What ingredients make a good game show?
Don't ask Mark Goodson. Though he created such classics as "Beat the Clock," "What's My Line?," "To Tell the Truth," "The Match Game," "Password" and "Family Feud," he admits he doesn't have the foggiest notion.
"What are the qualities that make a good sitcom?" he queries. "What makes a great song? You have no answer. But people always ask that same question of game shows. I guess the real answer is a show that attracts audiences and makes them involved."
Goodson's shows have attracted audiences and made them involved for nearly 50 years, and today in New York, he'll receive the Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Daytime Emmy Awards.
According to John Leverence, awards director for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the award is given to an individual, a company or an organization for outstanding achievement in either a cumulative nature or "so extraordinary or universal in nature as to be beyond the scope of the awards presented in the categories and areas of achievement. Goodson's works are nonpareil."
A week before he was to receive the award, Goodson, 75, was relaxing in his lush apartment at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "Great games are like great sports," he said. "They are very hard to come up with."
So hard, Goodson confesses, that he hasn't had a great idea in a decade. "People come in my office, young guys, and they say, 'Give me a hint where to go.' I say, 'If I could give you a hint, I would do it myself.' "
Game show ideas, he points out, usually come from nowhere. "I used to be known as the 'Man With the Yellow Pad,' " he said. "I would walk along the beach at the Hamptons with this yellow pad and say, 'Dear God, give me an idea and a place to start.' You look at everything and say 'What will inspire me?' "
The genesis of "What's My Line?" came about at a party where Goodson tried to guess what certain guests did for a living. "To Tell the Truth" was based on a concept of courtroom cross examination. "Password" grew out of his love of charades.
It takes Goodson an average of three years to get a game show on its feet.
"Before we present it to a network, we do run-throughs in the office," he said. "I would say that eight times out of 10, a show is never presented at all. By the time we present it to a network, we are pretty much convinced it will work. Some people present ideas to networks the day after they think of them. They go on the air and they haven't really thought them through. These things are complicated. It's like a jigsaw puzzle."
The only game show currently on the air that Goodson wishes he created is "Wheel of Fortune."
"I think Merv Griffin has done a splendid job of taking a children's game--Hangman--and making it work. Most people don't know Hangman was on 20 years ago under the title of 'Down You Go.' It failed. Merv has put the idea in a great format. Ideas are 20% (of a game show's success), and 80% is how you do them."
Hosts are also important to the success of a game show, though Goodson maintains that even a great host can't make a weak show fly.
"There are too many people who are top-grade hosts today who have failed," he said, "not because they are bad but because the show is. A great show can be done with almost any host; however, to make it go from good to great needs a great host. There is no formal training ground for emcees as there use to be. You can't really go to the Yale Drama School and say, 'I am studying to be a game show host.' "
Goodson never planned to be a game show producer. Born in Sacramento, he graduated from Stanford University and began his career in 1938 as an announcer/newscaster at KCBS radio in San Francisco. Three years later he moved to New York, where he produced and directed his own soap opera, "Appointment with Life." During World War II, Goodson directed dramatic shows for the Treasury Department and wrote and directed the dramatic segments of the "Kate Smith Hour."
"I would have loved to have transferred and become a producer of films and TV, but that's not how it worked out," said Goodson.
While in New York, Goodson met the man who was to become his partner and packager, Bill Todman. "He used to come around and love the shows," Goodson recalled. "He was a rich man's son not doing anything."
Todman was interested, though, in selling a game show Goodson had created in San Francisco called "Winner Take All." Five years later, CBS bought the series. Simultaneously, Goodson developed and sold, with another producer, "Can't Stop the Music."
"Both those shows went on together," said Goodson. "At that point, I was in the game show business"--and officially in business with Todman. Their Goodson-Todman Productions continued until Todman's death in 1979.
Just two years later, in 1950, Goodson developed "What's My Line?." "I suggested it to CBS and they said, 'Why don't you give it a shot?' " That series lasted 17 years in prime time.
"Our shows from 1950 through 1956 were all prime time," he said. "Our first daytime show was in 1956. It was an early version of 'The Price Is Right,' which we did live on NBC with Bill Cullen. Our basic thrust was prime time, and we only went into daytime much later."
Two of Goodson's classic series are returning to daytime TV. "The Match Game" begins July 16 on ABC, with Ross Schaefer replacing Gene Rayburn as host. "To Tell the Truth" joins the NBC daytime lineup in September with Australian Gordon Elliott as emcee.
Besides a new host, "Match Game" is substantially altered.
"It's been sped up, tightened, changed and new elements put into it," said Goodson. "It's not possible to change 'To Tell the Truth' too much. We try to give it a little more pace, but you can't change a waltz into rock music. Who knows whether it will work or not in 1990? It's hard to tell what is going to work any day."