Whether you’d like to solve the puzzle, bid on a showcase showdown, make it a true daily double, or declare your final answer, game shows continue to capture the public’s attention. For more than 70 years, Americans have tuned in to watch everyday folks win a plethora of fabulous prizes. Television staples like Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, and The Price is Right are fixtures of pop culture, withstanding changes in hosts, cultural climate, and in some cases, scandal. With a surge of revivals of classics like Family Feud and Match Game, in addition to newbies like The Chase and Ellen’s Game of Games, game shows are now more popular than ever. But how exactly did we get here?
The Rise and Fall of 1950s Quiz Shows
Game shows were commonly heard on the radio in the 1930s, so naturally some of the firsts to exist on screen were televised versions of their radio counterparts. As early as 1938, British radio shows like Spelling Bee found their way to television in the U.K. and a similar trend followed stateside as quiz shows like Dr. IQ and Truth or Consequences hit the airwaves in the 1950s. These high stakes games were affordable to produce and soon grew in popularity becoming a fixture in the decades that followed.
The 1950s was a booming era for game shows. Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question were among the hottest properties in primetime. Both shows found everyday folks testing their trivia wits in attempts to win huge cash prizes. Audiences were hooked, rooting for contestants that could one day be themselves. Unfortunately, producers were a little too eager to maintain high ratings and on-air drama, often rigging questions and aiding willing contestants. The slew of scandals that ensued led not only to many quiz show cancellations, but to new federal regulations in 1960 which made game show rigging illegal, and marked the end of an era in television history.
“The Price Is Right” Makes its Mark
While most 1950s quiz shows came to an abrupt end, one show survived the decade completely unscathed and emerged more popular than ever: The Price is Right. Premiering in 1956, Bill Cullen hosted the game show that, while not entirely the same format as the one we know and love today, still bears many hallmarks of its current incarnation. Contestants tried their best to bid on an array of fabulous prizes without going over the actual retail price. The simple, low-stakes style was perfect for daytime television. And the fact that it was devoid of cheating scandals and producer manipulation gave it extra credibility in an era plagued by infamous wrongdoings.
A new, more stylized version of the show premiered in 1972 and is still on the air to this day, making it one of the longest running shows on network television. The inimitable Bob Barker hosted the show for 35 years until his retirement in 2007, with Drew Carey taking over. With a flashy spinning wheel, impressive showcase showdowns, and now iconic games like Plinko and Cliffhangers, the show has endured as a pop culture staple. Everyone from grandparents and college students to little kids home sick from school can play along with the simple, straightforward pricing games. Because of The Price Is Right, guessing the cost of a can of soup or new Chevrolet has become an art form, enshrining it as a beloved classic for generations to come.
The Golden Age Gives Us “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune”
By the 1960s and ‘70s, game shows were relegated to daytime television. However, with the advent of color TVs and larger network budgets, there was a renaissance in the form. Early versions of Hollywood Squares, Password, Match Game, and Family Feud all emerged during this fruitful period. Arguably, however, two of the most significant game shows to make their debut during this period were Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, both the brainchild of Merv Griffin, a talk show host and media mogul who cemented his legacy with a game show empire. Jeopardy! put a new twist on the trivia format. Contestants are shown clues from a variety of topics presented as answers and they have to provide a response in the form of a question. It’s a rapid fire game that requires speed and smarts, and proved addictive to audiences who couldn’t stop humming the show’s catchy final round theme song, “Think,” which was actually composed by Griffin himself. Initially hosted by Art Flemming, Alex Trebek took over the reins in 1984 until his death in 2020. His dry wit, warmth, and quiet confidence made him an integral part of the show.
Essentially a glorified version of hangman, Wheel of Fortune premiered in 1975 and was hosted by Chuck Woolery until 1981 when Pat Sajak took over, with Vanna White joining as hostess in 1982. Because White is responsible for revealing the correct letters, she knows the answer to every puzzle before it is played. Prior to 1997 she had to physically turn the board pieces to reveal the letter. Now a simple tapping motion lights up the letter — a literal game changer in game show technology.
Once they hit syndication in the ‘80s, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune began to dominate the coveted Prime Time Access hour from 7:00 - 8:00 pm on many networks. The time slot was a desired lead into network sitcoms, dramas, and other late night viewing and given how fully the pair of shows captured a nation’s attention, they were worthy of the hour.
A Game Show Renaissance Emerges
Beyond Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!’s continued presence, there was somewhat of a lull in new game show development through most of the ‘80s and ‘90s. (With the exception of a few standouts like “Love Connection” and “Supermarket Sweep.”) That all changed when a new game based on a British show made its debut in 1999: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It was an instant smash. By answering 15 multiple-choice questions, contestants could win one of the largest cash prizes ever available on TV. Of course, this time around the production values were a lot higher. With its sleek set, dramatic lighting and music, ubiquitous catchphrases (“Is that your final answer?”) and the charismatic Regis Philbin at the helm, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was riveting, must-watch television. It soon spawned an array of imitators. The Weakest Link, Greed, and a revival of Twenty-One all cropped up in its wake, ushering in a new renaissance in primetime gaming at the turn of the century.
With the rise of cable networks and streaming platforms, game show lovers have more options than ever before. Whether you want to watch reruns of classics on channels like Buzzr or Game Show Network or catch past Jeopardy! episodes on Netflix, the beloved genre is now accessible 24/7. Major networks continued to invest in new and inventive games during prime viewing hours through the 2000s to the present day. From Minute to Win it to Deal or No Deal, or celebrity updates of kitschy classics like The Dating Game and Family Feud, there doesn’t seem to be a year that goes by without the addition of some novelty show. The communal and competitive experience of solving a puzzle, guessing the price of a new car, or wondering if a contestant should keep the money and end the game can’t be replicated any other way, guaranteeing we’ll be tuning in for decades to come.
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