The Price is Right

Daytime: 
    Nov 26, 1956 - Sep 6, 1963 (NBC) 
    Sep 9, 1963 - Sep 3, 1965 (ABC) 

Prime Time: 
    Sep 23, 1957 - Sep 6, 1963 (NBC) 
    Sep 18, 1963 - Sep 11, 1964 (ABC) 

The Show:

"Do you think you're a good shopper? How much do you think this hat is worth? How about this handbag? What would you bid for this diamond-studded wristwatch? All this and a fabulous full-length mink coat will be yours if you make the best estimate of the price of all these beautiful things. Someone ​watching the program from home this week will win it all as NBC television presents a new game of bidding, buying, and bargaining: The Price is Right! And here to conduct the most exciting shopping spree on television...Bill Cullen!

"Today, these four bargain hunters match their shopping skills, as (sponsor) presents...The Price is Right: the exciting game of bidding, buying, and bargaining!"

"Tonight, these four contestants meet to compete for the prizes of a lifetime on...The Price is Right!"

"Backstage are some of the most exciting prizes on television...On our panel tonight is (celebrity guest)...Stand by for The Price is Right!"

Before "Come on down!" entered the American lexicon, Bill Cullen stood at the helm of the most celebrated game in American television history. At nine years on daytime & prime time television, it would be the biggest success of his amazing career.

Four contestants, one a returning champion and three players chosen from the previous day's audience, compete for the whole show. A prize is presented & described, and the contestants alternate placing bids on it in the style of an auction.

The contestants can place as many bids as they want as long as their bid is higher than the previous bids (and sometimes there was a minimum enforced on how much higher the next bid had to be). Each contestant also has the option to "freeze," or stop bidding (indicated by an asterisk next to their final bid). Contestants are allowed to underbid, but only on the condition that they not place any more bids on the prize after that.

Bidding continues until either all four contestants "freeze" (stop bidding), or a buzzer sounds, indicating that the next round of bids will be the last. After all four contestants have placed their final bids, Bill reads the actual retail price, and the contestant who bid highest without going over wins the prize.

At least once per show, a bell would sound to signify a bonus; the winning bidder got an extra surprise prize, or prizes, added to their haul. Sometimes the bonus would be a short extra game for the winning bidder to play alone, foreshadowing the later version of the series.

If everybody overbids, what happened next was actually pretty inconsistent, and seemingly at the whim of Bill and producer Bob Stewart. Sometimes, Bill would erase the bids and have the contestants do more rounds of bidding (without announcing the actual retail price, naturally), and sometimes just one bid. Sometimes Bill would announce the actual retail price and have the prize carried over to the next round of bidding, offering it as a bonus to whoever won the next item up for bids. Sometimes, the prize would just be thrown out entirely. (On the first episode only, there was a rule that overbidding disqualified a contestant from bidding on the next prize.)

At least one item in every episode was a one-bid item, where contestants had only one bid on the item, with no bid increments, and underbidding was permitted.

Four or five prizes are bid on for every episode. At the end of the show, the total value for all the prizes & bonuses won by each contestant are tallied up. Everybody keeps what they've earned, but the player with the highest total comes back to meet three contestants from the studio audience on the next broadcast (the daytime and nighttime versions had separate champions).

The Home Viewer Showcase is presented each day, as well. A series of prizes is displayed and described by Don Pardo. Viewers then mailed in as many postcards as they want with their to-the-penny bids on the actual retail price of the entire showcase. After three weeks, the viewer who bids highest without going over wins the entire showcase. (In the event of a tie, the tied players had to submit, by telegram, a bid for a pre-selected single item in the showcase.)

During the next few years, two problems arose with the Home Viewer Showcase. #1, home viewers were a bit too enthusiastic. In the book The Box, producer Bob Stewart tells author Jeff Kisseloff: "On Tuesday or Wednesday morning after the first Showcase, the postman comes in with maybe fifty cards. The girls quickly go through them. Thursday, he comes in with a bag of postcards, and the girls work to eleven o'clock. On Friday, he comes in with about six sacks of postcards, and we knew we were out of business. We hired a guy named Bobby O'Donnell, who had a company called Radioland Service. He had literally hundreds of housewives in Queens going through the postcards."

#2, After a while, the viewers became far too good at bidding. The show fielded countless complaints from retail stores whose phone lines were constantly tied up by viewers trying to research items, and those viewers ultimately got to be far too good at bidding. Ties frequently had to be broken, including, for one showcase, a tie between 14 viewers who had submitted perfect bids. This led to a new game, Showcase Sweepstakes.

