A Salute to the Great Game Show Boom of the Early ’00s

6 Sep

Is that your final answer?

The summer of 1999 marked the seeming emergence of two unscripted genres on primetime network television. One was a call back to television’s past, and one had never really been seen on network primetime before.  The latter, reality TV, came about after the unbelievable success of the first season of CBS’s Survivor, and reality, though the form has mutated in all sorts of ways, has stuck around and come to play a huge role in primetime network television.  Survivor, while a fraction of the phenomenon it was that first year, still, er, survives, to this day.  The other genre was the return of the primetime game show.  The primetime game show hasn’t quite thrived the way reality has, but with the debut of NBC’s limited series, the unsurprisingly confusing Million Second Quiz, there’s no better time to reflect on what’s come to be known (to me) as the Great Game Show Boom of the Early ‘00s.

There were several shows that played their role in the boom, some first tier, some second tier, and some third, tier, but like CBS’s Survivor, was responsible for the initial popularity of the reality format, there was one show really doing the heavy lifting for game shows and enjoying the lion’s share of the success.

That show, of course, was ABC’s Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?  Millionaire, like so many of the game shows to come, was an adaptation of a foreign show, British in this case.  The game show, which first appeared in the UK in 1998, was already making waves across the pond. The US version, which debuted in August 1999 and was hosted by morning television icon Regin Philbin, was a sensation right off the bat.  Everybody and anybody was watching; it was being watched by a mindblowing 30 million viewers a night, ABC, smelling opportunity, expanded the show, eventually airing it five days a week.  The show was the most watched of the 1999-2000 season; its  three weekly additions filled the first three spots on the list, topping Friends and ER.

In an episode of Millionaire, for anyone who wasn’t alive or was too young during this time period,contestants were chosen but finishing first in a “fastest finger” in which a number of potential contestants attempted to order a series of four items correctly as quickly as possible. The winning contestant was seated in “the hot seat” and answered up to 15 progressively more difficult questions worth progressively larger amounts of money. After hearing each question, the contestant would either choose to answer, risking all the cash they’ve acquired up until that point, or to walk away and take the money.  The final question was worth, as the show’s title implied, a million dollars, Each player had three lifelines he or she could use if stumped; phone a friend, where they could dial a prearranged friend for help, 50/50 which would eliminate two of the four answer choices, and ask the audience, where the studio audience was polled. John Carpenter was the first man to win the million, and was so confident of the final question that he used his remaining phone a friend lifeline to dial his father and tell him he had won the million. Regis’s retort after a candidate either answered a question or decided to walk away became a catch phrase still well known to anyone who lived through the era – “Is that your final answer?”

Goodbye.

Sensing an chance to piggy back off a popular idea, other networks scrambled to gobble up the spillover interest from Millionaire’s popularity, quickly debuting game shows of their own.  NBC aired The Weakest Link -1A to Millionaire’s #1 position in the Great Game Show Boom. While Millionaire was adapted from a British show, it took on an American flavor with Regis, a quintessentially American host.  Weakest Link’s most notably feature was its distinctly British host Anne Robinson, and her patented line spoken to each losing contestant. The contemptible “You are the weakest link. Goodbye” was the show’s versions of Millionaire’s “final answer.” No one really understood the rules, but then that was the case with most of these follow up game shows, and a partial explanation of why the far easier to grasp Millionaire led the way.  Still, one watched The Weakest Link for the caustic Robinson and the way she castigated contestants who slipped up.

Greed is good.

Greed was Fox’s entrant into the game show sweepstakes.  It was probably my favorite of the non-Millionaire shows as it was a little edgier. Fox called upon  game show legend Chuck Woolery to host and he was as able and professional as ever.  Greed’s gimmick was that a group of five players worked together as a team but slowly had opportunities to turn on each other.  Woolery asked questions to the contestants, which like in most of these shows, were worth increasing amounts of cash. In Greed, the captain of the team had the right to overrule any other contestant’s answer.  Occasionally a “Terminator” round would occur in which a randomly chosen contestant could choose to challenge another contestant to a face off in which the winner would get the loser’s share of the team’s cash, while the loser would be off for good with nothing.  The rules were quite complicated and very few teams actually made it all that far.

Maury Povich briefly hosted a revival of infamous game show Twenty One on NBC. The revival receives all of three lines on Wikipedia in the entry for the original fifties version, which was best known for the scandal which changed the way game shows operate and inspired the movie Quiz Show.   Winning Lines, an adaptation of a British game show, was hosted by Dick Clark on CBS, and lasted an even shorter period of time; it’s best known now, if known at all, as Dick Clark’s final game show.  Fox aired five episodes of an Australian import called It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime and ABC briefly adapted popular witty computer game You Don’t Know Jack, hosted by Paul Ruebens, better known a Pee Wee Herman.

ABC’s short-shortsightedness led to incredible short term gains, but likely shortened Millionaire’s primetime life span, as viewers grew weary of a show that was fed to them every day of the week.  The show dropped in just a couple of years from the #1 show on TV to cancellation, and the last episode aired in 2002, and with its cancellation the Great Game Show Boom of the Early ‘00s officially came to a close.  Millionaire lives on to this day in syndication, doing well enough, but its not quite the same as succeeding in the much more game show-unfriendly realm of primetime.  Game shows have appeared in limited doses on primetime since, often during slow network summers, or as special short-term events, but never as prolifically or popularly as during that brief period in the early ‘00s.  Deal or No Deal is probably the closest game shows have come to that level of massive popularity since, and but Dead or No Dead, while, a big deal, wasn’t  as popular as Millionaire, nor did it spawn a legion of imitators.  (It was, however, a lot dumber).  It bodes well to remember that at any given time some television program can come out of nowhere and unexpectedly, for even a short period of time, take over the world.

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