By Adam Nedeff, researcher for the National Archives of Game Show History
Let’s Make a Deal has been something of a sleeper hit for CBS, quietly maintaining a steady and loyal audience over the past 15 years. Host Wayne Brady hasn’t filled the shoes of original host and creator Monty Hall, only because there’s no need. Smooth, charming, funny, and clever, Brady is now in a league of long-time game show hosts who have found their own style.
Somewhere in the great beyond, the original big dealer, Monty Hall, probably smiles every time a prime-time episode of Deal airs on network television. It’s a delayed victory in a battle that Monty waged in 1968.
Although game shows had been as prolific as any other genre on nighttime TV in the 1950s, they had gradually disappeared in the 1960s. Mostly, game shows were scheduled as daytime programs, only occasionally appearing in prime-time slots. Often, the prime-time shows would be nighttime versions” of established daytime games—the same shows, just glitzier, grander, and usually with higher stakes.
Monty Hall and his business partner, Stefan Hatos, had been wanting to do a prime-time version of Let’s Make a Deal foalmost since the daytime hit launched in December 1963. They had their opportunity in 1967. Procter and Gamble, a leading television advertiser and the maker of Ivory Soap and Tide laundry detergent, had maintained a formidable television production division for decades. Mostly, P&G focused on daytime dramas (it’s the reason why these programs are called soap operas). P&G was preparing a new series for a Sunday nighttime slot on NBC and told the network outright that they wanted Let’s Make a Deal to fill the slot on a temporary basis until their own show was ready. Monty was aware that the network didn’t want Let’s Make a Deal in nighttime, but they did not want to burn a bridge with Proctor and Gamble.
The nighttime show was airing against a TV institution, The Ed Sullivan Show, a top-rated variety show on CBS. Jaws dropped throughout the TV business when nighttime Deal got better ratings than Ed Sullivan in the head-to-head battle.
Monty Hall was baffled by the reaction from the network. NBC seemed angry that Deal was a success. A Hatos-Hall executive, Henry Koval, later remembered, “People at NBC said the network was embarrassed that we beat Ed Sullivan.”
Prime-time television was supposed to be glamorous and prestigious. NBC was disgusted that their big prime-time victory had been with this…thing…this spectacle where people dressed in strange costumes and jumped for joy and kissed the host when they found out that there was a refrigerator hidden behind the curtain.
When another prime-time show was cancelled in 1968, Hatos-Hall Productions eagerly awaited the call to plug that hole in the schedule. Instead, the network opted for a nighttime version of Hollywood Squares.
Mort Werner, one of the NBC executives who made that decision, later explained, “We put on Hollywood Squares instead of Deal because we felt Squares was more of an adult show that fit a night time, prime-time audience better.”
Stefan Hatos and Monty Hall’s contract for the daytime version of Let’s Make a Deal with NBC expired at the end of 1968. NBC thought renewal was a mere formality. Hall had made some noise about moving the show to ABC, which was offering them daytime and nighttime slots, but NBC seemed to consider this an empty threat. In the past, switching networks tended to be a bad strategy for producers.
When Monty Hall calmly told NBC over the phone that he had signed a contract with ABC, the shift marked the beginning of ABC’s success in the 1970s. For nearly all its history, ABC had been an also-ran in the three-network ratings race—a low-budget, low-prestige baby compared to the big boys. Some referred to ABC as a “toy network.”
Ed Vane, one of the ABC executives who enticed Monty to switch networks, later said, “ABC felt it needed Deal desperately to become competitive.”
And that’s exactly what happened. ABC got Let’s Make a Deal’s big daytime audience, which meant more advertising revenue. And Deal also caused a surge in the ratings for the other shows on ABC’s daytime schedule, which meant even more money for the network to reinvest in future projects. ABC was on its way to becoming a legitimate competitor in the network ratings game, thanks to Let’s Make a Deal. Later, ABC built on Deal’s success with Monday Night Football, and later, with Happy Days, and other sitcoms. But it all started with Deal.
Nighttime Let’s Make a Deal aired on ABC for the next three years. In 1971, Hatos and Hall began selling the nighttime version to individual stations through syndication and enjoyed another six years of prime-time success (in prime access?). Monty Hall simply never stopped believing in the show’s ability to attract a big audience, and to succeed in both daytime and prime time. Today, 55 years after Monty walked away from NBC, CBS believes in the show’s power, too.
DO YOU REMEMBER…THESE OTHER GAME SHOWS THAT AIRED DAYTIME AND NIGHTTIME VERSIONS?
TIC TAC DOUGH (NBC, 1956-59 in daytime, 1957-58 at night)–Contestants answered trivia questions to put Xs and Os on the board and feed money into a pot, with three in a row taking all the cash. In only three years on the air, the show had five hosts pass through its revolving door. Jack Barry, Gene Rayburn, and Bill Wendell hosted the daytime episodes at different points. Jay Jackson and Win Elliott hosted the nighttime episodes.
PLAY YOUR HUNCH (CBS, ABC, and NBC, 1958-63 in daytime, 1960 and 1962 at night)–Merv Griffin’s first big TV success was hosting this game show for Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions. It was basically To Tell the Truth for people with short attention spans. Three people or things, labeled X, Y, and Z, would be brought onstage. Merv would announce a fact about one of them, and the contestants had to decide immediately if it was X, Y, or Z.
THE DATING GAME (ABC, 1965-73 in daytime, 1966-70 at night)–Jim Lange hosted the classic game show where bachelors or bachelorettes grilled three potential mates with questions, picking the one who made the best impression without seeing them. Among the celebrities who appeared on the nighttime show were Sally Field, Robert Vaughn, Dionne Warwick, and Groucho Marx (playing on behalf of his daughter).