Postscript on "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time"

A few weeks ago, Game Show Network concluded its special series "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," and last week I finished my commentaries on the countdown here on the MediaLog. I would like now to make some final comments on the GSN rankings and on the television genre of game shows in general.

To start off, let me just reiterate (briefly) the remarks I made over the course of the countdown about the problems I saw in it. There were two big issues that I saw that hampered the integrity and value of the rankings. The first of these is the lack of respect shown by the countdown and GSN for the pioneering game shows of the 1950s. The highest ranked of these shows was "What's My Line?" which came in at #14. Although that could have been a few slots higher, it's not a bad ranking; my problem with GSN's treatment of these oldest TV game shows is in the fact that none were treated by showing full episodes. The other big problem I have is the rigging of the countdown to favor either GSN original shows or shows that had reruns airing on the network. There is simply no other explanation for the fact that shows like "Hollywood Showdown" and "Shop Til You Drop" were even on the countdown. And, although maybe (maybe) it's legitimate for "Lingo" to be on the countdown, its #16 ranking is ludicrously high.

So, the entire countdown has little credibility, at least to anyone who cares about this kind of thing. The one value of the whole series is that it presented some obscure game shows unlikely to be seen again (soon, at least) and special episodes of other, more prominent shows. Shows like "3's a Crowd" and "The New Treasure Hunt" are not likely to be seen again, even on GSN. The special episodes included the "Press Your Luck" episode in which a contestant had figured out the game board patterns and manipulated them to win over $100,000; the "Tic Tac Dough" episode with the show's top winning contestant ever; and the episode of "To Tell the Truth" that featured contestant Frank Abignale, the legendary con artist who was the inspiration for the Steven Spielberg film "Catch Me If You Can."

Having reiterated what I think were the chief problems with GSN's countdown of "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," I would like to broaden the scope and ponder a few questions related to the phenomenon of game shows more generally. To begin with, the idea of ranking the greatest game shows begs the question, what makes a game show great? One comment I read online about GSN's countdown is significant: at no time during the several weeks of game show broadcasts was it ever mentioned what the criteria were for selecting the shows, who did the selecting, and so forth, an omission that only makes the countdown more suspect.

What makes a game show great? There are a few key elements, I would hazard. First is innovativeness of the game play and the originality of the show format. If a show is just another retread of a tired idea (fill in your own example), then it's not likely to be too great. However, a new and inventive form of game play that does something original is liable to be great. This is why a show like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," despite its great popularity for a short while, is far from great since it is just a rehash of the big money games of the 1950s (albeit with a lot more money). "The $64,000 Question" has a much more valid claim to greatness as the originator of the big money game show concept (but ranked far lower on GSN's countdown). A show like "What's My Line?" that was the granddaddy of the panel show also has a claim on true greatness.

The next thing that makes a game show great is longevity. A show that lasts a long time, and as a result presumably has a loyal and hardy fan base, is one that is likely great. This is one of the reasons that I was surprised that the top GSN show was "Match Game," which had a run of only several years, ahead of the far greater--and more venerable--"Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy," and "The Price is Right," all of which are still airing with runs of well over twenty years. "Family Feud," with a run now of nearly thirty years, has a similar claim to greatness based on longevity. So does the aforementioned "What's My Line?"

"Wheel," "Jeopardy," and "TPiR" are in my opinion the three greatest game shows of all time, due to the two factors I've just discussed. What elements do these shows have that makes them perenially popular that less successful shows do not have? One key element I think is the host. None of these shows would be the same without their longtime hosts: "Wheel" goes round and round due to Pat Sajak; "Jeopardy" (with all due respect to Art Fleming) is a "Daily Double" due to Alex Trebek; and "TPiR" comes on down due to Bob Barker. The engaging game play of all three is also a factor. "Wheel" is based on the simple game of Hangman; "Jeopardy" takes a simple quiz format and gives it added dimensions due to the game board structure and the requirement for phrasing replies in the form of a question; and "Price is Right" thrives on its variety of interesting pricing games.

These three games are still airing all over America, but the appeal of game shows is certainly not limited to current shows. Older game shows are some of the most popular; what is their appeal? In one respect, game shows are timeless. Watching someone win a car on an old game show from the 1970s can be just as exciting as watching someone win one on today's episode of "TPiR." Especially on a game with engaging game play, there is no reason why it has to be current. On the flip side, it is (for me at least) the datedness of old game shows that is also appealing. Watching a 1950s episode of "What's My Line?" with the old celebrities, the quaint occupations presented, and the simpler game play is highly enjoyable. For the shows of the 1970s, it can be fun to see the goofy fashions, the flashy sets, and the archaic products featured (not to mention Bob Barker with dark hair!).

Finally, why is America so obsessed with game shows in the first place? Part of the American character is the ability to rise in one's station, to become successful, to "make it." Game shows offer a glimpse of normal people winning big and achieving that dream--and doing it without that much effort. With very few exceptions (big money games like "$64,000 Question" and "Millionaire" and more erudite games like "Jeopardy" for example), the games played on game shows are ones that anyone could play and win. One of the most pervasive practices related to game show viewership is the phenomenon of talking back to the TV set, shouting answers to contestants who are not replying the way we'd like them to. We do this because we think that we know better than they do, and if only we were there, we might win big. The American Dream may actually be to win valuable prizes on a television game show.

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