Remote Control," a pop culture trivia game that introduced game shows to a younger audience.
" 'Remote Control' was a real franchise builder for MTV, and the series 'Double Dare' did the same for Nickelodeon. They defined an attitude for their networks," says former "Remote Control" producer Phil Gurin, who now works on "Lingo" for the Game Show Network. "Nobody thought it would be anything but a whacked-out idea and something fun to do, but it reminded people that game shows could still work."
Back in prime time
It wasn't until the sudden success of "Millionaire" in the summer of 1999, though, that the genre was considered to be a prime-time player again. Says Boden, "It redefined the look and feel of what game shows could be. It highlighted the drama of the moment better than any show preceding it."
With its mood lighting, dramatic music and intense host Regis Philbin, "Millionaire" seemed larger than life. And the fact that it aired in prime time took game shows back to a level they hadn't experienced since the days of "The $64,000 Question." Not only did the show get people involved while they watched, but it also gave them something to talk about with co-workers during lunch the next day.
" 'Millionaire' and then 'Survivor' provided a one-two punch for anyone who wanted to see people like themselves in precarious situations that made everyone squirm," Krasnow says. "These shows were event programming that just happened to be game shows."
Adds Woolery: " 'Survivor' was kind of like a soap opera with all the different personalities, but when you put a game with that, you have a very interesting outcome, and that's what people tune in to see."
"Millionaire's" success inspired plenty of prime-time imitators, like "Weakest Link," "Greed" and "21." Most of the copycats were bounced in the first round of competition, but "Link" captivated audiences thanks in large part to the irritated attitude of host Anne Robinson. Her put-downs of the contestants were deliberately designed to update the game show genre for a younger, and more cynical, audience.
"We got rid of the phony host," says Krasnow, executive producer of the show. "In the past, hosts were guys with a twinkle in their eye who made the players feel better. Anne made them feel worse for the pleasure of the audience."
The plan seems to have worked too well. With each new round of "reality," the game that's at the heart of the show seems to get meaner. Whether it's tricking women into believing a supposed construction worker is rich in "Joe Millionaire" or having contestants on the holiday-season episode of "Fear Factor" wolf down reindeer testicles, there's no mistaking a trend toward abusing losers rather than celebrating winners.
Not surprisingly, veterans of the genre aren't laughing about any of this.
"When people came on my show, I treated them as if they had come to my party," says "Let's Make a Deal" host Monty Hall, who will strictly be a behind-the-camera presence on the new version of his show. "I hugged 'em. And now on these reality shows, you have people eating things like worms. I just can't understand that."
"I wouldn't be comfortable doing these shows now," says Barris, whose "Gong Show" was similarly controversial 20 years ago but looks pretty tame by today's standards. "I read the other day that 'Fear Factor' had contestants eating horse rectum and realized that this is all beyond me now."
However, this sarcastic sensibility seems to be what's driving younger viewers to these modern takes on the game show genre.
"It's what I would call the halo effect of watching David Letterman all these years," says Gurin. "Everyone wants to be seen as hip, cool and irreverent. And at the end of the day, I think most of these shows really do celebrate winners. If you win on 'Fear Factor,' you've still accomplished something that audiences admire. You've defeated your opponents."
Their victories may be short-lived, though. These new game-cum-reality shows seem to have little rerun potential. They don't have the play-along potential of old-fashioned shows like "The Price Is Right" or "Family Feud." Once viewers get the gimmick, chances are they don't want to see it repeated. At least not in the exact same form.
"We're not expected to come up with new formats that will be on the air for the next 10 years," says Krasnow of the current reality game climate. "We're not looking for the next 'Wheel of Fortune' or 'Jeopardy!' The idea is to find the next big thing, and then move on to the next next big thing."
As reality games get more outrageous, though, the Game Show Network is finding a comfortable niche with the more wholesome, traditional game form -- whether it's rerunning "Love Connection" or developing question-and-answer games like "Lingo."But whether you look at that network's old-fashioned idea of what a game show should be, or the hip attitude of "Survivor," "The Bachelor" and others, it's clear that, now as always, game shows just can't lose.
"The other day I was walking through Westwood and these boys came by, stopped me and said, 'Hey! You're the guy who does Lingo!' " Woolery recalls with a laugh. "They told me they were 12 years old, and one of them said, 'My brother thinks you're the coolest guy!' I asked how old his brother was, and he said, 'He's 16.' It was then that I realized there's a whole new generation coming along that now loves game shows even though they've never seen the old programs. Which means none of them will probably ever go away."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times