Ever since the very first game show Spelling Bee hit our TV screens way back in 1938 (just two years after the advent of television), the format has always been with us. And while Spelling Bee, hosted by Freddie Grisewood, didn’t last long, other game shows have achieved remarkable longevity, remaining on our screens for what seems like forever.
Countdown, for instance, has been compulsory viewing for university students since it was the first program broadcast on the brand new Channel 4 in 1982. The show is still running and is now on its sixth presenter.
Family Fortunes, hosted by Bob Monkhouse and then Les Dennis, aired for 22 years from 1980. Fifteen to One had a good run too, having run from 1988 through to 2003, and which is still revived occasionally for celebrity specials.
And of course, the king of them all is The Generation Game, the show that made Bruce Forsyth a national institution, and which has been with us in one form or another, hosted by a variety of personalities, since 1971.
There have also been many examples of discarded game shows making a comeback and being reborn with new hosts and presenters (and in some cases, on another channel). University Challenge, for instance, which was first broadcast in 1962 returned to the BBC in 1994 after a hiatus of seven years with Jeremy Paxman as the Quizmaster (it’s still going strong and has completed a total of 46 series).
More recently, in 2018 Crystal Maze returned to primetime viewing, now hosted by Richard Ayoade, after more than two decades away. There is also due to be a new series of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire hosted by Jeremy Clarkson and broadcast on ITV to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the show, four years after its original run came to an end.
And even if a much-loved game show does disappear from our screens, as was the case after 11 years for Noel Edmonds’ Deal Or No Deal, it doesn’t mean that the show is dead in the public mind. Some of the most popular game shows have managed to achieve a second or an afterlife in other formats. The Weakest Link, for instance, which ended its run on TV in 2012, was developed into a computer game by Activision. There are PC game, board game and online slots game versions of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Deal Or No Deal itself, despite not being seen on our screens since 2016, lives on in a variety of formats most notably bingo with sites like Heart Bingo offering a take on this highly popular game show; and it doesn’t end at bingo with the sites listed at Top5bingosites also all offering a Deal of No Deal themes slot game.
So what is it that makes the game show such an enduring form of television entertainment?
First of all, it’s the fact that the majority of shows feature regular people as contestants. Although there is a vogue in recent years for celebrity editions, most TV game shows thrive on the fact that they give everyday people the chance to win prizes and to become a TV personality, if only for a brief moment in time.
We can identify with the contestants, their ups and downs, and this is what keeps us tuning in. This has also been the inspiration and driving force behind talent shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent that have enabled ordinary people to showcase their (sometimes) extraordinary talents.
Allied to this is that most game shows have some sort of general knowledge, quiz or challenge component to them. This encourages audience participation from the viewers at home, as we can all join in and answer the questions as well, feeling smug when we get one right that the contestant makes a mess of!
In this way, game shows also have a way of appealing to the darker side of human nature. Although we might not like to admit it, some of us do take pleasure at others’ failure. We like seeing the contestant who gets too ambitious blow the chance of a prize when they bite off more than they can chew or miss out on the jackpot by simply being too cautious.
Right form their earliest days, makers of TV game shows realised that there has to be some form of viewer participation if people are going to continue tuning in and, as much as we might wish it weren’t so, schadenfreude is undoubtedly one of the major appeals.
But perhaps above all, it is the charismatic hosts who have in many cases ensured a TV game show’s success and longevity. Would the Generation Game have been a success without Bruce? Would Countdown have got off the ground without Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman?
Would University Challenge be the same without Paxman’s supercilious sarcasm? We make stars of the hosts of game shows because it is more often than not their infectious good humor or their relationships with the contestants that attract us to watch. The fact that some shows have lost their appeal when a new host has been introduced is testament to this.
Therefore, while the format of TV game shows may take on a variety of forms, these central elements of audience participation, quizzes and challenges, combined with much-loved hosts remain integral to their appeal. And if the re-birth of old game shows alongside the regular creation of new ones is anything to go by, the winning formula doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.
As long as there is TV, there will undoubtedly be TV game shows.