They've been around for almost 80 years, and entertain millions. But game shows are also powerful marketing vehicles. We'll trace their history from early radio to their debut on network television, and explore their interesting evolution from quiz shows (and the quiz show scandals) to the modern game show format. We'll also analyze how Let's Make A Deal and The Price is Right work with advertisers to sell thousands of products, and we'll tell a fascinating tale of how one contestant broke down the basic advertising formula of The Price Is Right to win big.
Back in the late 70s, I went to Ryerson to study Radio & Television Arts.
In residence, I had a roommate named Edgar Blades. While I toiled at the bottom of a Falconbridge Nickel mine in Sudbury during the summer to save money to come back to university, Ted only worked a total of about 5 hours.
And ended up earning more than I did.
He did it by going on game shows.
He was on skill-testing Canadian shows Definition and Headline Hunters, and an Australian one called Sale Of The Century.
Edgar did particularly well on Headline Hunters. The premise of the show was to identify a newsmaker or event from clues given in the form of headlines.
He was one of the highest-scoring winners of 1978, and was invited back to the Night of Champions, pitting him against the other two top winners.
Even though Edgar didn't win the championship, he won lots of prizes along the way. Then he sold them to friends and relatives for about 50 cents on the dollar, making more than enough money to come back to university - and have the best stereo system in residence.
Not bad for five hours work.
Edgar went on to do quite well. You might know him today, by the way, as Ted Blades, the host of CBC Radio's On The Go, in St. John's Newfoundland.
Game shows are an interesting aspect of pop culture.
They have been around for almost 80 years, continue to entertain millions and give away millions in prizes.
But there's another interesting aspect to game shows - they are incredible marketing vehicles for advertisers.
Because just when you thought you were only being entertained, you were also being heavily targeted by advertisers.
So come on down.
Game shows have been part of our lives for decades.
While they have always been sponsored by advertisers, over time they have become powerful marketing vehicles unto themselves.
As a matter of fact, you could say that game shows became big hour-long commercials.
The very first game show began on radio in 1936. It was called Professor Quiz, and was sponsored by the George Washington Coffee Company.
The first-ever game show on radio.
The premise of the program had Professor Quiz posing questions to audience members. From this simple program of questions and answers, the entire giveaway aspect of the game show industry began.
All the contestants got a can of George Washington Coffee, and the Professor paid the winners by dropping 25 silver dollars into their hands at the microphone.
Four months later, the second game show began on NBC, called Uncle Jim's Question Bee:
The second game show to be broadcast on radio.
Then, in 1940, two legendary game shows hit the air.
One was called Take It Or Leave It. If a contestant answered a question correctly, they were asked to either "take" the prize, or "leave" it in to go on. The first question was worth a dollar, then the value doubled for each successive question, up until the seventh question, which was worth $64. Hence the phrase, "the $64 dollar question."
Take It or Leave It was sponsored by Eversharp Pens and Pencils
The other game show was Truth Or Consequences:
Truth or Consequences begins on radio in 1940.
The premise was to give contestants two seconds to answer impossible questions, and when they failed, they had to face the consequences - which were usually humorous or embarrassing stunts.
The show had big sponsors, and a big audience, and soon a new medium would beckon.
Television broadcasting began in the U.S. at the New York World's Fair in 1939. <br />
But commercial television didn't officially begin until July 1st, 1941.
On the very first day of programming, station WNBT broadcast two game shows - Uncle Jim's Question Bee and Truth Or Consequences.
Truth Or Consequences hits the TV airwaves on the first official day of television programming in 1941.
While those shows were one-time broadcasts to inaugurate the arrival of the new medium, it was a start to what would become one of the most popular genres in TV history.
In the mid 40s, a new game show began on the DuMont Television Network called Cash and Carry. It shot on a grocery store set lined with shelves of Libby's food products, and contestants answering questions correctly could win $5, $10 or $15.
Yes, there once was a television network called Dumont.
CBS aired a game show called Missus Goes A-Shopping. It was the first radio show to make the transition to a weekly television series, and was broadcast from different supermarkets in the Manhattan area.
Two months later, CBS chose a radio quiz program called Winner Take All as their first true network television game show.
Winner Take All is the first radio show to become the first true network TV game show.
It was created by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman - a team that would go on to create an empire of over 60 game shows.
The team of Mark Goodson & Bill Todman would become the most successful game show producers of all time.
How many times in your youth did you see this graphic on your television:
This graphic has been burned into the memory banks of anyone who ever watched TV game shows.
By the early 1950s, television was becoming the dominant medium for entertainment in the home.
