After 44 years of bids, spins and Showcase Showdowns, “The Price Is Right” has become a television institution.
The CBS game show that begins its 45th season on Monday is part of the fabric of daytime TV — a few bars of its jaunty theme music puts any channel-flipper in the mood for a little Plinko. Generation X-ers and beyond have never known a world without “The Price Is Right.”
The program created by game show legends Bob Stewart, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman has long reigned as the No. 1 network program in daytime, with an average of 5.4 million viewers for its most recent season.
“It was always everybody’s favorite show to watch when you were staying home from school,” jokes “Price” exec producer Mike Richards.
How else to explain the hordes of college students that make the trek to CBS Television City every year to be in the studio audience? Thousands of people every year plan vacations around a trip to Los Angeles for the chance to hear the clarion call of “Come on down!” Hotels in the area offer special “Price Is Right” packages. The lineup at CBS TV City in L.A.’s Fairfax district begins around 2 a.m. on Mondays for the chance to grab one of 300 seats in the studio audience.
The show typically shoots two episodes a day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on a schedule that runs from mid-July through April. “Price” has called Stage 33 at CBS TV City home since its debut on Sept. 4, 1972.
“Price’s” iconic status is both blessing and challenge for producers. Fans would revolt if too many of its classic elements were changed, yet the show would ossify without a steady refresh of games, prizes and schtick from host Drew Carey, who took the skinny mic from original host Bob Barker in 2007.
“We’ve got to continue to surprise people after 45 years but also give them the show they’ve loved for 45 years,” Richards says. The production team has a gut-check test for any new elements they consider adding: “Is it ‘Price Is Right-y’ “ says Richard, who has been exec producer for the past nine years. He’s also the showrunner “Price’s” companion show “Let’s Make a Deal.”
The show has a distinct color palette — subtle it is not — and a spirit about the games. They’re silly but never humiliating. And contestants are never directly pitted against each other in game play.
“I think of ‘Price’ as offering people an alternate reality,” Richards says. “It’s a room where you walk in and everyone’s cheering. It’s not really competitive. It has such a joyous energy that there’s really no fighting it.”
Among the unusual aspects of “Price” is that there is no advance preparation for the contestants. Producers never know what they’re going to get when they pick a name to be called down to Contestants Row. At that stage, four contenders bid on their chances of guessing the actual retail price of an item in order to advance on to the next round with host Carey. Jumping up and down, hooting and hollering often ensues — even among the contestants who don’t win the bid — which sets the tone and pace for the rest of the hour.
“What’s so brilliant about the format is that within the first four minutes of the show you’ve had four people come on down, and that is the equivalent of a win,” Richards says. “Then you have someone winning a bid or pricing game every four minutes after that. When you see people jumping up and down, that excitement translates to viewers at home.”
The show is essentially shot live to tape. Each episode takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete. Reshoots and pickup shots are extremely rare.
“Price” has been a pioneer in the use of wireless cameras, to give operators maximum flexibility with four of its five cameras. “Our camera guys fly around the stage” to capture the reactions of contestants and audience members, Richards says. Carey’s background in standup and improv comedy makes him prone to reacting on the fly as well.
The rapid-fire lineup of the games makes for a chaotic atmosphere backstage as crew members are constantly moving items large and small in and out of the sets. “Price” is famous for giving away cars — each one has to be pushed down the main studio hallway, lifted on to jacks and then tugged onto the stage by four stagehands.
“ Watching ‘Price’ is a thrill ride for the studio audience and it is just crazy backstage,” Richards assures.
At its core, “Price” is a show about numbers. To mark its 45th anniversary — with 8,442 episodes and counting — producers calculated some by-the-numbers stats for Variety.
- Number of contestants to date: approximately 73,917
- Number of pricing games played: 48,705
- Audience members in total in all 44 seasons: over 2,728,450
- Number of contestants that have spun the wheel: 46,986
- Number of showcases presented: 16,808
- The biggest winner in daytime won a total of $170,345 in cash and prizes
- The most expensive single prize ever offered was a Ferrari Spider worth $258,716.
- The first prizing game ever played was Any Number, which is still played today. It was played for a Chevrolet Vega worth $2,746, which became the first car ever given away.
- The ‘Price Is Right’ theme song is 1 minute and 3 seconds.
- Number of Pricing Games: 75
- The producer who chooses the contestants is the show’s longest-running employee, at 37 years.
(Pictured: “Price Is Right” host Drew Carey; “Price Is Right” host Bob Barker circa late 1970s.)