By Lucie M. Winborne, ReMIND Magazine
In the fickle world of audience taste and the small screen, program genres have crested and fizzled out as regularly as the seasons of nature. So how is it that game shows, with their simple formula of host, set and prizes (not to mention occasionally unpredictable contestants), have managed to hold their own since 1938’s Spelling Bee?
Well, first there’s the fact that we humans just enjoy games and puzzles. Then there’s the relatability factor: For the most part, game show participants are “real people” just like us, rather than celebrities. As Ed Martin, programming editor for the industry newsletter The Meyers Report, put it, “They’re the original reality shows.” We can shout out the most popular answer to “Survey said?,” solve the puzzle without landing on “Bankrupt” and picture ourselves behind the wheel of that shiny red convertible or holding an umbrella drink on a Caribbean shore, with no risk whatsoever of public failure.
Of course, certain props are standard, such as an appropriately charismatic host. Who can forget Monty Hall asking his outlandishly dressed Let’s Make a Deal audiences if they had trivial items such as a paper clip on their person, for which they’d earn some quick cash? Or Richard Dawson’s penchant for smooching the female contestants of Family Feud, and Bob Eubanks querying guests about the strangest place they’d ever “made whoopee”? On the other hand, sidekick Vanna White of Wheel of Fortune has retained her popularity for over three decades, primarily by turning letters and clapping supportively. When asked how, she summed it up with “loyalty,” comparing her partnership with Pat Sajak to Ken and Barbie: “How do you break them up?”
And let’s not forget the element of suspense. Which door hides the dud prize? Which unseen guy will be charismatic enough to win a date (maybe even two!) based solely on his responses? And when the unflappable Regis Philbin asks you, over the pounding of your heart, “Is that your final answer?” are you sure you’re ready to stake a cool million on it?
Thrills aside, the race for the prize is offset to an extent by off-screen realities including long waits between tapings, practice sessions and rules briefings. Winners must cover insurance and maintenance on tangible assets such as cars or boats, and often underestimate the bite taxes will take out of their rewards. Then there are the long-lost friends and relatives who resurface like bad pennies, hands outstretched.
Of course, most of us never get this view, and even if we did, we’d still keep playing. Sure, the enterprising souls who actually fill out the application and make it to the studio will have a chance to meet celebrities, test the skills they’ve honed in private, take home at least some kind of prize and enjoy their Andy Warhol-promised 15 minutes of fame. But the rest of us will compete right alongside them for the real reason game shows will never go out of style — they’re just plain fun.
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