Wednesday Windback: Game shows

20:28, Oct 02 2012

There is a man I know, a workmate with excellent taste in music and an edgy sense of humour. The thing is, a few weeks ago I was reminded that he shares a name with a former game show host - and for about two days after this revelation, every time I sent him an email and saw his full name in Outlook, my internal voice sounded exactly like the voiceover that introduced that game show host back in the day. It was actually pretty funny.

But then it struck me: what happened to game shows?

There was a time when game shows were one of the primary forms of television entertainment; in the 1950s, many American networks ran game shows during the day - hits like Who Do You Trust (aka Do You Trust Your Wife), Keep It in the Family (a forerunner to Family Feud), Name That Tune (on which NZ's own Face the Music was based), The Price Is Right, and Twenty One (which was discovered to be rigged and was eventually investigated by the US government, a story told in the rather good Robert Redford film Quiz Show) all started and rose to popularity in this decade. Many stayed on television, in various incarnations, for years.

Game shows went into massive decline thereafter, suffering from a reputation problem (due to the aforementioned rigging scandal) and a lack of original ideas, but there have always been a few major productions on the go: Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right are arguably two of the most successful television shows of all time, while shows like Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire are household names.

Despite the successes and their pervasiveness in popular culture, game shows have always struggled to gain serious recognition on television; media studies academic William Boddy writes that game shows have "endured long periods of critical disdain and indifference, interrupted by infrequent moments of generalised and often hyperbolic reaction to the spectacular success of a specific show or format, before the genre recedes again into fringe-time invisibility and critical obscurity ... the critical literature on TV game shows remains dominated by fan tributes, sociological reflectionism and elitist scorn."

Their reputation hasn't improved any: in recent years, game shows have given way to the likes of Survivor and American Idol, large-scale competitions with high stakes that draw in massive numbers of viewers. Older-style game shows now exist only as endless Who Wants to Be a Millionaire repeats, a laughable Australian version of Deal or No Deal (the Kiwi version is remembered in occasional digs at Jeremy Corbett on 7 Days), drunken folk answering trivia questions in the back of the Cash Cab, and intermittent episodes of Don't Forget the Lyrics.

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I can't say I miss the old-style shows. I loved the Kiwi edition of Wheel of Fortune in the early 90s, as everyone did, and I was quite fond of Face the Music - for a time, host Simon Barnett seemed the coolest person in the country. But my enjoyment of those shows was only ever based on a mix of schadenfreude and perceived intellectual superiority ("ha, what an idiot, even I knew the answer to that one!").

Actually, I think I might still kick some butt on Millionaire.

Do you miss traditional game shows? Were you obsessed with any in particular? Do you still have any favourites?

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