Winner Take All
First episode: June 15, 1948
Bill's first episode: February 25, 1952
Last episode: April 25, 1952
Bill's version seen weekday mornings 10:30-11:00 on NBC
"Do you want to be a winner? [Yes!] Then sound your buzzer! [Bzzzzz] Sound your bell! [Ding-ding-ding-ding] and get ready to play Winner Take All!"
It can't get any simpler than this. Two contestants, one a returning champion, compete. They're equipped with lockout devices, one that sounds like a buzzer, the other like a bell (hence the opening speil). Bill asks a series a questions. First one to give three correct answers wins a prize and meets a new opponent.
Simple rules for an enduring series. Winner Take All took flight as a radio series in the mid-1940s, with Bill originally serving as the announcer. Host Ward Wilson took a six-month leave of absence, leaving Bill to host, and when Ward stayed gone (sources from the period disagree on if he was fired or quit), Bill kept the job. In 1948, Winner Take All began airing a TV version and a radio version. Bill would stay with the radio version, while Bud Collyer hosted the television version. That version would last two years. It would return in 1951 with host Barry Gray on CBS, and again with Bill in 1952.
Since the show's radio-born format didn't particularly lend itself to an attractive appearance on television, it was slightly tweaked so that it was no longer straightforward q&a. Sometimes songs and skits were performed, and the contestants would have to answer questions about what they had just watched. Other games were used in place of questions, as well. For example, two blindfolded contestants have to guess, by touch, what kind of bottles are being placed on their podiums.
This was actually an influential series in a number of respects. For starters, it popularized the concept of putting contestants in direct competition. The vast majority of game shows prior to this were structured as "one contestant vs. the house." It also marked the first use of the "returning champion" (an idea Goodson claimed to have nabbed from radio soap operas; figuring part of the appeal was a continuing cast of characters dealing with conflicts, he thought having quiz show contestants return again and again might an interesting premise). Its most enduring innovation, arguably, is the lockout button for giving answers. In a medium where many people take credit for being the first to do something, this is one of the rare instances of a provable "first": Winner Take All was the first game show to use these devices.
A 1953 newspaper profile of Bill describes an embarrassing on-air mix-up. Bill, telling the winner about his prizes, was reading copy intended for a set of fishing gear which was to be offered in a later game. Bill announced to the contestant, "You won something in which you can spend your leisure time, particularly on a balmy summer evening when you'll find it great for casting in the moonlight!" The curtains swung open to reveal a double bed.
Bill and Winner Take All were featured in a special TV Guide quiz show issue for the week of May 2, 1952. That probably would have provided good publicity for the series -- if it hadn't been canceled a week earlier. After its cancellation, though, the Winner Take All quiz continued in the summer of 1952 as one segment of the variety series Matinee in New York.
Goodson and Todman tried reworking the format in a 1955 pilot called Play For Keeps! with Sonny Fox as host. That version would have been Goodson-Todman's entry into the world of high-stakes quizzes. In the pilot, the "defending champion" had "already won" $15,000 and the rules made it clear that there was no limit to what she could earn as long as she kept on winning. Given that the Goodson-Todman company managed to avoid being tainted by the quiz show scandals, in part because their shows weren't played for high stakes, it's interesting to wonder what might have happened if this version had made it to the airwaves.
A small number of episodes survive. Game Show Network has aired four episodes featuring Bill, and one earlier one with Barry Gray. Those episodes are also in the UCLA archives. The 1955 pilot Play For Keeps! has aired on Buzzr.
A private collector has also shown us the August 8, 1950 episode of Bud Collyer's CBS version; Collyer is away on vacation and Bill steps in as guest host, making this the earliest-known film of Bill Cullen. We have a few screengrabs and a description here.