Before reality TV took over the airwaves, whenever viewers wanted to watch something light-hearted and unscripted, they turned to game shows — and they were everywhere. And although modern TV doesn’t seem to have space for as much family-friendly game shows as there were in the ’70s or ’80s, that appears to be changing.
Starting in 2016, ABC brought back three classic game shows, Match Game, $100,000 Pyramid, and To Tell the Truth, and this year they’re bringing back two more, The Gong Show and Battle of the Network Stars. And it’s not just ABC. FOX has also brought back Love Connection and Beat Shazam, a modern take on Name That Tune.
It’s like TV took a time machine back to the ’80s! So what’s with all the retro programming? Turns out there’s a reason networks are exploiting our need for nostalgia.
So why are all these classic game shows returning?
With most younger viewers turning to streaming services like Netflix or Hulu to get their fix, many networks get stuck in a Summer lull and not enough programming to keep viewers interested, especially since most people don’t watch reruns anymore. Networks’ solution to dealing with the problem is to produce cheaper programming — and not just any cheap programming, but titles that people are already familiar with.
“These titles evoke warm memories,” Jennifer Mullin, co-chief executive of FremantleMedia North America, told the Los Angeles Times. “‘I watched it with my grandmother’ or ‘I watched it when I was home sick.’ That’s what we hear all the time… The audience might not remember exactly how to play the game, but they certainly remember the title.”
And the pay-off worked. $100,000 Pyramid, hosted by Michael Strahan, Celebrity Family Feud, hosted by Steve Harvey, and Match Game, hosted by Alec Baldwin, were some of the highest rated shows last summer. And ABC responded by expanding their schedule, bringing back more of the shows viewers grew up with — and honestly, it’s about time.
Reality TV has dominated programming since the early 2000s and networks had no problem making them as they were cheap to produce. Not everyone has time to binge watch a narrative drama and not everyone wants to come home from work and watch something intellectually stimulating. Sometimes feel-good shows are what people crave, and game shows are the perfect formula for guilt-free TV. After all, they’re called “classics” for a reason.
“The reason why some of these shows went on for years and years is because they were great formats,” Sony Pictures Television executive VP Holly Jacobs told USA Today. “These are classics for a reason.”
Although talent-based reality competition shows, like The Voice and Dancing With the Stars are similar to the variety show format of the ’70s, modern shows have lots of crying and loss on those shows. It can be hard to watch sometimes, seeing young hopefuls get their dreams shattered. In the end there can only be one winner per season, which can be exhausting for a viewer.
Take The Gong Show for example. Originally premiered in 1976, the series was a whacky talent show where people got gonged for having the most unusual skills. The show’s revival promises to have the same spirit as the original.
“I think it was the first show that understood that TV didn’t need to take itself so seriously,” Gong judge Will Arnett said. “It challenged the idea of a variety show. This is kind of a perfect show for now, given that everything is so up in the air politically and socially. We need something fun and funny.”
Even though many will say we’re currently experiencing the “golden age of television,” there has been some downsides to critically acclaimed shows. The HBO dramas and Netflix scripted series are, frankly, heavy. They’re good for people who like to binge watch but not for people who like to watch something mind-numbing while they snack on chips after work.
If anything, the influx of dramatic, critically acclaimed TV has left a hole in programming, a gap that used to be filled with game shows. Remember how obsessed everyone used to be with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Viewers have been waiting for something like this for at least a decade.
And it’s not just “game shows” either. Reality TV has come under fire for being “fake,” with producers influencing contestants and editing situations into an inauthentic reality. Viewers aren’t stupid, and the more they watch, the more they’re starting to see the deception in their favorite shows.
What Celebrity Family Feud has over America’s Got Talent? Authentic reactions and no producer-influenced storylines. And most importantly? It’s just good old-fashion fun. And maybe that’s what viewers really want — a little bit of escapism before going to bed.
Check out the gallery below to see classic game show hosts — then and now.