First episode: January 23, 1984
Last episode: June 29, 1984
Seen weekday mornings 12:00-12:30 on NBC
"Here are the champions, they're three of a kind! And here are their challengers, who are also three of a kind! And they're all here to play Hhhhhot (hssssssss) Potato!"
Two teams of three, whose members had a common bond (all dentists, all left-handed, etc.) play a best two-out-of three game. Round One starts with the champions in control. Bill asks a question with as many as twelve possible answers. The first teammate is asked to answer or toss the potato.
If the contestant chooses to answer and gives a right answer, control passes to the next teammate in line. If a wrong answer is given, the contestant has to sit on the bench for the remainder of the round and control passes to the opponents.
If the contestant chooses to toss the hot potato, a member of the opposing team (chosen by the passer) must give an answer. If the challenged contestant gives a right answer, the challenger has to sit on the bench. Otherwise, the challenged contestant is knocked out.
This continues until either (a) all three members of a team are knocked out, giving the round to the opponents or (b) somebody gives the 7th correct answer to the question, winning the round for their own team.
Round Two was identical, except control began with the challengers, and if a third round is necessary, the champions begin.
If at any point in the game, a team can give seven correct answers without giving a wrong answer or tossing the potato, they win the round plus the 7-Straight Jackpot, which begins at $500 and increases by $500 a day until won.
The winners of the game get $1,000. For the bonus round, Bill announces a subject usually involving numbers; the team is asked the same question five times over, with a different pair of choices each time. Every right answer is worth $500, and the team can take the money and run at any time. They are allowed to pass on one question only. If they answer five questions correctly, the payoff is $5,000 plus $5,000 for each previous bonus round not won. (A new team always started at $5,000, though, so exceptionally high jackpots were rare.)
It was often necessary for a new game show to get promotional photographs out to the media before a set had been built. Hot Potato solved this with some of the most bizarre, delightful photos of Bill ever shot, featuring him buried up to his neck in potatoes, and standing next to a five-foot-tall spud.
Bill was on the cover of TV Guide the week that the series premiered. It was his seventh and last time on the cover.
Hot Potato got ample publicity leading up to the show's premiere and for a few weeks afterward, but amusingly, many of the people who wrote about the show were much more interested in its host. Bill was now in his 39th year of broadcasting on a national level; in one form or another, he had been on the air longer than some of these newspaper writers had been alive. It would be fair to say that some of them were giving legend status to Bill. Rather than asking about Hot Potato, they chose to ask Bill about his life and his long career of hosting game shows for their articles.
Ron Weiskind, of Bill's hometown newspaper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote, "He's just plain Bill, a genial guy whose glasses seem too big for his rather small frame. His smile looks sincere, not painted on as with so many other TV game show hosts. He's visited our living rooms for more than 30 years, but has never worn out his welcome by being loud or pushy or by insulting our intelligence."
Bill, in turn, was reflective and occasionally introspective in these interviews. He told writer Bob Wisehouse, "If anything, the industry has treated me better than I deserve. If you don't have high aspirations--and I don't--it's terrific. I like my niche. I'm never under great pressure and I've made a lot of money over the years doing what I enjoy doing."
The show languished in the Noon time slot (when local affiliates commonly ditched the network feed in favor of a local newscast) on NBC for its first 12 weeks, achieving the dubious distinction of being the lowest-rated of the 25 shows on network daytime TV in the winter of 1984.
Adding to those woes was that the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh, PA dropped the show in March; not because of low ratings or a local newscast, but because they simply had too much trouble picking up the show's signal from the satellite.
Bill introduced each survey question on the show by giving a plug to Davis Research, the independent firm that Barry & Enright hired to conduct the surveys. Davis Research is still in business today and available to help with your data-gathering projects.
The format changed and the show's title accordingly expanded in week 13 to Celebrity Hot Potato. Teams now comprised of a single contestant and two celebrity partners. Adding more celebrities to an ailing format is a strategy with a long history of failing, and the show was off the air in 23 weeks. The show's cancellation appears to be an abrupt change of plans by NBC. A June 15, 1984 newspaper article mentions that NBC is renewing the show. It was off the air two weeks later.
Game show fan opinions are, at best, sharply divided on this one. Most are prone to write it off as a Family Feud ripoff, which, admittedly, it is. (Bill's cue card explanation of the game's rules even included the phrase "What makes this game different is...") To their credit, Barry & Enright did what they could to make this a unique ripoff, if such a thing is possible. General knowledge and word games frequently found their way into the show; the option of passing at any point in the question, and the ever-present threat of "going to the bench" gave this game an element of strategy that was lacking in Feud.
This was Bill's last network game show, and after decades of working mostly for Goodson-Todman Productions and Bob Stewart, this was his first game show for Barry & Enright Productions. His final series was The Joker's Wild in syndication, also for Barry & Enright. It's worth noting that Barry & Enright Productions appointed Bill to Joker's Wild while Hot Potato was still in production. Bill's career had slowed down in the 1980s after decades of being committed to multiple shows at the same time, but had Hot Potato not been such a bust, Bill likely would have ended up hosting both shows, at least for a time.
The entire series exists and, considering what a short run it had, it's enjoyed a surprisingly healthy afterlife; reruns have aired in syndication, on USA Network, and on Game Show Network. According to Mike Burger, who did the math, every episode of the series has aired at least eight times.