In his book Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture, the communications professor Olaf Hoerschelmann suggests how neatly American game shows have reflected the times that produced them. The radio quiz shows popular in the 1930s and 1940s used “man on the street”-framed trivia questions to bring a sense of democratization and intimacy to the country’s new mass medium. The TV shows of the ’50s tapped into the geopolitical anxieties of their age to emphasize, as Hoerschelmann puts it, “the hegemonic project of cold war education policy” and its “focus on Anglo-American elite culture.” The sober sets of series like The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One—and, in general, the well-spoken, well-educated contestants the shows’ producers selected to participate in them—effected an air of patriotic sobriety. In their soft celebrations of enlightenment, the game shows suggested all that was at stake in the fight for “the free world.”
Today, we tend to associate with “game shows” the form they took after the quiz show scandals of the later ’50s eroded Americans’ trust not just in the shows themselves, but in television as a medium—the form they took after they were reinvented as generally flashy, occasionally brash, and insistently low-stakes celebrations of street smarts. During the years of post-war prosperity and their attendant increase in consumerism, game shows began to take “home economics” extremely literally. They came to air in the daytime, and they targeted themselves at the audiences who watched TV during those hours: women, for the most part. Many of them reframed their challenges around the skills required of savvy consumption. The Price Is Right, a show that cheekily glorified the soft skills of shopping, first aired in the U.S., in its current form, in 1972.