The Price is Right debuted on American television in 1956 on NBC, in both prime-time and daytime versions. Both were hosted by former radio announcer Bill Cullen, and they were huge hits—in the top 10 from 1959 to 1961, making it the most popular game show on TV. In 1963 the show moved to ABC, then was canceled after two years. CBS revived the show for its daytime schedule in 1972, bringing in former Truth or Consequences host Bob Barker and retitling it The New Price is Right. And it was a hit again. The “New” was dropped after a couple of years, and today it’s one of only two network-produced game shows on the air.
Prizes on the early version were often outlandish, like a chauffeured Rolls Royce, a Ferris wheel, or an island. A 1994 episode of The Simpsons in which Bart wins a contest and refuses the cash prize in favor of the “gag” prize—an elephant—is based on a Price Is Right incident in 1956 where a contestant demanded the real elephant he’d won instead of its $4,000 cash value. Producers finally acquiesced and flew one in from Kenya.
Four men have sat in the announcer’s chair of the current version. First was Johnny Olsen (1972–85), who was also the announcer for Jeopardy!, The Match Game, Play Your Hunch, and many other game shows. Rod Roddy and his sparkly suits replaced Olsen in 1985 and encouraged contestants to “Come on down!” until his death in 2003. Rich Fields followed, turning things over to Junkyard Wars host George Gray in 2011. Only two men have hosted the current incarnation of the show: Bob Barker, from 1972 to 2007, when he retired at age 83, and the current host, comedian Drew Carey.
To honor Barker’s 5,000th episode in 1998, the show’s soundstage, Stage 33 at CBS Television City, was renamed Bob Barker Studio.
As of the 7,000th episode, taped in November 2009, $250 mil The Price Is Right has been around longer than Uncle lion in prizes had been given out to nearly 62,000 contestants.
The phrase “a new car!” had been shouted over 15,000 times; 7,000 contestants had actually managed to win one.
In addition to other versions that have aired in syndication and during prime time in the United States, international editions have appeared on every continent except Antarctica. The show has also been licensed for slot machines, board games, scratch-off lottery tickets, and numerous video games.
The most controversial of “Barker’s Beauties,” the models who introduced products on the show, was Dian Parkinson. She posed nude in Playboy twice in the early 1990s, and while CBS frowned on the pictorials, they couldn’t fire her because they couldn’t cross the powerful Barker…who was having an affair with Parkinson at the time. Parkinson’s 18-year stint on the show came to end in 1994 when she filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Barker. She later dropped the charges, claiming the case was having a negative impact on her health.
Debuting in 1976, “Cliff Hangers” is one of The Price Is Right’s oldest and most popular games. Contestants attempt to guess the prices of various products in order to prevent a miniature mountain climber dressed in lederhosen from falling off a cliff. The climber has no official name, but in 1977, guest host Dennis James (one of only four episodes Barker missed) called the climber “Fritz,” unaware that Barker’s Beauty Janice Pennington’s husband, Fritz Stammberger, had recently disappeared in a mountain-climbing accident. After the game’s tiny climber fell victim to a contestant’s lousy guesses, James yelled, “There goes Fritz!” Pennington fled backstage, where she cried through the rest of the taping. Stammberger was never seen again; he was declared legally dead in 1984.
During a Showcase (the show’s final round) in 2007, a contestant named José bid $250,000 on a selection of prizes clearly worth a fraction of that amount (the show never gives out anything that valuable). Barker persuaded José to lower his bid, and he did…to $60,000, which ended up still being roughly $40,000 too high.