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Game and Quiz Shows

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Like soaps and sitcoms, game and quiz shows are among broadcasting's few genuine innovations. Broadly speaking, in quiz shows it is knowledge that is tested, while contestants in game shows compete through chance and skill. Today, however, the distinctions are increasingly blurred as forms merge with reality television shows, with participants involved in game-like activities.

Game and quiz shows began on America commercial radio in 1923 with The Pop Question Game. By the end of the 1950s, quiz shows were proliferating in American television, with stakes so high (for example, The $64,000 Question, 1955-58) that fraud became a serious threat. Nevertheless, the genre's popularity ultimately saw many American formats being imported into the UK.

BBC Radio's Reithian ideals to 'inform, educate and entertain' meant that such shows did not immediately find an easy toehold. It was not until 1937 that the Inter-regional Spelling Competition (in BBC Radio's Children's Hour slot) became Britain's first broadcast quiz programme. By the 1940s, audience participation shows had become part of general entertainment on radio. The first quiz show on British television was probably Spelling Bee (1938). An important milestone was the first show to offer prizes (lamps, electric irons), The Charlie Chester Show (BBC 1951-60), in its 'Pot Luck' segment. Then as now, the BBC considered that using public money for large prizes was inappropriate.

As in America, successful radio formats were commonly transferred to television. Most had an educational style, with a panel of experts answering questions, as in The Brains Trust (BBC, 1951-61) or Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? (BBC, 1952-59). Top of the Form (BBC, 1953-75), a general knowledge team quiz for school children, also began on radio. Mastermind (BBC, 1972-) and University Challenge (ITV, 1962-87; BBC, 1994-) are current examples of these intellectual shows.

Celebrity panellists have always been popular. What's My Line? (BBC 1952-62, 1973-74; ITV, 1984-90) was a parlour-style game in which celebrities, notably the irascible Gilbert Harding, guessed the occupation of visiting members of the public. More recent examples of celebrity quizzes are A Question of Sport (BBC, 1970-) and QI (BBC, 2002-).

But it was with the birth of ITV in 1955 that light entertainment game and quiz shows really began to flourish on British television. Commercially-minded ITV producers introduced formats that had already proved successful in the US, with big money prizes replacing the simple satisfaction of winning. Take Your Pick (1955-63), the first British television show to offer money, and Double Your Money (1955-68) both launched in ITV's first few days of broadcasting.

Contemporary critics of commercial television prophesised that it would produce lightweight, downmarket entertainment, and game and quiz shows seemed to epitomise this, with participants having to behave sometimes in ridiculous ways and greed being exploited. Discussions raged in the press about the rights and wrongs of offering prizes. 1962's Pilkington Report was critical of the way that quiz shows encouraged consumption, exploited audiences' voyeuristic tendencies (the genre was likened to "watching one man in a large arena being baited") and rewarded trivial knowledge.

By 1957 there were eight per week as these audience participation shows proved a winning formula in the UK, as they had in America. The importance of knowledge became less important than the entertainment factor. Some of the shows were: 'Beat the Clock' (part of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, ITV, 1955-65), in which contestants had to perform stunts within a time limit; The 64,000 Question (ITV, 1956-58) based on the American $64,000 Question but with a top prize of 64,000 sixpences; Twenty-One (1958) based on the card game; Spot the Tune (ITV, 1956-62) a musical quiz based on the American Name That Tune; and Criss Cross Quiz, (1957-67), a general knowledge game inspired by Noughts and Crosses and based on the US show Tic Tac Dough (1956-59).

Later popular shows were Mr and Mrs (ITV, 1964-88; 2008-), based on the US show The Newlywed Game (1966-99; 2009-) in which husband and wives were tested on their knowledge of each other. Sale of the Century (ITV 1971-1983) was based on knowledge of goods. The Krypton Factor (ITV, 1977-95; 2009-) combined intelligence with physical ability. Perhaps the most popular game show of the 1970s was The Generation Game (BBC, 1971-82, 1990-2002) in which Bruce Forsyth (initially) put related couples through various generally comic tasks. The celebrity show continued to flourish with Celebrity Squares (1975-79), a comedy quiz based on the US Hollywood Squares (1966-2004).

The 1980s saw the arrival of Channel Four and an alternative approach to scheduling. Word and number quiz Countdown (1982-) was the first programme to appear on the Channel, and was unprecedentedly stripped across the week. The innovative Treasure Hunt (1982-89) was another early success, while Fifteen-to-One (1988-2003) was a more cerebral and fiercely competitive quiz. Quiz and game shows were relatively thin on the ground in the 1980s, but there were some notable successes, such as Blind Date (1985-2003), based on an American format and hosted by Cilla Black. Here a contestant quizzed three unseen members of the opposite sex and based on their answers had to choose one for their 'blind' date. Another successful show was the very consumerist The Price is Right (ITV, 1984 -2007), a more glitzy relative of Sale of the Century, in which contestants answered questions on the price of goods.

The 1990s saw a shift from US domination of the genre and a major revitalisation. Following the scandals of the 1950s the IBA had fixed a maximum prize equal in value to the price of a small car - the star prize in Sale of the Century. As a result of deregulation, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (ITV, 1998-) could now offer a £1million prize. Millionaire was stripped across the week in primetime, a commercial risk for ITV, but one that proved enormously successful. The show's success soon spread and in the reversal of the familiar trend, it was sold to the US, with production company Celador retaining complete control of the formula. This inspired a whole new generation of shows like The Weakest Link (2000-) and Deal or No Deal (Channel 4, 2005-), which also sold to the US making money for their UK originators. Recently, UK television has been one of the most successful in developing and exporting new formulae.

From around the 1990s, game and quiz shows have followed the tendency towards mixing or 'hybridising' genres seen elsewhere in the TV schedules. A show like Deal or No Deal concentrates on the relationship between the contestants united against the banker, becoming part chance game, part reality TV. Have I Got News For You (BBC, 1990-) and Never Mind the Buzzcocks (BBC, 1996-) are comedies masquerading as quiz or game shows. At the edge of the genre is the competition/game element brought into what would once have been a simple variety show, as in Strictly Come Dancing (BBC 2004-), with its combination of celebrity, talent, competition, and reality show elements.

For much of their history, quiz and game shows have been considered low key and unimportant - albeit often popular - elements of the television schedule, and have received little critical attention by comparison with comedy, drama or documentary. However, their interactive nature, the pleasures of competition and our delight in seeing a winner all contribute to their success and thus their importance for television, while their popularity alone makes them worthy of study. With British formats now a valuable commercial asset for broadcasters and independent producers, quiz and game shows are more embedded in British television than ever.

Holmes, S. in Media, Culture and Society, Sage Publications 2006 London, Thousand Oaks and New Dehli, Vol 29(1): 53-74
Goedkoop, R, 'The Game Show' in TV Genres - A Handbook and Reference Guide 1985 ed. Brian C. Rose, London, Greenwood Press.
Mittell, J. 2004 Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture, London, Routledge.
Wayne M. 2000 'Who wants to be a millionaire' Contextual Analysis and the Endgame of Public Service Television' in Fleming, D. (ed.) Formations: A 21st Century Media Studies Textbook Manchester, Manchester University Press

Wendy Helsby

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