First episode: January 14, 1980
Last episode: June 20, 1980
Seen weekday mornings 12:00-12:30 on NBC
"This is Chain Reaction, where one word leads to another!"
Two teams of three, comprised of two celebrities & a civilian compete to finish a eight-word chain, in which each word is related to the word above it and the word below it. For example, a full chain might read:
The top and bottom words are revealed to start and the teams take turns adding letters to the words in between. Solving a word earns 1 point per letter in the word (or double for a word with a plus sign next to it) plus the right to continue guessing. A wrong answer turns control of the chain over to the opposing team. The first team to score 50 points wins the game, $250, and the right to play the bonus round.
In the bonus round, the contestant sits between the two celebrity partners. The celebrities see a series of answers on their hidden screens and must construct a question that leads to that answer by taking turns adding one word at a time, and then sounding a bell to signify the question mark. During the show's 23-week run, the scorekeeping for the bonus round had no less than four sets of rules.
VERSION 1: The team has 60 seconds and starts with $1 visible on their scoreboard. Each correct answer lights up half a zero on the scoreboard, so 2 right pays $10, 4 right pays $100, 6 right pays $1,000, and 8 right pays $10,000.
VERSION 2: The team has 90 seconds and start with nothing. Correct answers pay $1, $10, $100, $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 and finally $10,000.
VERSION 3: The team has 90 seconds and start with nothing. Correct answers pay $100 apiece, or $10,000 for 10 correct answers.
VERSION 4: Same as version 3, except the team is spotted $100 to start.
Despite cheap production values, this was a fun game with a bonus round so good it was later spun off into its own game (the even shorter-lived GO). A noon time slot hurt, since a great many local stations in the Eastern Time Zone were airing their own newscasts at that hour.
For the two weeks of shows that aired April 7-18, Geoff Edwards replaced Bill as host. Bill was filling in for an ailing Allen Ludden on Password Plus. Edwards would go on to host a revival of Chain Reaction from 1986 that was taped in Montreal and aired in Canada and in the United States, where it was seen on USA Network.
The NBC publicity machine didn't exactly work overtime in coming up with promotional material for this series. Here's the best they could do for a press release:
"Bill Cullen has such a love for words, he is frequently a celebrity guest on other word related shows."
Here's an odd little news item found in a 3/17/80 issue of People Magazine:
When Barry Manilow closed the set of his upcoming ABC-TV special to anyone not wearing a Bagel button (a security badge he devised, named for his dog, Bagel), the crew members on Bill Cullen's neighboring Chain Reaction game show retaliated. Since they couldn't
watch Manilow at work during their breaks, they made up their own security stickers with the words "Cream Cheese" and banned the Bagel brigade from catching THEIR act.
Chain Reaction marked Bill's final turn hosting a game show created by Bob Stewart. Oddly, the following year, Stewart attempted to mount a syndicated 90-minute game show block, consisting of revivals of shows that Bill had hosted for him, but without Bill's involvement in any of them. The package was to include Eye Guess with Nipsey Russell, Three on a Match with Jack Clark, and Chain Reaction with Geoff Edwards. Edwards eventually would host a revival produced in Montreal for broadcast in Canada on Global Television and in America on USA Network. In the 21st Century, cable's Game Show Network has mounted three incarnations of it. The first, running from 2006-07, was hosted by Dylan Lane. The show was revived in 2015, with Mike Catherwood taking over host. In February 2021, a new version appeared, with Lane returning as host.
The cancellation of Bill's Chain Reaction altered the course of game show history, though no one at the time could have realized it. NBC boss Fred Silverman, dissatisfied with the audiences that the network's daily three hours of game shows drew, elected to cancel three game shows to make room for the original David Letterman Show. Chain Reaction was originally to be one of the games that survived the chopping block, but at the last minute NBC called an audible, cancelling Chain and instead electing to renew Wheel of Fortune. Wheel had actually taped their final episode and the staff was holding a wrap party when they learned that the show had been spared. Three years later, Merv Griffin would introduce a syndicated nighttime version of Wheel, which would become the most successful syndicated game of all time.
Jay Johnson, who appeared as a celebrity guest on five weeks of the series, posted this story on his blog about the final episode of Chain Reaction: I worked with Bob Stewart and Sande Stewart on several of their game shows. I was a semi-regular on the various versions of Pyramid and they considered me a good player. Chain Reaction was also their show and I enjoyed doing that one too...
We knew before we started taping this would be the last one. As you will see the "end game" was played by the "civilian" player in the middle with the two "stars" on either side of a desk. The stars could see a word on a screen that was hidden to the civilian. The idea was this: the stars would construct a question one word at a time that would be answered by the civilian with the word that was hidden from them. It is more complicated to explain that it is to comprehend when you see it. But back to the story.
So, it is the last show. I say to Sande Stewart it would be funny if we put my puppet partner Bob in the hot seat for the final end game between Betty White and me and he would get every word wrong. We would give the money made to charity. He loved the idea and even improved on it. Sandy suggested that Bob miss the correct answer because of his interpretations. For example if the word on the screen was "chair", Betty and I would construct a question one word at a time like: "What do you sit on?" And Bob would answer "A ventriloquists knee". The other one I remember was for the word "scalpel": Question: "What does a doctor use to cut you open?" Bob would answer "A saw". We wrote enough of these gag answers to fill the end game. It was going to be great fun and a great way to end the run of the show.
The time comes for Sande Stewart to explain to the network what we were planning. He had to run it by "Practices and Standards" which is the office that makes sure game shows are legitimate and there is no cheating. Sande made his way into the office of the "suit" who was in charge of Chain Reaction. He explained that Jay and Betty would be the clue givers and puppet Bob would be the contestant in the middle. Before Sandy could even get to the jokes we wrote the suit said, "You mean Bob... Jay Johnson's dummy."
Sande said yes and started explaining how the jokes would work from Bob's wooden point of view. It would be funny and the money made will go to charity.
The suit said, "Wait a minute if Jay is seeing the clue won't Bob know the answer?"
"Of course", said Sande, "And he will get them all wrong as a joke."
"If Bob knows the answer then that would be cheating." Says the suit.
"It is the last show... you cancelled us... there will be no more so this is just a gag as a going away bit."
"Well, cheating is cheating, Sandy, even for charity... you can't do it." Said the suit.
What we eventually did was lampoon the ruling by writing a bit about Bob trying to cheat. You can see how that worked in the final round. The end game was played round robin style with all the celebrities. I think Bob in the Hot seat would have been much funnier, but hey....there will be no ventriloquist cheating on NBC.
It appears the entire series has survived. It was seen in reruns on USA Network, and later on Game Show Network.