When NBC and CBS began daytime programming in 1950, both added afternoon game shows. Most originated from radio - like Beat The Clock, Name That Tune and You Bet Your Life.
By 1955, television had entered the era of big money quiz shows. But the large cash rewards and pursuit of high ratings soon became mired in scandal.
On the quiz show Twenty One, contestants were isolated in booths and asked to answer difficult questions.
Twenty One - the infamous rigged game show later brought to the big screen in Robert Redford's "Quiz Show."
When Twenty One first aired, the story goes that sponsor Geritol was furious at the lacklustre performance of the contestants. So the producers looked for brighter players, and found a Mr. Herb Stempel.
Twenty One contestant Herb Stempel.
Stempel turned out to be a brilliant participant, and soon had won over $50,000. America was enthralled and the ratings shot up.
But the show's sponsor wasn't happy with Stempel either, feeling he was unattractive and not an acceptable representative of the sponsor's product. So under enormous pressure, the producer of the Twenty One brought in a good-looking, All-American contestant named Charles Van Doren.
Twenty One winner Charles Van Doren
As would later come out in court testimony, Charles Van Doren was provided the answers ahead of time, and champion Herb Stempel was coerced into throwing the show.
It all came down to one question. Stempel bet big on this category. The question, as it turned out, was an easy one for him. He didn't need extra time to respond. The answer was his favourite movie, Marty.
As you watch his face in the clip below, you can see Stempel struggle with this moment.
He knows the answer, he knows he can win the game legitimately, but against his better instincts and buckling under the pressure to lose, Herb Stempel answers incorrectly (at 10:17 point):
The famous Twenty One game show episode where Herb Stempel throws the show.
With that, Charles Van Doren pulled ahead, and won the game - as planned.
Months later, Stempel couldn't live with the fact he had been pressured to lose, and came forward with his story. At around the same time, another game show called Dotto was discovered to be rigged as well.
Dotto was the second game show found to be rigged.
Those two scandals led to the demise of all big-money quiz shows - and almost spelled the end of the quiz show industry itself.
Van Doren faces the press.
The government enacted regulations making it illegal to rig TV shows, and the networks set up "Standards & Practices" departments. And maybe most importantly, networks took control away from sponsors.
The scandal had one other huge impact on our story today:
"Quiz" shows transformed into "game" shows, and the prizes changed from money to products - and that opened the doors for making game shows powerful marketing vehicles.
In 1963, Canadian Monty Hall and his business partner had an idea for a game show.
Here's how he described the new show in the very first pilot episode:
Monty Hall explains the concept behind Let's Make A Deal in 1963.
As the show's announcer stated, "The Marketplace of America" was an important distinction. Because this game show was built to promote merchandise as well as entertain.
Each prize was given a full description and really was, for all intents and purposes, a mini-commercial within a program on national TV.
Monty Hall makes deals.
As a marketing vehicle, Let's Make A Deal has promoted thousands of brand names over the years:
Advertisers would approach the show and offer free, or deeply discounted prizes, in return for screen time. It gave them a big audience for their products, and even more exposure during repeats and in syndication.
Giving away prizes was almost a loss leader for advertisers, but the national exposure was worth millions.
Then, in 1973, another game show premiered:
Note how subdued the audience is on the first The Price Is Right episode to air in the 1970s.
First broadcast back in 1956, The Price Is Right went off the air in 1964.
But Mark Goodson and Bill Todman brought it back nine years later with the host from Truth or Consequences, Bob Barker.
Barker hosted The Price Is Right for 35 years.
The premise of The Price Is Right was to get audience members to guess the price of the products. It couldn't be a more perfect marketing vehicle, as the entire show revolved around brand names. Contestants and viewers would listen intently to the advertising copy, then formulate a price bid.
Creator Mark Goodson worried at first that a show so heavily dependent on endless prize descriptions and sponsor plugs would turn viewers off. He feared they would feel it was a one-hour commercial disguised as a game show.
But the show was inventive and entertaining, and host Bob Barker was so good at bringing out the best in the contestants, that Goodson's hesitation melted away.
The script for the Price Is Right, and yes there is one for every show, is more than 30 pages long. It's that long because of all the product descriptions the announcer has to read.
Advertisers have strict guidelines on how their products must be shown, and a "prize information form" is created for each item, stating frequency of appearance, and exact wording of how the advertiser wants the product described.
When advertisers supply products, they are shipped to a huge CBS warehouse, deep underneath CBS TV City.
According to The Price is Right writer, Stan Blits, in his book Come On Down, there are acres of prizes stored at this facility.