Home viewers again had three weeks to submit as many postcards as they wanted with bids on the showcase. Fifty drums were brought onstage, one for each state in the union. Bill and the contestants had a bowl with tags containing the names of all fifty states. Each contestant reached in and selected a state at random, with the champion's draw designated #1, and the other contestants being #2-#4. Bill also randomly selected a tag, designated #5. The show's models then drew one postcard at random from the drums for the selected states and arranged them on a board with their assigned numbers.

Bill reveals the actual retail price and and looks at the bids on the postcards. The postcard closest to the actual retail price without going over wins the Showcase. And in the extremely unlikely event of a tie, the postcard assigned the lowest number wins. (The postcard assigned #2 beats the postcard assigned #5.)

This process was streamlined very quickly. In the revamped version, the postcards were no longer sorted. They were just randomly dumped into five drums numbered #1-#5. The models randomly pulled one postcard from each drum, fixed them to the board, and gave them to Bill. The closest without going over (or, in the event of a tie, the winning bid pulled from the lowest-numbered drum) wins the Showcase.

When the show jumped ship to ABC in 1963, an audience participation element was added. Three contestants and a weekly celebrity guest competed. All of the prizes won by the celebrity were given to randomly-selected members of the audience, and if the celebrity was the top winner, the contestant who finished in second would be the designated champion for the next episode.

Notes:

The show was pitched to Mark Goodson & Bill Todman by a relative unknown, Bob Stewart, a former salesman & local TV director with virtually no national TV credentials. At this point, his only game show production credit was the short-lived local series The Sky's the Limit hosted by Gene Rayburn. The company liked an idea that he pitched, a show that he titled Auction-aire. (A number of sources state that Stewart's original title was The Auctioneer, but in his interview with the Archive of American Television, Stewart himself says and spells out the intended title.) 

Goodson changed the title to The Price is Right (which, Stewart conceded, was a better title) and mounted a pilot for NBC. That pilot, by all accounts, was a disaster. The bid displays malfunctioned early in the taping, and another technical problem later in the pilot caused Bill to be thrown against a wall.

NBC eventually decided to pick up the series, mainly to get Goodson-Todman out of their hair, and "buried" the show against daytime megastar Arthur Godfrey. By the time Price's initial 13-week contract ran out, they had higher ratings than Godfrey and a warehouse filled with prizes from manufacturers who wanted some exposure on the new hit. NBC had a crown jewel for their daytime line-up and gave it a shot in prime time, where it thrived.

Even if TV audiences flocked to it and liked what they saw, critics were convinced that they were witnessing the downfall of western civilization. Watching it with modern eyes, it's a perfectly innocuous show, but reviews like this 1957 column from critic Jack O'Brien were typical for the time: 

"The Price is Right is almost too cheap for critical evaluation. Bill Cullen is a noisy, shrill cashier whose prefabricated, homespun character in this idiocy consists of never ending a word with 'G' (singin', talkin', etc.) and a total performance about as real as a three-dollar bill. It all worked out with a convenient dispersal of winnings (no participant went away empty-handed) and started right off fighting for the title of worst show on night-time television."

Bill & Price had the last laugh on critics, though. The series lasted, being one of very few game shows to survive the game show scandals unscathed. The prime-time version of The Price is Right went on to rank as high as #8 in the Nielsen ratings, making it easily the most popular game show on television during that time. In fact, no network game show could match that level of popularity until ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in 1999.

It sealed the reputation of the producer who developed the show, Bob Stewart, who would go on to create To Tell the Truth and Password for Goodson-Todman before quitting to form his own highly successful production company.

It also turned Bill into a superstar in his field. He was the best-known emcee in the profession, and being on a show that revolved around prices put him in demand as a pitchman for virtually any company that wanted to emphasize the low price for its products. 

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and The Price is Right was successful enough to be sincerely flattered numerous times during its nine-year run. Bill & the show became popular fodder for satire, with MAD Magazine and The Flintstones providing memorable send-ups. Bill even appeared as himself for a send-up on The Garry Moore Show.

So what was it that captured the public's imagination? In an era of isolation booth-dwelling experts, it was one of the few games that anybody could play. We deal with prices every day. We see them in newspapers, on television, and just about every corner we might glance toward as we walk down the street. The Price is Right touched on a truly universal area of knowledge.

The prizes on the show always gave viewers something to talk about the next day. Rooms of furniture --or sometimes a house-- were up for grabs. Trips to Paris, five-figured-priced necklaces, Ferris Wheels, airplanes, and a private island off the coast of Maine were just a few of the extravagant items that smart shoppers collected for their bids.

