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Three on a Match

First episode: August 2, 1971 
Last episode: June 28, 1974 
Seen weekday afternoons 1:30-2:00 on NBC

The Show:

"If you put $20 on the red, and $30 on the green, and $40 on the yellow, you have Three on a Match!...And here's the man who gives away the fabulous prizes for Three on a Match, Bill Cullen!"

"If your first three picks match, you win that prize plus a new car, on Three on a Match!"

Three contestants compete. Three categories are announced (the third is usually, but not always, a potpourri category like "The Mixed Quiz" or "General Info"), and the contestants secretly bid on how many questions, one to four, they want to answer. Top bidder wins the auction, unless there's a tie, in which case the contestants cancel each other out and low bid wins. If all three tie, the bids are erased and they bid again.

1971 Three on a Match Bill Cullen

The winning bidder selects a category and tries to fill their bid by answering as many true/false questions as needed to win a pot of money calculated as ($10 x total number bid by all three players). If the winning bidder fails, the next high bidder tries to fill their own bid for the same amount. If there's a tie for next high bid, another auction is held between the remaining players. High bid wins, and if the players tie, the round is simply thrown out. 

Three new categories are introduced for every auction. At least one category in each set hid either a bonus of "double pot" or "One/Two/Three Free Box(es)." 

Once a contestant has at least $90 (or if they earned a bonus), they have the option to go to the prize board. The prize board consists of 12 spaces divided into $20, $30, and $40 columns, and the four boxes in each column are represented by colors.


The prize board hides four prizes with a common theme (luxury items, furniture, etc.) The contestant calls out spaces by the value & color ("$30 on the Red, Bill!") To win a prize, the contestant must purchase three boxes hiding the same prize, with one box per prize in each money column (in other words, a prize won't be three $20 boxes or two $40s and a $30. It's behind one $20, one $30, and one $40.)

Occasionally a "No Match" box was hidden on the board.

Three on a Match Bill Cullen

Also, contestants are prohibited from buying all four boxes in a column, so no matter how much money a contestant banks, they can never guarantee a win. Contestants can also decline to go to the board the first time that Bill asks them, if they want to roll up more money, but the second time they're able to, they must go to the board.

Contestants keep picking boxes until they've matched, spent all their money, or the money they have left can't buy anything that will win a prize, at which point the game simply continues. If they match a prize, the contestant wins that prize plus whatever money they have leftover.

During the first month of the series, a car was sometimes offered as a prize on the board. Beginning in September 1971, the car was offered as a bonus for any contestant who could match a prize in their first three picks. At the same time, the show changed its rules and introduced returning champions to the game. The car was also awarded to any contestant who won three consecutive games.

Beginning on November 1, 1971, the show also added a cash jackpot for matching on the first three picks. The jackpot started at $1,000 and grew by $100 each time a contestant went to the prize board until it was won. This bonus went away some time before February 1973 (although it survived long enough that it's a rule in the home game).

Starting on the December 12, 1972 episode, winning seven consecutive games earned a contestant a $5,000 cash bonus.

1971 Three on a Match Bill Cullen

On April 23, 1973, the show made a significant format change. Contestants now competed in a series of games against each other. The board now hid themed pictures (traffic signs, American Presidents, etc.) instead of prizes. The first contestant to win three games won a $5,000 prize package and met two new opponents. If a contestant's first three picks on the board matched, they won the $5,000 prize package instantly. 

Beginning on October 16, 1973, the show added a daily feature called The Big Match. At about the mid-point of each episode, the contestants took turns picking boxes from the game board until one of them uncovered half of a thousand-dollar bill. That contestant got to pick one more box to try to uncover the other half of the bill, for a $1,000 bonus, which grew by $1,000 every five days that it wasn't claimed.

At least one contestant amassed $35,000--four $5,000 prize packages, a $5,000 cash bonus and a car for making seven consecutive matches, plus several Big Match bonuses. Under the show's second format, contestants could remain on the show until they made a total of 15 matches (which would work out to five of the prize packages plus any other bonuses).

bob stewart bill cullen three on a match

On April 1, 1974, the rules were changed one more time. Bill announced a category and read a series of open-ended questions, with the contestants ringing in to answer. Question values started at $40 and increased by $10. If a contestant rang in with a wrong answer, the value of the question was split between the two opponents. Random questions in each category were designated "Takeaways," in which the payout for a correct answer was deducted from the opponents' money. At some point around the time of this change, a new penalty was added to the board: A Stop sign, which forced the contestants to stop buying boxes immediately.


