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90 Years of Game Shows: A History Lesson


1930s–1950s



Game shows began to appear on radio and television in the late 1930s. The first television game show, Spelling Bee, as well as the first radio game show, Information Please, were both broadcast in 1938; the first major success in the game show genre was Dr. I.Q., a radio quiz show that began in 1939. Truth or Consequences was the first game show to air on commercially licensed television; the CBS Television Quiz followed shortly thereafter as the first to be regularly scheduled. The first episode of each aired in 1941 as an experimental broadcast. Over the course of the 1950s, as television began to pervade the popular culture, game shows quickly became a fixture. Daytime game shows would be played for lower stakes to target stay-at-home housewives. Higher-stakes programs would air in prime time. (One particular exception in this era was You Bet Your Life, ostensibly a game show, but the game show conceit was largely a framework for a talk show moderated by its host, Groucho Marx.) During the late 1950s, high-stakes games such as Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question began a rapid rise in popularity. However, the rise of quiz shows proved to be short-lived. In 1959, many of the higher stakes game shows were exposed as being either biased or outright scripted in the 1950s quiz show scandals and ratings declines led to most of the primetime games being canceled.

An early variant of the game show, the panel show, survived the quiz show scandals. On shows like What's My Line?, I've Got A Secret, and To Tell the Truth, panels of celebrities would interview a guest in an effort to determine some fact about them; in others, celebrities would answer questions. Panel games had success in primetime until the late 1960s, when they were collectively dropped from television because of their perceived low budget nature. Panel games made a comeback in American daytime television (where the lower budgets were tolerated) in the 1970s through comedy-driven shows such as Match Game and Hollywood Squares. In the UK, commercial demographic pressures were not as prominent, and restrictions on game shows made in the wake of the scandals limited the style of games that could be played and the amount of money that could be awarded. Panel shows there were kept in primetime and have continued to thrive; they have transformed into showcases for the nation's top stand-up comedians on shows such as Have I Got News for You, Would I Lie to You?, Mock the Week, QI, and 8 Out of 10 Cats, all of which put a heavy emphasis on comedy, leaving the points as mere formalities. The focus on quick-witted comedians has resulted in strong ratings, which, combined with low costs of production, have only spurred growth in the UK panel show phenomenon.

1950s–1970s

Game shows remained a fixture of US daytime television through the 1960s after the quiz show scandals. Lower-stakes games made a slight comeback in daytime in the early 1960s; examples include Jeopardy! which began in 1964 and the original version of The Match Game first aired in 1962. Let's Make a Deal began in 1963 and the 1960s also marked the debut of Hollywood Squares, Password, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game.

Though CBS gave up on daytime game shows in 1968, the other networks did not follow suit. Color television was introduced to the game show genre in the late 1960s on all three networks. The 1970s saw a renaissance of the game show as new games and massive upgrades to existing games made debuts on the major networks. The New Price Is Right, an update of the 1950s-era game show The Price Is Right, debuted in 1972 and marked CBS's return to the game show format in its rural purge. The Match Game became "Big Money" Match Game 73, which proved popular enough to prompt a spin-off, Family Feud, on ABC in 1976. The $10,000 Pyramid and its numerous higher-stakes derivatives also debuted in 1973, while the 1970s also saw the return of formerly disgraced producer and game show host Jack Barry, who debuted The Joker's Wild and a clean version of the previously rigged Tic-Tac-Dough in the 1970s. Wheel of Fortune debuted on NBC in 1975. The Prime Time Access Rule, which took effect in 1971, barred networks from broadcasting in the 7–8 p.m. time slot immediately preceding prime time, opening up time slots for syndicated programming. Most of the syndicated programs were "nighttime" adaptations of network daytime game shows. These game shows originally aired once a week, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s most of the games had transitioned to five days a week.

1980s–1990s

Game shows were the lowest priority of television networks and were rotated out every thirteen weeks if unsuccessful. Most tapes were wiped until the early 1980s. Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, as fewer new hits (e.g. Press Your Luck, Sale of the Century, and Card Sharks) were produced, game shows lost their permanent place in the daytime lineup. ABC transitioned out of the daytime game show format in the mid-1980s (briefly returning to the format for one season in 1990 with a Match Game revival). NBC's game block also lasted until 1991, but the network attempted to bring them back in 1993 before cancelling its game show block again in 1994. CBS phased out most of its game shows, except for The Price Is Right, by 1993. To the benefit of the genre, the moves of Wheel of Fortune and a modernized revival of Jeopardy! to syndication in 1983 and 1984, respectively, was and remains highly successful; the two are, to this day, fixtures in the prime time "access period".

