Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mornings with The Price is Right

Last year Bob Barker celebrated his 90th birthday by returning to The Price is Right, the series he hosted for 35 years. 

I didn’t watch.

I feel like I should have – as a kid I spent countless sick days and snow days and summer mornings with Bob and The Price is Right, back when it was one among dozens of game shows that came and went over three decades. Who remembers Concentration and High Rollers? Or Gambit and Sale of the Century? How about Double Dare, Card Sharks, Blockbusters and Treasure Hunt?

Gradually they all ended their morning runs but The Price is Right soldiers on. It remains a true TV anachronism, and one of the very few series that have been on television longer than I have been alive.

Viewers today will find much of the format unchanged under current host Drew Carey. There are male models now and some high tech bells and whistles, but many of the same pricing games from Barker’s first episode are still being played.

And yet – it just doesn’t feel the same. The current incarnation seems too forced in its enthusiasm, too marketing driven, too assembly line in its progression from calling down the first four contestants to the fadeout after the showcases.

Shows like this used to thrive on the intimacy of their relationship with the viewers at home. They presented the façade of a happy family of coworkers who seemed sincere when they would thank you for inviting them into your home. They felt like friends.

Maybe it wasn’t authentic, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but the incarnation of The Price is Right that I still treasure featured the steady, reliable presence of Barker as host, Johnny Olson as announcer, and a trio of models – Janice Pennington, Dian Parkinson and Holly Hallstrom – that viewers came to know over the years as more than just eye candy.  

 It was the longevity of the show and this cast that, as it did with soap operas, made The Price is Right so special. Janice was pointing at “brand new cars!” when I was 8 years old. She was still doing it when I graduated high school. And she was still doing it when I graduated college, and for more than 10 years after that.

She always seemed like the oldest of “Barker’s Beauties,” as they were once called, at a time when that kind of label didn’t trigger outrage. Actually, Janice is just two years older than Dian, but she had a classiness in how she carried herself as she fondled an Amana Radarange that always distinguished her from her fellow prize pointers.

Dian was Cinemax before that was even a word. No one ever wore a bikini better, and when she was showing off a sailboat or a hot tub it was like Christmas coming early.

 Holly was kid sister cute and more approachable. She screwed up a lot, too, which only made her more endearing. 

Johnny Olson’s voice is part of so many collective childhoods. The Price is Right was the only show where he also regularly appeared on camera, for the contestant introductions and the silly showcase skits at the end of each episode. He played priests and doctors and big game hunters and Roman emperors, but no matter how they dressed him up he always looked like your tax attorney. 

And Bob? He was always genial, always patient with the more addled contestants, always sincere in his requests to have your pets spayed or neutered. While you could occasionally detect glimpses of a control freak beneath the ever-present smile, Barker remained the consummate host.

We have all realized by now that a celebrity’s public persona may not be the truest representation of their character. The Bob Barker who returned to CBS last year is one whose name is now inextricably linked to rampant egotism, wrongful termination lawsuits and sexual harassment.

Some of it may be true. Some of it may just be piling on for a quick buck once the network opted for confidential settlements instead of trials. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

Should I not like Barker anymore because he was probably a jerk sometimes? When you start down that road, it’s going to cut deeply into any classic TV library. Pretty soon you end up only watching shows with Art Linkletter, Annette Funicello and Mr. Rogers. June Lockhart too. Maybe Lucie Arnaz.

I may not watch The Price is Right anymore, and the version I fondly recall may be somewhat tainted, but I’m glad the show is still around. Even if I’m no longer downing Captain Crunch in front of the TV and trying to guess the manufacturer’s retail price of Turtle Wax without going over, I know it’s still preferable to Maury Povich announcing, “You are NOT the father” to yet another irresponsible moron. Thankfully, at least Barker has yet to appear on that show. 


  1. My mom still watches "The Price is Right." Mr. Hofstede, have you ever watched the Wayne Brady version of "Let's Make a Deal"? No offense, but I imagine many soap fans are still upset that the current "Let's Make a Deal" replaced "Guiding Light," a serial which was part of CBS Daytime from 1952 to 2009. (For the record, Marcy Walker played Tangie Hill on "GL" from 1993 to 1995.)

    In any case, I find it curious that CBS Daytime currently has game shows while both NBC Daytime and ABC Daytime have done away with them. (People need to keep in mind that the current "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a syndicated show even though most of ABC's owned-and-operated stations currently air it.) Um, aren't game shows more economical than daytime soap operas?

    1. I watched it but couldn't get into it - felt the same about all of the newer Family Feud versions.

  2. How I miss hearing "This is Johnny Olson speaking..." Your incarnation of The Price Is Right is mine too, and I also watched it on sick days or in the summer with my grandmother, who loved game shows. She introduced me to Card Sharks, which became my favorite game show. I have the BCI Best of The Price Is Right DVD set, but it doesn't contain any episodes with the whole "golden era" crew, supposedly because of the lawsuits and other unpleasantness you mentioned. So it doesn't quite satisfy. BCI's Match Game set is much better, and their Family Feud set is fun as well. It's too bad they apparently weren't profitable enough to warrant releasing more sets. Although I no longer watch broadcast or cable TV, I find it a bit sad that, as Mr. Stuart reports, 2 of the 3 "legacy" networks no longer show game shows. What are kids today watching when they stay home from school? Or are they even watching TV at all?

    1. That's the question - I think some do but for the rest there are just too many other distractions. I always liked Card Sharks as well!

  3. It's too bad Barker & crew weren't around back when Price was spoofed on The Flintstones as The Prize Is Priced - it would have been fun to see what their Bedrock incarnations would have looked like.

    1. I am 44 grew up on the beaches south of Los Angeles; as a boy, teen and beyond Dian Janice & Holly always held the image of an impossible fantasy. women so incredible as to almost be science fiction - for me.