Whew. That was a lot to take in, wasn't it?

Game shows historically have an inverse relationship between complexity and popularity, so given how intricate those rules are, a three-year run is fairly remarkable. Co-webmaster Matt, who teaches television production to high school students, is fond of showing his class episodes of this series from later in the run. Because the show was pretty well established by 1974, Bill forgoes explaining the rules in the surviving episodes of the series, and it's fascinating and amusing to see how much of the show a first-time viewer has to watch to wrap their heads around what they're seeing.

1972 Three on a Match Bill Cullen

Three on a Match was plugged into a tough slot on the NBC daytime schedule. It replaced a short-lived quiz, Joe Garagiola's Memory Game, which ranked #38 in the ratings out of 40 daytime shows on the three broadcast networks. To boot, only 65% of the NBC affiliates would carry the show, and it aired directly against ABC's monster Let's Make a Deal and CBS' soap As the World Turns, the #1 series on all of daytime. In its initial 13 weeks, Three on a Match tripled the ratings of Memory Game. In the next 13 weeks, it built on that number an additional 80%. 

Although it was never a runaway hit (mind you, Memory Game had been so close to the bottom of the barrel that tripling the rating and adding an additional 80% was only boosting it so much), the ratings chipped into CBS enough to knock As the World Turns off its pedastal, which pleased NBC enough to keep Three on a Match around. The show snapped a three-year dry spell for the 1:30 pm time slot. It had been occupied by Let's Make a Deal until the show jumped to ABC in December 1968. In the next 33 months, five different shows would occupy the time slot until Three on a Match finally came along and succeeded.

Game show fans who are old enough remember this show fondly, but at the time it was about as insignificant a game as ever enjoyed a three-year run.  The repetitive play did lend itself to familiar catch phrases.  To a fan, "That's true, Bill" or "I'll take $40 on the red" were as identifiable then as "I'd like to buy a vowel" is today. Bill added his own trademark to the series; he opened every episode by knocking on the wall behind his lectern, a ritual he never did on any show before or after.

1971 Three on a Match Bill Cullen

Although Bill's career was far from over--he continued working in some capacity for another 13 years after this series ended--he did show some signs of "winding down" twhen he gave interviews. Bill had previously taken on assignments guest-hosting talk shows, and in early 1971, he spent a week guest-hosting NBC's Today. In 1966, he had signed on for NBC Sports in Action to "re-establish" himself, trying to demonstrate that he had more to offer than hosting game shows.

After the launch of Three on a Match, however, there's a noticeable shift in attitude. Later in 1971, he pledged that he would never host another talk show, and that he had no interest in taking over Today full-time even though the offer had been made. He voiced his preference for game shows, to the point of actively turning down work in other fields. Bill, more than many others in his field, cheerfully accepted the general public's perception of him as a game show host and didn't seek to escape the typecasting anymore.

Three on a Match reunited Bill and Bob Stewart with grandiose announcer Don Pardo, who had served as the voice of The Price is Right during that show's years on NBC. Of Pardo, Bill once said, "I think he's the best in the business...Don goes out there 15 minutes before I do to do the warm-up. He know the regulars and exchanges gags with them. He whips the unruly ones into line. His function is to get the audience up for the show. By the time I come out, Don has them receptive."

Bill's wife Ann was prominently featured in some of the advance publicity for this show, with NBC press releases implying that she'd occasionally show up as a prize model. Ann's own recollection, though, was that she never appeared on the series.

Bill Cullen Ann Cullen Three on a Match

Bill was virtually a full-time employee at 30 Rockefeller Plaza during the run of this series. Three on a Match taped six episodes over two days each week in Studio 6A. Goodson-Todman also used Studio 6A for To Tell the Truth featuring Bill as a regular panelist. And Bill returned to 30 Rock every Saturday for NBC Radio's Monitor.