Cable television also allowed for the debut of game shows such as Supermarket Sweep and Debt (Lifetime), Trivial Pursuit and Family Challenge (Family Channel), and Double Dare (Nickelodeon). It also opened up a previously underdeveloped market for game show reruns. General interest networks such as CBN Cable Network (forerunner to Freeform) and USA Network had popular blocks for game show reruns from the mid-1980s to the mid-'90s before that niche market was overtaken by Game Show Network in 1994.

In the United Kingdom, game shows have had a more steady and permanent place in the television lineup and never lost popularity in the 1990s as they did in the United States, due in part to the fact that game shows were highly regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in the 1980s and that those restrictions were lifted in the 1990s, allowing for higher-stakes games to be played.

After the popularity of game shows hit a nadir in the mid-1990s United States (at which point The Price Is Right was the only game show still on daytime network television and numerous game shows designed for cable television were canceled), the British game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? began distribution around the globe. Upon the show's American debut in 1999, it was a hit and became a regular part of ABC's primetime lineup until 2002; that show would eventually air in syndication for seventeen years afterward. Several shorter-lived high-stakes games were attempted around the time of the millennium, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, such as Winning Lines, The Chair, Greed, Paranoia, and Shafted, leading to some dubbing this period as "The Million-Dollar Game Show Craze". The boom quickly went bust, as by July 2000, almost all of the imitator million-dollar shows were canceled (one of those exceptions was Winning Lines, which continued to air in the United Kingdom until 2004 even though it was canceled in the United States in early 2000); these higher stakes contests nevertheless opened the door to reality television contests such as Survivor and Big Brother, in which contestants win large sums of money for outlasting their peers in a given environment. Several game shows returned to daytime in syndication during this time as well, such as Family Feud, Hollywood Squares, and Millionaire.

2000s - present

Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and Family Feud have continued in syndication. To keep pace with the prime-time quiz shows, Jeopardy! doubled its question values in 2001 and lifted its winnings limit in 2003, which one year later allowed Ken Jennings to become the show's first multi-million dollar winner; it has also increased the stakes of its tournaments and put a larger focus on contestants with strong personalities. The show has since produced four more millionaires: tournament winner Brad Rutter and recent champions James Holzhauer, Matt Amodio, and Amy Schneider. Family Feud revived in popularity with a change in tone under host Steve Harvey to include more ribaldry.

In 2009, actress and comedienne Kim Coles became the first black woman to host a prime time game show, Pay It Off.

The rise of digital television in the United States opened up a large market for rerun programs. Buzzr was established by Fremantle, owners of numerous classic U.S. game shows, as a broadcast outlet for its archived holdings in June 2015. There was also a rise of live game shows at festivals and public venues, where the general audience could participate in the show, such as the science-inspired Geek Out Game Show or the Yuck Show.

Since the early 2000s, several game shows were conducted in a tournament format; examples included History IQ, Grand Slam, PokerFace (which never aired in North America), Duel, The Million Second Quiz, 500 Questions, The American Bible Challenge, and Mental Samurai. Most game shows conducted in this manner only lasted for one season.

A boom in prime time revivals of classic daytime game shows began to emerge in the mid-2010s. In 2016, ABC packaged the existing Celebrity Family Feud, which had returned in 2015, with new versions of To Tell the Truth,The $100,000 Pyramid, and Match Game in 2016; new versions of Press Your Luck and Card Sharks would follow in 2019. TBS launched a cannabis-themed revival of The Joker's Wild, hosted by Snoop Dogg, in October 2017. This is in addition to a number of original game concepts that appeared near the same time, including Awake, Deal or No Deal (which originally aired in 2005), Child Support, Hollywood Game Night, 1 vs. 100, Minute to Win It (which originally aired in 2010), The Wall, and a string of music-themed games such as Don't Forget the Lyrics!, The Singing Bee, and Beat Shazam.



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