An inside look at The Price Is Right, penned by show writer, Stan Blitz.
In its history, the show has given away more than $200 million in prizes, including over 20,000 cars. One lucky contestant even won an airplane!
Because the ratings were so high year after year, advertisers lined up to place prizes on the show, and even paid a fee based on ratings to be there. And it was the first game show to extend to one hour - which gave advertisers even more opportunities for screen time.
Advertisers lined up to showcase their products on The Price Is Right.
The show had a winning formula, and its success meant many happy, repeat advertisers. Which led to one of the most interesting moments in the show's history...
On September 22nd, 2008, a couple named Terry and Linda Kniess went down to The Price Is Right to try and get on the show, now hosted by Drew Carey.
Terry Kniess had a gift for recognizing patterns.
Terry was a long-time meteorologist who had an uncanny way of being accurate when it came to the weather. His gift was recognizing patterns. Years later, he got a job at a Las Vegas casino watching for gamblers who were out to beat the system. The best ones had routines: The way they bet, the tables they chose, their body language. Terry saw how they counted cards, looked for the busiest tables and chose dealers for small imperfections in their shuffling. These gamblers weren't cheating, they were just exploiting opportunities.
And Terry could read their patterns like the weather.
His wife Linda had a gift for mathematics.
So, for four months, they would tape The Price Is Right every morning, then watch it in bed every evening. Terry looked for patterns, Linda would do the math.
As Esquire Magazine later wrote: It was the perfect challenge, and they were the perfect team.
Soon, they found their edge. The Price Is Right's greatest strength was its greatest weakness. The show had survived all these years - and became the longest-running game show in history - because it had a winning formula.
A formula it never changed.
One night, Terry jumped up in bed because a certain green ceramic cooker - one that always caught his eye - kept coming up in various games. And it was always priced at $1,175.
Terry realized that virtually every prize on The Price Is Right, from a pack of gum to a car, repeated. Linda did the math, and Terry recognized the patterns. They would make lists and grill each other until they had the prices memorized.
When they were ready, they made their way down to the studio. In a stroke of luck, Terry got picked to be a contestant.
Guess what product Terry had to guess the price on first? A green ceramic cooker. His guess - $1,175. Actual retail price: $1,175.
He eventually found himself in the final Showcase showdown. The first Showcase opened with a karaoke machine, a pool table, and a seventeen-foot camper. The other contestant passed on it, so Terry had to make a bid. Listen to Drew Carey's response (at the 1:56 second mark below).
Yes, it was an exact bid. But then again, all those prizes had been given away before, and Terry knew exactly what they cost.
What happened next was fascinating. The producer backstage stopped the show.
When Drew walked over to her, she was white as a sheet. The producer told him Terry had guessed the Showcase to the dollar - just as he'd guessed the exact price of the ceramic cooker.
The producer was convinced Terry was cheating, but she didn't know how he was doing it. Drew asked if the show should go on. Nobody knew what to say. So Drew walked back onstage.
Now, listen to how unexcited Drew Carey is when he reads the actual retail price - which has been guessed precisely by Terry - which had only happened once before in the history of The Price Is Right (at 5:43 mark below):
Remarkably, Terry Kniess bids on the Final Showcase and guesses the exact price.
Drew was sure Terry had cheated. But he had not.
Terry Kniess wins the Final Showcase.
He had just exploited the one thing that advertisers wanted more than anything on The Price Is Right, and the one thing The Price Is Right always promised them:
That their products be shown over and over again for maximum exposure.
The very marketing strategy that underpinned the show had undone it.
The price was too right.
Game shows have been around for almost 80 years.
Without a doubt, there is something alluring about watching regular folks using their wits to win big prizes. As Mark Goodson once said, a good game show will have the viewer talking out loud to the TV. And who among us has never yelled a price out at Bob Barker?
While game shows still attract big ratings, it's easy to forget they are also very clever marketing vehicles. For a small investment, advertisers can showcase their products during a highly-watched TV show where their products are the focus of attention.
It's product placement of the highest order: A TV show built around advertising.
A few advertisers spent all their marketing budgets just being on shows like The Price Is Right. It delivered the right audience, it was inexpensive, and the messages lived on forever in syndication.
The power of game shows is that the public sees them as pure entertainment. So the commercial messages are not filtered as commercials - but as part of the game. Therefore, they are absorbed while in the best possible state of mind - undivided attention wrapped in fun.
It's an environment a commercial break just can't create. The game show was, after all, the perfect TV invention:
One big commercial interrupted with commercial breaks...