One of the most popular sets of images used in the show's second format were faces from classic horror films -- along with Bill's own smiling press photo, doctored to resemble a devil.

From November 2 to December 12, 1972, Larry Blyden stepped in for Bill as host. NBC's program files note that Bill's long absence was due to a recovery from surgery. Bill had survived a brush with death in 1970 battling a pancreatic illness, and he would have another major surgery on his pancreas in the 1980s, so we're guessing his time off here was due to another pancreas issue.

January 29-February 2, 1973 was billed simply as Celebrity Week. Nipsey Russell, John Schuck, and Nancy Walker competed against each other all week, with randomly selected audience members winning the prize for each game.

1971 Three on a Match Bill Cullen

The major format change in April 1973 was preceded by two weeks of episodes that apparently served as proof of concept. February 19-March 2, 1973 were a special $25,000 Playoff Tournament, welcoming back the nine biggest-winning champions from 1972. They were split into groups of three, with the first to match three times in each group of three advancing to the finals. The prize board used pictures instead of prizes for this series of games.

The week of September 24-28, 1973 was a special "Fall Fashion Festival of Stars." Celebrity guests Dick Shawn, Gwen Verdon, and Meredith MacRae competed against each other all week.

During the week of November 12-16, 1973, Three on a Match was among the daytime game shows that participated in the "NBC Celebrity Holiday Festival for Children." Four of NBC's daytime game shows donated all that week's prize money to various children's charities. During that week, Fannie Flagg, Bernadette Peters and Soupy Sales played Three on a Match for charity. In the same week, Jeopardy! had its annual Tournament of Champions and matched all the money accrued in every game for a donation.

May 20-24, 1974 was Emmy Week, with George Maharis, Pat Carroll, and June Lockhart competing.

Bill Cullen16.jpg

After the show's switch from prizes to pictures on the board, the show occasionally offered special bonuses for certain symbols on the board. From July 16-August 13, 1973, the board always included pictures of title deeds (whether it fit the theme or not). Every time a contestant matched those three title deeds, they earned an entry into a random drawing. On the August 14 episode, Bill drew one of those entries, and that contestant won a new house in Florida. From February 11-15, 1974, the show did a truncated version of this contest. Contestants who matched three hearts were entered into a drawing on the 15th, with the winning contestant getting a resort vacation for two.

Three on a Match was never revived, although a new version for first-run syndication was pitched in 1981, as part of a ninety-minute block of Bob Stewart shows originally hosted by Bill. The block would also have included Eye Guess and Chain Reaction. The proposed new Three on a Match was to be hosted by Jack Clark.

In 1987, Bob Stewart mounted a pilot for a word game called Money in the Blank, hosted by Kevin O'Connell. Contestants played to a 150-point goal, and then spent their points in an end game reminiscent of Three on a Match. The board now hid fragments of three-word phrases or names (EGGS-OVER-EASY or WINNIE-THE-POOH). The boxes were worth 10, 20, or 40 points, and contestants won the end game by completing a phrase. Money in the Blank didn't sell.

1971 Three on a Match Bill Cullen

Bill earned the first of his three Emmy nominations for Three On A Match, though many reference books fail to mention it.  The nomination came for the 1972-73 season, one year before the television academy established a separate Daytime Emmy Awards. At that time, the academy recognized a wide variety of programming -- including daytime, sports and children's shows -- in a group of categories called "The Areas".  Programs and individuals received nominations in various "areas", and there was the possibility of multiple winners, or no winner at all, in each category.  Bill was nominated, along with Peter Marshall and Paul Lynde of Hollywood Squares, for "Achievement by Individuals in Daytime Programming", which the academy defined as "an award for individual achievements which do not qualify in daytime drama."  None of the performers received an award that year. Bill would later be nominated for Emmy Awards for his work on Blockbusters and Hot Potato. 

Three on a Match aired for the last time on a Friday.  The following Monday, Bill could be seen hosting a new Bob Stewart game, Winning Streak.  


Seven episodes exist among collectors. An additional five episodes from March-April 1973 are in the UCLA archives, but are not currently available for viewing. The audio from the final episode also exists.

Possibly the first episode, from August 1971.
The full audio from the final episode
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