Wednesday, June 20, 2007

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.

Rose O'Donnell.

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.

2 comments:

Dan said...

Someone told me that Barker is a hardcore progressive. If that's true, this decision of his makes more sense. But even if it's not, it certainly represents the thinking of those in the television industry who certainly are progressive.

Adding Rosie as a host of one of TV's most beloved programs provides a sense of legitimacy to her politics, and more important for the progressive agenda, it provides legitimacy to her.

Everyone knows Rosie is a leftwing nut. But if she's seen skipping, hugging and being silly with game show contestants, her (and thus, her politics) appear more genuine.

Granted this theory is sneaky and reeks of conspiracies... but that's how the progressive movement operates. In the shadows, moving chess pieces slowly, one step at a time.

Spook86 said...

Dan--Before I saw the light and joined the military, I worked in the broadcasting business. Never made it to the networks, but I have several friends in various capacities at that level, including one that works in CBS's publicity department in New York.

From what I've been told, there are a number of dynamics in this situation that have never been publicized, or "spun" to put the best face on them. First of all, Barker is very liberal in his thinking, but TPIR was his baby. In fact, other than his animal rights causes and golf, it was pretty much his life. He had every intention of staying with the show until he died.

On the other hand, Freemantle Media (the producers) didn't want an 80-year-old man fronting the show, and began looking for a new host three years ago. They made it very clear that Barker's current contract would be his last, and gave him the option of retiring gracefully, or see his career end on a sour note. Barker, who's got more money than he'll ever need, decided to go out on a high note, with more press and adulation that he's received in 20 years. Hence, the "victory lap" that's played out in recent weeks.

CBS was essentially caught in the middle. Demographics for TPIR are aging (as they are for most shows), and network execs shared Freemantle's concerns that Bob would be hosting from a wheelchair in a few years. At the same time, CBS also understood that the show is a cash cow, and the cornerstone of their #1 rated daytime lineup. CBS affiliates were also satisfied with the status quo, since Price provides the lead-in to their noon news shows, and many of them are #1 in their markets because of the game show. Millions of dollars are riding on TPIR, and no one wanted to rock the boat.

While you'd be hard-pressed to find a conservative in the executive suite at CBS, I've always believed that money trumps politics. As host of TPIR, Rose would destroy the franchise, and Les Moonves and his daytime programmers aren't about to let that happen.

As for Bob Barker, I'm sure that he and Rosie share a number of political views. But I'm also convinced that Barker is pissed about being forced into retirement, and he'd like to see a host that kills the show, or (better yet), forces CBS and Freemantle to bring him back, as interim or permanent host.

My source at CBS tells me that the production company and network are in a bind. They've tested a number of possible replacements, including Dave Price of The Early Show and Rich Fields, the program's current announcer. But no one's convinced that they're ready to take over the show. There are no plans to test Rosie--at least not yet.

In fact, one rumor making the rounds at CBS is that the network and Freemantle are talking to a "name" gameshow host about the job. Problem is, guys like Sajak and Trebek are already making $5-7 million a year, and it would cost at least that much to sign them for TPIR--assuming they had any interest in the job.

You are right: Rose would gain a veneer of legitimacy and respect by hosting TPIR, but she brings too much baggage to the table to make her a serious candidate. However, funny things happen in the TV business, and you can't completely rule her out for the job. But despite the reported "meeting," she remains a long-shot candidate, at best.