January 31, 2024

The history of game shows in one easy lesson

X couple of weeks ago, I appeared on Dan Schneider's American TV history series to discuss the history of game shows. It was a lot of fun, and I hope you'll check it out here

My primary reference source for the show was the book Game Shows FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Pioneers, the Scandals, the Hosts and the Jackpots, by Adam Nedeff. It's a book I've had for a few years, and while I did mention it at the end of the program, I realize I've been remiss in not writing about it sooner, because it's an indispensable resource as well as one of the best television history books of recent years.

Game Shows FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Pioneers, the Scandals, the Hosts and the Jackpots
by Adam Nedeff
Applause, 388 pages, $19.99

My rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As you might gather from the title, this is no dry recitation of the history of television game shows. Neither, however, is it a series of headlines that read like internet clickbait. As the Amazon description reads (and why bother trying to reinvent something that says exactly what needs to be said?), "this book examines the most relevant game shows of every decade, exploring how the genre changed and the reasons behind its evolution." And it does so in a totally readable way.

Did you know, for example, that the first recorded game quiz on radio was in 1923, on radio station WNYC in New York, that it was called "Brooklyn Eagle Quiz on Current Events," and that the host the host was H.V. Kaltenborn, who would go on to become a respected newscaster and commentator? Or that "Uncle Jim’s Question Bee" was the first quiz show on television in 1941, when it appeared on WNBT in  New York in a special made for the first day of official broadcasting? You would if you read Game Show FAQ. You'd also know how and why old game shows become new game shows, how Merv Griffin and Chuck Barris each brought their own unique (and very different!) way of thinking to the genre, why many doubted the choice of Alex Trebek as the host of the revived Jeopardy!, how ABC ruined its biggest cash cow, and more.  

Game shows have changed dramatically from those days of the "Brooklyn Eagle Quiz on Current Events," when high school students stood on stage and competed until only one contestant remained. Daytime shows depended on knowledge of practical facts, such as how much household items might cost (The Price is Right), facts that might appeal to a predominantly female audience. Evening shows, seeking to make a bigger splash (and higher ratings) became big-money super-shows (Twenty-One, The $64,000 Question) based on high-level knowledge of specialized subjects ranging from mathematics to movies and boxing. Those shows produced their own superstars—and their own problems, as Nedeff details in his chapter on the Quiz Show Scandal. 

Following the scandal, a new generation of game show came to the front: panel shows driven by celebrities (What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth), tests of a contestant's wits (Jeopardy!, Password, Concentration), and shows where the competition sometimes seemed to take a backseat to comedy (The Hollywood Squares, Match Game, Let's Make a Deal). The stakes were demonstrably lower, and eventually the genre began to die off, only to make a resurgence with a new generation of shows, from Family Feud to Wheel of Fortune, culminating in the prime-time sensations Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link. What about shows like American Idol and Survivor? Nedeff covers them as well. 

Sometimes books on television history can seem, well, more fan-based than historical; other times, the prose is so dry and scholarly that the shows described barely resemble the ones we remember having watched. Fortunately, this doesn't describe Game Show FAQ; Through nearly 400 pages, Nedeff goes through the history of game shows—from those unknown programs of early radio days to the shows that we all remember from those days when we were sick and couldn't go to schoolin a style that's both breezy and informative, and exceptionally well-written. The man knows his topic (he's written other books on game shows), and more important he knows how to write about it: not only the historical facts, but the backstage information as well: feuds, misplaced jokes, network interference, hosts that didn't pan out, you name it. 

If you have a fondness for game shows—either those from childhood or today's shows populating the many game show-specific subchannels and streamers—you're going to find it in this book. Even if you're not a game show fanatic but enjoy the history of television, you'll learn about the role these shows have had and continue to have in the medium. For that, we have Adam Nedeff to thank, and Game Show FAQ deserves its place in the television library for that alone. That it's a great read just adds to the enjoyment. TV  

No comments

Post a Comment

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!