How America became obsessed with game shows

A new series from ABC News Studios shares the history of the beloved TV genre.

May 10, 2023, 8:27 AM

For generations, game shows have been an American television staple, captivating audiences with their snappy catch phrases, larger-than-life personalities and thrilling moments of triumph and defeat.

Now, a new four-part docuseries called “The Game Show Show” from ABC News Studios delves into the 80-year history of one of the most beloved and long-lasting genres of our time, getting into stories that even a game show super fan might not know — from how many different dresses Vanna White wore over 41 years as co-host of “Wheel of Fortune” to what "Fear Factor" challenge producers found so disgusting its episode never aired.

“I don’t think there’s anybody alive that hasn’t watched a game show,” “Deal or No Deal” host Howie Mandel says at the start of the series. The first episode explores the evolution of the quiz show, from the cheating scandal of the 1950s to the enduring legacy of "Jeopardy," soon to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its first show.

PHOTO: "The Game Show Show" debuts Wednesday, May 10, on ABC.
"The Game Show Show" debuts Wednesday, May 10, on ABC.
ABC News Studios

Archival footage from the bygone era shows how the radio-inspired “The $64,000 Question” captivated audiences across the country and famously out-rated “I Love Lucy” to become the top show on television in the 1956-57 season.

“In the '50s and early-'60s you see these quiz shows making not just stars out of their hosts, but their contestants as well,” Entertainment Weekly Executive Editor Patrick Gomez says in the show.

Another quiz show, “Twenty-One,” became well known for its cast of characters, like Herb Stempel, an everyman World War II veteran, and Charles Van Doren, a Columbia English professor. Both were infamously involved in the show's cheating scandal upon which the 1994 movie "Quiz Show" was based.

PHOTO: "Jeopardy" contestant Amy Schneider is shown during an episode of "The Game Show Show."
"Jeopardy" contestant Amy Schneider is shown during an episode of "The Game Show Show."
ABC News Studios

America was hooked, but when it was revealed that some producers had been rigging their shows, the popularity of quiz shows began to fade.

"So quiz shows disappeared for a decade because of all the scandals," "Jeopardy" co-host Ken Jennings said.

The docuseries also features past interviews with legendary game show creator Merv Griffin, who talks about how he conceived iconic shows like “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

Meredith Viera discusses the high stakes show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" explaining how the promise of "regular folks" winning big jackpots or prizes was part of the allure. Other shows like "The Price Is Right" and "Deal or No Deal" also gave viewers that sense of relatability and excitement.

“The thing that made my mom love ‘The Price Is Right’ so much is that it was a show that was for people like her. These are people who really had to know how to stretch a dollar and need to know how much floor cleaner cost,” said Guy Branum, former host of “Talk Show the Game Show.”

PHOTO: "The Price Is Right" host Drew Carey is shown during an episode of "The Game Show Show."
"The Price Is Right" host Drew Carey is shown during an episode of "The Game Show Show."
ABC News Studios

The third episode explores how producers pushed the envelope even further when it came to competition-style game shows like “The Gong Show,” “American Idol,” “Fear Factor" and “Survivor.”

“You can actually put your hopes and aspirations on the line,” comedian Margaret Cho said.

The final episode delves into how producers appealed to younger audiences with love and dating game shows like “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game" — shows that opened the door for contemporary dating shows like "The Bachelor" and "Love Island."

“The FCC, they were very strict at that time about what took place. So I wouldn’t say ‘make love,’ and Frank Sinatra, he had a hit record called ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ and I said, ‘That’s the word right there,’” “Newlywed” host Bob Eubanks said.

“The Game Show Show” also features interviews with Wayne Brady, Vanna White and Drew Carey, among others.

The first episode, "The Answer is..." debuts Wednesday, May 10, on ABC at 10 p.m. EST and is available to stream on Hulu the following day.

"The Game Show Show" is produced by Cream Productions for ABC News Studios. David Brady, Kate Harrison Karman, Sarah Gibson and John Ealer are executive producers for Cream Productions. David Sloan is senior executive producer and Victoria Thompson is executive producer for ABC News Studios.