Is Game Show Hostdom Dead?
by Danny Gallagher, posted Mar 26th 2010 3:10PM
Game shows used to flood the dial of my TV back in the 1980s and '90s. And that was when my TV could only pick up eight channels, three depending on the weather.
Back then, almost everything from daytime fare to the occasional prime time bit of airtime starred game show hosts. Their purpose on television was solely to wear smart suits, make sure their teeth reached the optimum level of whiteness and keep the game moving but entertaining.
Now that game shows are making a slow but steady return to television, it seems the traditional role of "host" has turned away from the traditional "game" emcee like Chuck Woolery, Wink Martindale, Bob Barker and Art Fleming and more towards lively hosting personalities from other walks of entertainment life like Drew Carey, Wayne Brady, Howie Mandel and Guy Fieri. Does this mean that the role of the traditional TV game show has gone to that great big "Curtain No. 2" in the sky?
This isn't a critique or chance to slam the new flock of game show elite. Professional game show grinners like Carey and company have actually grown into their new television roles quite nicely. It just seems the concept, or really the art, of hosting a game show has been erased in the new television landscape. The art of entertaining an audience has morphed into the art of hosting a game show and something small but noticeable has been left out of the metamorphosis.
Firstly, the medium itself has changed. Back in television's infancy, most, if not all, of the hosts got their starts on radio as deejays, spinning records and trying to act excited about the few rock songs they were allowed to play. Radio was the main breeding ground for the hosts of the day since the markets were wide and varied and the formats ranged from introducing bands and songs to interviewing and interacting with people in and outside of the studio.
Now, radio has all but eradicated the presence of the local deejay with pre-recorded mixers of professional voice artists and the few remaining talk shows running to the warm, loving embrace of satellite radio. Game shows' "proving ground" has been lost to the ether of time.
Of course, there are exceptions to the "radio rule." Peter Marshall and John Davidson both started out as actors before they landed their respective gigs on 'Hollywood Squares.' Art Fleming, the original host of 'Jeopardy,' got his start in television as a stunt double for Ralph Bellamy. The great Johnny Carson (Fact: all TV writers are required by law to refer to the great Johnny Carson as "the great Johnny Carson") first hooked up with Ed McMahon on a game show. Even David Letterman hosted a few game show pilots in his time before 'Late Night.'
However, ever since 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?' made primetime hot for game shows again, producers have tried to recapture that same love with more famous hosts to compensate for the lack of drama in the game, such as William Shatner's short run in 'Show Me the Money' and Jimmy Kimmel -- the late night host who got his TV start as a smart-ass sidekick on Comedy Central's 'Win Ben Stein's Money' -- in the even shorter-lived 'Set for Life.'
Even cable networks, who used to have at least one token game show to fit their network's theme, have cut back on game shows since they realized that abandoning their core formats is better for ratings. Even GSN, which still offers a ton of old and new classics, has twisted their original offerings to meet the new trend, like pushing aside Bob Eubanks to give their revamped 'Newlywed Game' to Carnie Wilson.
And the new breed still does a pretty good job for the most part. Carey got off to a rocky start when he took over for the epic and retiring Bob Barker, but he's become comfortable behind the extending mic. Brady's improv comic charm and wit serves him well as the host of 'Let's Make a Deal,' as he goads housewives dressed as steak into choosing what's in the box or what's behind Curtain No. 2. Even Fieri, who I wasn't as kind to in a recent podcast, has started to grow into his role on 'Minute to Win It'.
The only major difference between the hosts of old and new is their star level. Celebrity seems to be more of a motivating factor for game show host hires now more than ever. The host still has to be affable, energetic and succinct, but a little star power also seemed to be that extra safety net that pushed some candidates ahead of the talent line.
Something still feels different, almost distant and missing. The show hosts of yesteryear possessed a certain attitude, almost a swagger, if you will, that the stage they took was their own. Everything they had been working for in broadcasting and television led up to this moment, not away from it. Maybe that game shows are making a comeback as networks start clipping soap operas for more fabulous chances to win cash and/or prizes, the art of hostdom will make a comeback.
I'm sure the teeth bleaching industry is banking on it.