TV game shows and social change

The jokes are usually about the speedboats. And, granted, it is funny when two people who live somewhere in the midlands or the north of England are shown a speedboat that they have just failed to win. But there is something revealing about the comedic response we have to old TV game shows like Bullseye. As they are recalled in nostalgic laments of memory or through the repeats made available on digital TV, these old game shows evoke the distance of time and an ironic sense of whim for the way we were 30 years ago. There is something quaint and strange about these shows. This was a time, if we believe what we are seeing, when people could win a metal tankard or handmade key fob without a crushing sense of awkward self-awareness or the need to look into the camera lens to share the joke. These shows act as a portal on the passage of cultural-time, they present to us a society that seems quite distant, alien and maybe even odd. This is despite them actually showing us an earlier version of our own cultural selves. The palette of beige and grey, the neon lights, the captions – “jackpot”, “holiday of a lifetime”, “a family fortune of…”, “TVs biggest…” – the posing models, the multipurpose sets, the applause, the innuendo, the grinning hosts, the catchphrases. I’ve often thought that you could use TV game shows as documents of social change, they seem to capture something of their time. Over recent months the UK Freeview channel Challenge has provided plenty opportunity to reflect on this thesis. This channel predominantly shows old episodes of TV game shows from the 1980s and early 1990s. This was something of a golden era for this type of TV format. Challenge has shown old episodes of a wide variety of shows, including Bullseye, Family Fortunes, Take Your Pick, Big Break, The Price Is Right, Strike it Lucky, Celebrity Squares, 321 and Wheel of Fortune. If we look carefully, these repeats potentially reveal more than a taste for nostalgia, they actually document some interesting social characteristics of the time – especially when compared to the few equivalent programmes of today.

Game shows today, if we can still call them that, are often centered on large cash prizes, a million pounds is often the landmark but it is nearly always in the tens-of-thousands at least. Although in some cases the prizes are knowingly small, and are delivered with an unmissable sense of irony and a calculated wink (Pointless deploys this type of approach). Back in the 1980s shows like Bullseye were built around prizes, these prizes might be seen to reveal something of the aspirations of the time. There is an overwhelming sameness to the desired lifestlyes that are put on display and narrated by these prizes. From pine plant stands and canteens of cutlery to trouser presses and hand-held video cameras. And then there are the infrequently won star prizes, a trailer tent, a caravan, a fitted kitchen, a dining room suite, a hatchback, a speed boat. These prizes all reveal something of the aspirations of the time, they may even say something of lifestyle choices and perhaps even social mobility. On Wheel of Fortune we see something similar, with a pint size bottle of French perfume contained in a large glass flower, leather trouser suits and ‘his and hers’ watches. These are prizes that seem to be woven with powerful social norms – embodied by those ‘his and hers’ watches.

If we look across the TV games shows I’ve listed above, we begin to get a vision of what might have been an ideal or utopian lifestyle to-be-desired. Waking up to a cup of tea prepared by an automatic teasmade, preparing a fondue in a fitted kitchen, entertaining around a barbeque whilst sitting on garden furniture and sipping from a magnum of champagne poured into champagne flutes, or perhaps gathered around a dinning room table serving from a hostess trolley to a table decked in gold knives and forks whilst discussing our latest holiday of a lifetime – then our guests, dressed in Italian leather jackets, drive their saloon cars home for a nightcap poured from a cut-glass decanter. These are the types of dream lifestyles that are woven into the prizes and into the way that these objects are presented to the contestants and viewers. They have norms bound up within them, norms that now might appear stifling in their depiction of the lifestyles that they are scripted to be a part of. These shows, many of which were watched by very large audiences, seem to say something about the types of want that were dominant at the time, and may even be a precursor to the types of visions of consumerism we see today. Where the prizes in 80s and 90s game shows were about scripted lifestyles, today’s are about the consumer freedoms of money. That is to say that instead of pre-determined objects with narratives and norms attached to them, instead now the focus is upon the limitless possibilities of large sums of cash.

Looking back at these shows though, what is perhaps most immediately obvious is how the protagonists have become much more media savvy. We now appear to innately understand how to behave when on television. Contestants of the 1980s and 1990s appear unsure and uncomfortable. They are uncertain in their movements and often mumble their way through anecdotes, furtively looking at their shoes. They appear to be wearing the clothes they would wear to work or when at home – this is the colour palette of greys and light browns that contrast with the brightly colored sets. They appear to be ill prepared for the experience. The knowledge of how to be media content is not yet developed. Somewhere along the line we became more media savvy, with the confidence to speak, dress and move in the way expected and required of a TV persona. The contestants may no longer be dressing themselves but, if this is indeed the case, they look comfortable in the retrofit clothes provided by the stylists.  People appearing on TV no longer appear out of place or like they are participating in a disconcerting or traumatic adventure to the unknown. They appear to know what they are doing. It is like we are now media trained as a routine part of our socialisation processes. In the 1980s game shows in particular, and a little in the game shows of the 90s, there is still something of the wonderment in what Graeme Turner has described as the presence of ordinary people in the media. It is as if both the contestants and the viewers are surprised that they are a part of what is happening. They respond accordingly. This is no longer the case, the wonderment has passed, contestants today look increasingly like they belong – and the viewers are not surprised to see them there.

These old TV game shows are not the type of documents or artefacts that might usually be used by those interested in understanding social change, but there is definitely something of a rich resource here for projecting an audio and visual account of these times. I remember once visiting an art installation that simply included a TV showing a short loop of an old game show based around a variety of pub games. There was no narrative or text, the artist appeared to be inviting the visitor to reflect back on this historical artifact.  These old TV game shows tell surprising stories and reveal something of the time. These are audio and visual documents that depict social change. There is definitely more to be said, but for the moment they certainly seem to say something about aspiration and how we have become increasingly media savvy.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York. His publications include Punk Sociology, Popular Cuture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation, and New Media: The Key Concepts (with Nick Gane). He also co-edits

Categories: Mediated Matters

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