The heart of the show, according to Bob Stewart, was the fabulous-but-peculiar bonuses that contestants received in addition to the items they bid for. Among them: a new 1958 Oldsmobile for the winner of a restored 1901 Oldsmobile; stacks of foreign currency plus $1,000 US for a contestant who won a trip to four European countries; and 97 electric appliances for a contestant who won a single 69-cent lightbulb, as a salute to Thomas Edison. But that's not all! Contestants also won 50 each of towels, blankets, and sheets; a French Poodle; and a television for every room in the house (including, yes, a TV for the bathroom). The program gave away stock in companies, bit parts on TV shows, absurd amounts of food (100 pounds of Swiss cheese, a mile of hot dogs, 5,000 Eskimo Pies), anything the fertile imagination of Mr. Stewart could envision.

And from there, we discuss the man at the helm and his role in the success of the show. Believe it or not, Bill wasn't NBC's first choice to host the show. In fact, Bill himself wasn't even sure that he'd be up to the task. He saw his role as bringing out wit and humor from what was going on. He openly expressed concern that he couldn't bring life or comedy to a show where contestants just spent 30 minutes saying, "$200...$300...$400..."

The other problem Bill expected was repetition, repetition, repetition. As he later admitted, Bill anticipated that viewers would get tired of seeing a car, a trip, a piece of furniture, an appliance, one right after the other. Of course, in the beginning, he had no way of anticipating that Bob Stewart had already imagined the same problem and that repetitive prizes would never be a problem.

Stewart prodded Bill intensely, even as Goodson-Todman explored other possible hosts. Stewart was so determined that he went to the Cullens' apartment to cajole Bill into hosting the show. For all his reluctance in the developmental stages, Bill was surrounded by a team that had total faith in his abilities--particularly Stewart--and over the next nine years, he justified that faith time and time again.

The concern from NBC, meanwhile, was that Bill had other priorities. In an era of live broadcasting, hiring Bill would mean that every morning, he would have to walk nine blocks from his radio studio to the theatre where The Price is Right was going on the air in 30 minutes. This was crucial because it meant Bill would have to do every episode with no adequate preparation. Bob Stewart's response: "I'd rather have Bill Cullen with no rehearsal than any other emcee with rehearsal."

For the next nine years, an actor, Jim Holland (pictured) would attend rehearsal, playing the role of Bill. Once Bill arrived in the theater, Holland would read notes to him while he sat in his make-up chair minutes before showtime. During moments when Bill wasn't on camera, he'd reach into his pocket and pull out a "cheat sheet" prepared by Holland to remind him of what to do next. 

Look into camera 3 as you open the refrigerator door.

Make sure to step off the turntable before you announce the next item up for bids.

Keep an eye on the fashion ensemble for possible ad-libs.

May need to stretch for time after the next round of bids ends.

Bill ended his radio show during the run of Price, but Holland  continued acting as Bill's stand-in because Bill disliked rehearsing. Partly because, Bill half-jokingly admitted, he was lazy, and partly because he felt that rehearsal would dull his strongest talents. Many of his funniest lines came from moments when he was surprised by something, and Bill reasoned that he'd be less funny if he was fully prepared.

And he handled the task beautifully. No matter how extravagant the prize, no matter how elaborate the bonus prizes, no matter how nervous or excited the contestants were, Bill added charm, class, sincerity, enthusiasm, humor, suspense, and a friendly face. All this, even as he himself only understood a little bit about what was about to happen around him.

Bill also livened up one of the least interesting parts of the show with a running gag. Each day's announcement of the Showcase contest included Don Pardo rattling off an exhaustive list of rules ("Entries must be postmarked no later than midnight on June 13. Employees and their families of NBC and RCA are not eligible...") that took about a full minute. Bill would play with a different wind-up toy on each show as Pardo rattled off the script. Bill infused this sense of playfulness to every part of the show, often making use of the prizes as they were presented--kicking back on the recliner that was up for bids, or shooting nine-ball as the contestants competed for a billiard table.

Bill's ability to get through anything was put to perhaps its most extreme test when the contestants for one show were offered a live circus elephant. The elephant was brought onstage, and to the shock of Bill, the contestants, the staff, and the audience at home & in the theater, the elephant defecated on a coast-to-coast television broadcast. Everybody cracked up at the sight, but Bill straightened himself out after allowing himself a laugh, and remained in total control of the stage. He looked into the camera calmly, waited for the audience howls to die down, and then deadpanned, "Be sure to join us next week when The Price is Right offers equal time to the Democratic party."

