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Monday, March 25, 2024

March 25, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: 30s and 40s Origins

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On three stages in the genre’s experimental early decades.

1)      1938 Starting Points: Of course quizzes and trivia questions and the like had been part of society in various forms for centuries, but the first official “game shows” on both radio and television appeared in the same month and year, May 1938: the American radio show Information Please (which debuted on May 17th and would run for the next 13 years); and the very early British TV show Spelling Bee (which debuted on May 31st and featured four live episodes). Both radio and TV have continued to feature quiz shows and game shows in prominent roles ever since, so this dual origin point isn’t surprising (although I’ll admit to not realizing prior to research this series that TV existed in any meaningful form in 1938). Of course one factor was the evolution of these media and technologies, but I would also argue that the Depression-era timing wasn’t a coincidence; audiences needed escapes from their difficult realities, and as the name suggests, game shows offered a fun such respite.

2)      1941 Evolutions: Spelling Bee was a bit of a one-off, and it was a few years later that TV game shows began to emerge and evolve more fully. That started with an adaptation of a popular radio show, Truth or Consequences, which had debuted on the radio in March 1940 but aired an experimental TV version on July 1, 1941 (making it the first game show on broadcast TV, although it would only become a regular TV program in 1950). Just one day later, on July 2, saw the debut of the first regularly scheduled TV game show, CBS Television Quiz, which aired weekly for about a year. Again this timing was at least a bit coincidental and likely reflective of TV’s evolutions and new possibilities in the period, but I would likewise connect these to their 1941 moment, and the need for an audience to be temporarily and enjoyably distracted from a world at war.

3)      You Bet Your Life: One of the most successful game shows of the 1940s appeared in both media, not just as an adaptation from one to the other but as a program that moved back and forth between the two. That was You Bet Your Life, the Groucho Marx-hosted comedy quiz show which debuted on the radio in 1947, on TV in 1950, and continued in both media (again in a back-and-forth kind of way) for another decade. You Bet Your Life was genuinely a quiz show, but a great deal of its marketing and appeal centered on its funny and famous host, making this in many ways the first game show that was more about personality and performance than the games or quizzes themselves. That would become a recurring element of the genre, exemplified of course by the legendary Jeopardy host about whom I’ll have more to say on Friday.

Next game show histories tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

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