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The Evolution of TV Game Shows

Game Shows Continue to Command Vast Audiences

TV game shows are some of the most popular programs aired today. In the United States, legendary shows like “Wheel of Fortune,” “The Price is Right” and “Jeopardy!,” continue to draw millions of viewers, despite first airing in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since they first began appearing on screens in the 1930s, TV game shows have changed significantly, increasing the size of prizes awarded to contestants and taking inspiration from a wide range of sources to create novel concepts.

The First Game Shows

The first-ever game show to appear on TV was called “Spelling Bee,” which began as a radio program but made a move to TV in 1938. It followed a simple format in which contestants competed against each other to spell words correctly.

In the United States, the CBS Television quiz show “Truth or Consequences” began airing in 1941. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the game shows took off. This coincided with the broader adoption of television among consumers. The game shows were played for lower stakes and aired during the daytime for housewives and anyone else hanging around at home.


Game shows continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1950s until several U.S. shows were found to be rigged. In most of them, it was found that producers assisted certain contestants in achieving a pre-planned outcome.

Some prime-time shows had begun offering large prizes, and one of the first was “The $64,000 Question,” a game named after its top prize. Adjusted for inflation, winners would receive the equivalent of $567,000 in today’s money.

The rigging was not about preventing contestants form winning the top prizes, as many would likely first assume. In fact, TV producers wanted some players to perform well to attract more viewers, and therefore boost the show’s ratings.

Early game shows were often rigged to make them more exciting to the audience

A game show called “Twenty-One” began manipulating the outcomes when an early episode saw contestants guess most answers incorrectly and leave empty-handed. One of the show’s producers described the episode as a “dismal failure,” and a sponsor demanded that this not be repeated, leaving the show’s production team with few options but to rig it.

After it became public that the shows had pre-determined outcomes, the majority of them were quickly canceled. This led to laws being passed to crack down on this practice.

A similar issue occurred in the UK, with the regulatory body enforcing a cap of $1,000 on the maximum prize that could be offered. This was later increased to $6,000 in 1981 and scrapped altogether in 1993. It has created a chasm between US and UK shows, where a winner on a British show may be awarded a clock and a teapot, while a US winner may walk away with a life-changing sum of money.

Inspiration For Game Shows

Game shows have taken inspiration from many different sources over the decades. The Olympic sport of diving led to the creation of “Splash!,” while “TV Scrabble” was a British show based on the popular board game.

Then came classic quiz shows like “Mastermind” and physically demanding contests like “Total Wipeout,” in which contestants attempted to complete an almost impossible assault course that resulted in comical falls from giant red balls that often ended in mud pits.

While shows like “Wheel of Fortune” have taken inspiration from popular American roulette games, TV programs in some countries have gone even further. Nowadays, it’s possible to play casino games from home while watching a live TV broadcast, which is blurring the lines between live casino action and traditional game shows.

Other casino games have served as an inspiration for game shows too, including the UK show “PokerFace” which required contestants to bluff as they attempt to beat the opposing team.

Games Without Questions

Although most game shows require contestants to answer questions or complete physical challenges, games of chance have also been part of TV shows. The global phenomenon, “Deal Or No Deal,” is one of the best examples of this.

Although in some countries, contestants are required to answer questions to enter the main game, many versions of the show don’t require any knowledge or skill from the participants.

Instead, contestants must open boxes to reveal the monetary values inside them. The aim of the game is to be in possession of a large value box or to sell your box to the “Banker” for as high a value as possible. The game is based entirely around probabilities, and while the top theoretical prize in the UK was £250,000, only nine contestants achieved this in the game’s 3,003 episodes.

Highest Prize

In the early 1990s, the UK had removed its limit on game show prizes, paving the way for the creation of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” This show offered a top prize of $1 million when it first aired in 1998. Although this figure remains the same today, inflation has eroded its value. The 1998 prize would be worth $1.77 million today.

The highest ever game show prize is higher than $1 million. In the United States, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” sparked a trend for high-stakes game shows. In 2004, ABC aired a spin-off show called “Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire,” where the top prize was $10 million. However, the top prize was never won.

Contestants in the US have been able to rack up huge prizes on shows like “Jeopardy!” thanks to the rules that allow them to remain on the show until they are beaten. Ken Jennings won a total of $2.5 million over 75 episodes of the show, but has received a total of $4.5 million from “Jeopardy!” appearances after taking part in special editions like “Ultimate Tournament of Champions.” There are a total of 10 U.S. game show contestants that have won more than $1 million.

In just over 40 years, game shows have gone from being televised spelling bees to opportunities for contestants to win several million dollars. Unless, of course, you take part in an old UK game show, where you still win a clock and a teapot.