Blockbusters

First episode: October 27, 1980 
Last episode: April 23, 1982 
Seen weekday mornings 10:30-11:00 on NBC 

The Show:

"This is the battlefield for our game of speed and strategy! These are the letters that lead to victory, on...Blockbusters!"

Three contestants compete. One is a solo player, represented by red. The other two are the family pair (any relation to each other except married couple), and are represented by white. The contestants face a twenty-hexagon grid, each hexagon containing the first letter of the one-word correct answer.

For each hexagon, Bill reads a trivia question and the contestants ring in to answer. A correct answer turns the hexagon the proper color and that contestant picks the next hexagon.

Blockbusters Bill Cullen 1981

The goal is to make a connection from one side of the board to the other. The family pair has to connect from left to right and can do so with as few as five correct answers. The solo player has to connect from top to bottom and, since there is only one of them, they have a shortened path and can win with as few as four correct answers. But much of the time, it isn't as easy as that. Frequently, a contestant would make part of their connection, only to be blocked in by their opponent, forcing them to take a longer path. This led to many instances where both sides would need the same hexagon to win.

The first side to make the connection wins the game and the right to play Gold Rush for $2,500. Two games wins the match and the right to play Super Gold Rush for $5,000.  This was changed a few weeks into the series to $500 for each game, with the first side to win two games and $1,000 winning the match and playing the renamed Gold Run for $5,000.

In Gold Run, the contestant (only one could play if it was the family pair) faces another 20-hexagon grid; each hexagon may contain from one to five initial letters. (IGAS for "I've Got a Secret," HP for "Hot Potato", etc.) The contestant calls out the initials, Bill reads a clue, and the contestant either answers or passes. A right answer turns the hexagon gold, while a wrong answer or pass turns it black and creates a block that the contestant must go around to build the path. The contestant has 60 seconds to make the connection, from gold to gold, with $100 awarded for each correct answer given or $5,000 for a completed path.

Bill Cullen12.jpg

Contestants could remain on the show originally until winning eight matches; after the Gold Rush/Super Gold Rush format was dumped, this was extended to 10 matches. This was extended again to 20 matches, which meant a contestant who went undefeated and won the Gold Run every time could leave with a total of $120,000. A solo player, John Hatton, and a family pair, Liz & Pat McCarthy, both accomplished this.

Notes:

This was Bill's return to the Goodson-Todman fold after spending the 70s hosting Bob Stewart games.  (Bill had kept his ties with Goodson-Todman as a panelist on To Tell The Truth.)  Even with a run of only eighteen months, this was one of the more successful series of his later career, and certainly one of the better games.  Even today, it remains one of the more popular.

In June 1980, Bill's game Chain Reaction had been cancelled to make way for David Letterman's daytime talk show. After 18 weeks, Letterman was cancelled and replaced by Bill and Blockbusters.

Bill Cullen Blockbusters

Blockbusters came to fruition with startling speed. While many shows on television are the result of months and even years of tinkering and toiling. Goodson-Todman staffer Steve Ryan pitched the game in mid-September 1980, and NBC bought it not only without a pilot, but without a title. The name Blockbusters was suggested after the deal was signed, a pilot was shot on October 21, 1980 as a formality, with the series premiere taped only three days later and aired three days after that.

In 1982, Bill received an Emmy nomination for hosting Blockbusters.  He also had Emmy nominations for Three on a Match and Hot Potato.

In 1983, after Bill's version left the airwaves, ITV in Great Britain introduced Blockbusters as a game played by teens. The British version, hosted by Bob Holness, ran for ten years. It's since been revived for three more incarnations.

Bill Cullen Blockbusters

THE SECRETS OF THE "BLOCKBUSTERS" BOARD

As comprehensive as is humanly possible, here's everything we can tell you about the board. Special thanks to the remarkably sharp-eyed Scott Robinson and to "Blockbusters" producer Robert Sherman for this info:

The hexagon grid itself housed 60 slide projectors, three for each hexagon: one with white slides, one with red slides, and one with all of the letters. When a correct answer was given, a remote control unit shut off the letter projector while switching on the projector with the appropriate color.

Each of the slide projectors had a 500-watt bulb. Because that many 500-watt bulbs in such close proximity could get incredibly hot, there was a wall-sized air conditioning unit behind the board. (The next time you watch an episode, pay attention during a tough question where nobody rings in and everybody sits there in total silence. You can hear the air conditioner humming.)

As for the boards themselves, the show actually had a finite number of letter patterns. There were 19 grids that you can spot according to the letter in the top left corner. One board with the letter A in the top left, one with B, etc. through the letter Q, and then an S board and a T board. There may have been an R board, but without going through literally every episode in our collection, I'll simply say we haven't spotted one in the episodes we sampled for this essay.

For a time, the show used the boards in alphabetical order--a game using the G board would be followed by the H board...but after about six months on the air, the show began mixing it up and using some boards more than others--the M board seems to be the most-used.

"The letters Q, Y, and Z appear on one board apiece. U is excluded from six boards. J and V are each excluded from eight boards. K is excluded from nine boards. Of the non-super-rare letters, I is excluded the most, being absent from ten boards. When it does appear, it's always along the perimeter, and often in one of the 'squished' hexagons that are less likely to be called. As a result, it's surprisingly rare to hear an I question on this show."[Robinson]

The one time that the letter X was used on the show, it was a standard J board that simply switched the U out for an X for that one game.

Because they had all of the letters of the alphabet loaded into the slide projectors for each hexagon, they could have theoretically had any configuration they wanted. When it got close to time to start production, here were the problems that occurred to them with doing this--

Somebody would have to sit down during the week leading up to the next taping and think, "Okay, we'll put the R next to the B for game 1...no, wait, we used the R next to the B in the configuration for the previous match...let's see, what letter haven't I used yet on this board?" And that seemed like a lot of work for the thankless task of coming up with a unique jumble of 20 letters for each game of each match.

Once the shows were taping and it was time to start a new game, the person in charge of the game board would have to pull out a paper guide, check which configuration they were using, and then painstakingly go from hexagon to hexagon..."Let's see, #1 has to be on F, #2 has to be on W..." and then double-check the whole thing and make sure no letters are up there twice and that it matched the guide that had been arranged for them. So they were anticipating about a 5-to-10-minute taping stopdown before each game to do that.

It was much easier to come up with 20 jumbles of letters and arrange the letters in each slide projector to correspond to those jumbles, because with the remote control system they had for the slide projectors, they could say "Set all the slide projectors to position #7 for game 1, then set them to position #18 for game two, and then..." It took one press of a button to do that, and no stopdown would be needed. And that's why they used a finite number of patterns for the letters.

A board.png
B board.png
C board.png
D board.png

Video:

The entire series exists. Reruns have aired on CBN, Game Show Network, and Buzzr. A selection of episodes are available for viewing on Amazon Prime.

Clippings:

1980-11-05 Blockbusters.jpg
The Variety  review
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Highlights: