TV's most popular daytime game show has a multiethnic, multigenerational following.
By JONATHAN STORM
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
LOS ANGELES -- These were two labors of love.
Cliff Lee arose in the depths of the darkness to make the hour drive from Anaheim, Calif., with his wife to line up at 6 a.m. for tickets to "The Price Is Right." Turns out 6 a.m. is a little late. They got stand-by ducats. The taping wouldn't begin for 10 hours.
Lee doesn't care beans about "Price," but his wife, Ju-Yeon Ryu, adores it. She still lives in Broomall, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, while he studies acupuncture in California, and the two take a stab at bicoastal marriage.
"Price" is "just the best," she beams. Not only is the old-fashioned game show -- No. 1 in daytime after 33 years -- her favorite TV offering, it's also the only one she has ever watched regularly since coming to the United States from Korea in 1996.
A doctorate in dance theory from Temple University, she's agog with anticipation on this day in late January. Not that she might win $25,000 in cash and prizes, though that would be fine, but that she might actually meet Bob Barker and maybe get a chance to play her favorite "Price" game, Plinko.
"I learned fluency in English watching," she explained, "and all about American culture."
"I've heard that from so many people," host Barker said. "They can follow what we're doing. It's conversation. We're pleased to hear that."
You could dismiss the show as a mindless monument to American materialism, but that wouldn't really explain why CBS's "Price," in its 33rd year with the same format and a host who was old for TV when it started, is the top-rated network daytime show.
"The Price Is Right" is a party, assembling on this balmy day yet another multicultural, multiregional and multigenerational audience of about 320 of the friendliest, most energetic people you can imagine.
"I'm surprised and delighted at how the show and I have become sort of a cult thing among college kids," Barker said. "I don't know why. If I did, I'd bottle it and sell it."
With a production assistant waving his arms at the side of the stage, the energy is not allowed to flag. All the fun and games pipe into living rooms and bedrooms across the country weekday mornings at 11 EST, just when 5.6 million stay-at-homes are looking for a pick-me-up.
TV's only remaining daytime network game show gets about as many viewers as its top-rated morning and late-night shows, "Today" and "Tonight," though a little less than half the gaggle for the No. 1 syndicated evening game show, "Wheel of Fortune."
The joy in the audience is so deep that even a know-it-all reporter's face starts to hurt with a permanent smile, and the din spurs 40-year-old memories of Beatles movies, where the girls screamed so loud and so constantly you couldn't hear a word of dialogue.
'Come on down'
Everyone would love to be one of the nine who actually get to "come on down" to Contestants Row and try to guess the cost of frequently ugly and/or useless, overpriced home furnishings. All would love to move to the stage to play nonsensical pricing games that employ often creaky, homemade mechanical contraptions that determine if a contestant has won a trip to Mexico, or, dare we think it, "a new car!"
But there is no apparent jealousy when one is chosen and others left behind. People let out a little sigh, or maybe frown, if they lose at Cliff Hangers or Master Key. But it's always quickly supplanted by a smile, because there's still a chance for the Showcase Showdown -- guess the price tag on stuff that can add up to nearly $30,000 -- and besides, you wouldn't want to be a party pooper or disappoint Grandpa Bob.
He's 81 now, and has given away more than $200 million in cash and prizes, on 18 years of "Truth or Consequences" in the '50s, '60s and '70s (including a string of 3,524 consecutive performances), and 33 years of "Price Is Right."
"I've done this all my life," he said. "I have such a good time. ... I've considered retirement at the end of every year for 10 or 15 years, and then I say, 'Well, I'll do it one more year.'"
He has outlasted two announcers -- Johnny Olson, who died in 1985, and Rod Roddy, who died of cancer 11/2 years ago. They had important roles on "Price," one of the granddaddies of product-placement advertising, where spaghetti-sauce purveyors and denture-cream manufacturers -- new announcer Rich Fields rightly calls them clients -- pay to make sure people hear how tasty or useful or fun their goods are. (The show buys most of its bigger prizes -- at a deep discount.)
Producer Roger Dobkowitz, 59, has had one employer his entire adult life, rising from "Price" production assistant to boss. He oversees five tapings a week, two on Mondays, none on Fridays. The Bob Barker Studio at CBS's Television City is dark every fourth week and much of the summer.
Dobkowitz oversees an operation that's as comfortable as old slippers and generally runs as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce.
"I bring it in on time, as if it were a live show," Barker said. "In 33 years, I have literally saved CBS millions of dollars in editing costs." (A previous version of the show ran from 1956 to 1965.)
Out of 96 games it has tried over the years, the show maintains about 75 on various rotations, which are used between once a week and once a month. The newest one, "Loose Change," premiered last month. Very rarely, one of the old game gizmos breaks. The producers stop the show, give the contestant the prize, then start over fresh.
Nothing goes wrong this January afternoon as they tape the show that would air Feb. 18. The star, "Granny Pat Enright" of St. Joseph, Mo., never gets to Contestants Row, but one of the younger folks in her entourage -- relatives and friends from around the country -- does.
Granny's celebrating her 80th birthday, and Barker, a dapper ladies' man who was in his 60s when he had an affair with one of "Barker's Beauties," flirts with her during commercial breaks.
Barker's wife and the love of his life, Dorothy Jo, died in 1981, and he never remarried. Over the years, he has weathered several sexual-harassment and wrongful-termination complaints by some of the Beauties, who pose provocatively with the merchandise. Nowadays, the Beauties are replaced pretty regularly, and include women of various ethnicities. Contestants Row has been many-hued for years.
"The country has become a melting pot, as you well know," Barker said, "and reflecting that is one of the reasons for our success."
No Koreans get to the Promised Land on the Feb. 18 show, but that doesn't bother Ju-Yeon Ryu. "Just being here," she said before the taping began, "at 'The Price Is Right' that has been so important to me since I came [to the United States].
"It's like a dream."