When you get right down to it, game shows are the television equivalent of a Twinkie. They're addictive. They're not particularly good for you. And they will probably last forever.
They've been a part of TV history from the beginning. From the 1950s to the '70s, the genre produced one hit after another, from "The $64,000 Question" to "Match Game." Even during the 1980s, when networks shifted away from games toward scripted programming, syndicated series like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" became ratings winners. In 1999, a game show -- "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- became the most talked-about show on television.
When "Millionaire" disappeared from prime time last season, it might have seemed as if the game show boom had gone bust. Don't make that your final answer; phone a friend instead, or trade it for what's behind Door No. 2, or use your immunity idol. Because game shows are arguably bigger than ever. It's just that, like a contestant dressed as a giant cantaloupe on "Let's Make a Deal," they look a little different, and like "Joe Millionaire's" Evan Marriott, they're masquerading as something else.
Whether it was "The $10,000 Pyramid" or "The Dating Game," the key to any successful game show has always been putting real people in stressful situations so the folks at home could see how they'd react. Which is precisely the premise behind the vast majority of the so-called reality shows that are now the talk of television.
After all, what's "Survivor's" slogan? "Outwit, outplay, outlast."
What does differentiate the reality-driven game shows from their come-on-down predecessors is that this new breed has made the games more extreme by, for the most part, taking them out of a studio and setting them in the (allegedly) real world. They also serialize their game, spreading one contest over the period of several weeks to bring viewers back.
"Fifty years ago, someone answered a question on the radio hoping to win $150," says Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of NBC's "Dog Eat Dog." "Today, a woman stands there in France shoveling dung in the hopes of winning a million. When you think about it, the two are really no different. They're both contestants. It's just old style and new style. Game players used to have to answer hard questions. Now they can eat a bug on 'Fear Factor.' Executives are afraid to use the term, but most of the reality shows are game shows in disguise."
"The Bachelor," "Joe Millionaire" and "Elimidate" are twists on "The Dating Game." The challenges on "Survivor" are part "Beat the Clock." "Celebrity Mole" is "Battle of the Network Stars," only the stars have much less wattage. "American Idol" is "Star Search." Which, by the way, is also back.
Take away the immunity challenges or the roses or the song-and-dance competition from any of these shows and you'd be left with nothing more than a bunch of people sitting around making catty comments.
"There's something that works about the game show structure, especially when you put real life around it," says Alex Duda, executive producer of the syndicated dating show "Elimidate." "You can watch reality shows as a drama, but at their core there's usually a game. They allow people to be their ultimate selves. The difference between traditional game shows and the new ones is that in a studio it's harder for people to relax. They aren't comfortable standing there with an audience watching them."
This morphing of the traditional game show into wild reality show has been coming for a while, according to one veteran of the industry.
"I think that one of my shows, 'The Dating Game,' was sort of the progenitor of all that's come after it," explains Chuck Barris, who before writing the autobiography that inspired the movie "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" produced that show as well as "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show." He also hosted the latter. Barris noted that before "The Dating Game" premiered in 1966, "game shows were all about questions and answers or stunts. 'The Dating Game' was spontaneous, with no script, no correct answers. You can see that in everything now from 'Joe Millionaire' to 'The Bachelor.' "
Not only do these shows have roots in other classic series, but the classic shows themselves are also doing well. "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" continue to be the top-rated shows in syndication. New versions of oldies like "The $10,000 Pyramid," "Family Feud" and "Hollywood Squares" are also holding their own. "Win Ben Stein's Money" was a staple at Comedy Central for several years. Meanwhile, there are upcoming prime-time appearances of "Let's Make a Deal" on NBC and "The Price Is Right" on CBS, and daytime editions of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Weakest Link" continue to thrive.
There's also the Game Show Network, a cable channel that is pulling in good ratings by mixing reruns of familiar shows with new games such as "Lingo," "Russian Roulette" and "WinTuition."