The show  offered another elephant as a bonus and got themselves into another bit of trouble. A Texas farmer got an elephant as a bonus prize when he was the winning bidder on a grand piano.  Producer Bob Stewart intended it as a joke (the elephant was to supply extra ivory) and planned on giving the contestant a hefty $4,000 cash equivalent instead.  Turned out the guy wanted the pachyderm anyway, and Stewart was forced to fly one in from Kenya. More than 30 years later, The Simpsons aired an episode titled "Bart Gets an Elephant." Although that show's makers have never addressed it publicly (and episode writer John Swartzwelder is famously reclusive and refused to provide a DVD commentary), the episode's plot is so similar to this incident that it seems extremely likely that the episode was inspired by The Price is Right.

Another Price is Right bonus prize gives the original series a legacy that still endures. In 1964, the show gave away an island in the Thousand Islands chain in the St. Lawrence Seaway. To this day, it's still called Price Is Right Island.

Bill's work schedule at this stage in his career was as such: He'd arrive at the radio studio at 5:45 a.m. to host his morning radio show five days a week. After walking to the theater to host the live Price is Right broadcast at 10:30 am, he'd go home and take an extended nap. During the evening once a week, he'd appear as a panelist on I've Got a Secret and as host on the nighttime Price is Right. For a time, both shows aired on the same night and both were live. Bill would sign off from Price, then go straight to the theater exit and take a taxi to Secret. 

This schedule became somewhat easier as the years wore on. Practical videotape began making its way into television. Eventually, the nighttime version's weekly episode would tape right after that morning's live daytime broadcast. When the show moved to ABC, the Friday daytime episode would tape immediately after the live Thursday episode.

Because the show was live for much of its run, Bill's vacations necessitated guest hosts. Among the performers who had their turn hosting The Price is Right: Sonny Fox (best known for hosting the kids' show Wonderama), Sam Levenson (a popular comic who had a well-publicized day job as a schoolteacher), Merv Griffin, announcer Don Pardo, Robert Q. Lewis, Jack Narz, Arlene Francis, Bob Kennedy, and Jack Clark.

Each day's episode included a plug from Bill for the company that furnished the dot matrix bid displays in front of the contestants: "Furnished by the American Totalisator Company, a division of Universal Controls, Incorporated." Believe it or not, the American Totalisator Company is still in business.​ It has streamlined its name to AmTote, and is now owned by Stronach Group.

In late 1971, after finding success with What's My Line? and To Tell The Truth in syndication, Goodson and Todman were reportedly talking to Bill about hosting a new version of The Price Is Right.  The decision to tape the show in Los Angeles made Bill wary; at the time, he was hosting Three on a Match for NBC, hosting Monitor on weekends, and doing a series of commercials for a chain of department stores in the northeast, as well as sitting on the panel of To Tell the Truth each week. Bill would have given up four paychecks had he agreed to host The New Price is Right and decided at that time that it wasn't worth the risk. 

The syndicated version ended up being hosted that fall by Dennis James instead. It was an amusing reprieve of sorts for James; although Bob Stewart had lobbied for Bill Cullen to host the 1956 version from the beginning, there was concern that his radio schedule would be too much of a conflict and Dennis James was offered the job. He turned it down at that time but accepted the offer for the 1972 revival.  A CBS daytime version arrived at the same time hosted by Bob Barker.  It's been on the air ever since, hosted these days by Drew Carey. 

Video:

Dozens of episodes from the prime-time version survive, and the series has aired on Game Show Network and Buzzr. We've also learned that a single station in Tennessee was airing reruns not too long ago. A handful of daytime episodes are intact as well. A "test episode," shot one week before the premiere, exists, but is not widely available.

Clippings:

Click one of the below covers to read vintage TV Guide articles about The Price is Right.

The Price is Right Bill Cullen TV Guide
1956 Price Is Right.jpg
Variety's original review of The Price is Right  in 1956
The Price is Right Bill Cullen TV Guide
1963-09-23 Price Is Right.jpg
Variety  reviews the first ABC nighttime show in 1963

Highlights:

We thought you should see for yourself what kind of marvelous and odd prizes the show offered over the years. So we've assembled a 30-minute reel of prizes featured on The Price is Right.

And here's a reel of "Priceless Moments," just miscellaneous moments from the show that put a smile on our faces. Enjoy!

Complete episodes: