Come On Down
Normally, we don't devote a lot of time or attention to the subject of game shows. And it's not because we're TV snobs who look down on Wheel of Fortune or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as lesser forms of entertainment. Indeed, the classic game shows--and their hosts--have become cultural icons, enjoying long runs and consistent popularity.
In a medium where some entertainment programs last only a few weeks, the longevity of some game shows and their emcees has been remarkable. Wheel has been around since the late 1970s, and its current host, Pat Sajak, has been "giving it a final spin" for that past 25 years. Alex Trebek has been hosting Jeopardy for nearly as long, and of course, Bob Barker recently called it quits after 35 years on the Price is Right. Younger viewers are often stunned to learn that both shows were around long before Trebek or Barker took up the hosting chores. Jeopardy enjoyed a 11-year run on NBC in the 1960s and 70s (with Art Fleming at the helm), and Price also got its start on that network, beginning in 1956 with Bill Cullen as the host.
Sadly, Mr. Fleming and Mr. Cullen are no longer with us, and most of their colleagues from the the heyday of network game shows are either retired, or have passed on as well. Among the current crops of hosts, Mr. Barker soldiered on till age 83; Regis Philbin, the original host of Millionaire, is in his mid-70s, and the "kids" of the bunch, Trebek and Sajak, are 67 and 60 respectively. Anyone see a pattern here?
Truth is, it's hard to find a good game show host. The late producer Mark Goodson, who helped pioneer the TV genre in the 1950s, was complaining about a lack of suitable hosts 20 years ago. He explained that the ideal emcee is someone who understands that the game and the contestants are the stars, but doesn't disappear into the background, either. Many of the successful hosts who worked for Goodson--men like Bill Cullen and Gene Rayburn--came out of network radio, where they learned timing, adherence to format, and art of thinking--and ad-libbing--on their feet.
By comparison, Mr. Goodson didn't think much of actors, singers and other entertainers who took an occasional stab at hosting game shows. From his perspective, they didn't have the right stuff, and viewers usually agreed. Mr. Rayburn's TV career lasted for more than 30 years, and Bill Cullen hosted more game shows than anyone in TV history. He was even considered for the prime-time version of Millionaire until producers discovered that he had passed away several years earlier.
Which brings us to the current search for Mr. Barker's replacement on The Price is Right. Goodson's old production company is now owned by Freemantle Media, the same outfit that's responsible for American Idol. According to Barker, the new producers began searching for his replacement almost three years ago, but they still haven't found a successor. Some of the candidates being mentioned are almost laughable (actor George Hamilton, Seinfeld's John O'Hurley), but the newest contender is downright scary.
The former co-host of The View is supposed to meet with the show's producers later this week, and Mr. Barker has offered his endorsement of Rosie. That suggests that Barker never watched her obnoxious rants on The View, or he's trying to ensure that TPIR doesn't survive his retirement. Ms. O'Donnell claims to be a huge fan of the show (and she certainly needs a gig right now), but it doesn't take a network executive to realize that Rosie would be the death of the show. Perhaps my views on TV are old-fashioned, but unhinged loonies don't wear well as the host of game shows, or any other programs. Can you imagine her first encounter with a military contestant? Or one of those "terrorist Christians" with a cross around their neck? So much for Plinko.
Maybe the producers (and the network) believe they need an "anti-host" to revive TPIR in a 500-channel universe. In reality, their consideration of Ms. O'Donnell indicates that they don't understand game shows and what makes them work. Barker's measured hosting style kept him on television for more than 50 years, and it's worked pretty well for guys like Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek as well. But middle-aged (or elderly) white men in suits don't cut it anymore, so the Queen of the Leftist Lunatic Fringe is now the favorite to replace Mr. Barker. As for someone who can actually keep the game going--and make the contestants look good--well, that seems to be a secondary consideration.
Obviously, the republic will survive with (or without) The Price is Right on daytime TV. But it's a shame to watch CBS and its production company fritter away a pop culture classic, in pursuit of someone who's unfit for a morning talkfest, let alone a game show.