The Best Game Shows of Mark Goodson - Bill Todman Productions

by Felice Prager

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I must have heard the words, "This show has been a Mark Goodson - Bill Todman Production" thousands of times while I was growing up, but I never gave it an ounce of thought. Yet, behind that identifying sentence, was one of television's most successful partnerships and the beginnings of game shows as we know them now. Together, they produced some of the most successful and memorable game shows in television history. Their shows had staying power and some, such as What's My Line?, I've Got a Secret , The Price is Right, Card Sharks, He Said/She Said, To Tell the Truth, Family Feud, Beat the Clock, Two for the Money, Supermarket Sweep, Match Game, and Password, can still bring up mental pictures in people's heads of the stars, the hosts, and the sets. It turned ordinary announcers into celebrities. Before Goodson and Todman, names such as Bill Cullen, Bob Barker, Richard Dawson, Bud Collier, Gene Rayburn, Bennett Cerf, Wally Bruner, and Allen Ludden were virtually unknown. Some shows were even more successful when they were revived and revamped in second and third lives, and many of their hits became successful shows in other countries outside the USA.

Mark Goodson (1915-1992) created his first game show called Pop the Question in 1939 for KFRC radio in San Francisco, California. It was a simplistic game where contestants threw darts at balloons on a board in order to collect prizes. Goodson arrived in New York in 1941 and had several announcing and writing positions. In New York City, he met Bill Todman (1918-1979) who was a radio writer, director, and advertising copywriter. They shared a love of games, and, with this common thread, teamed up to create their first game show, Winner Takes All. They each had special talents on which they capitalized.

They developed the methods that would serve them throughout their careers. Goodson worked on the format and creation of the game while Bill checked it for possible flaws in the rules and took care of the financial end of the company. CBS Radio picked up Winner Takes All. Goodson and Todman also created four local radio quiz shows: Hit the Jackpot, Spin to Win, Rate Your Mate, and Time's a Wastin'. With each production, the team learned more about what would work and what would not work on a game show. For instance, they were the first to use a lockout buzzer system. They were also the first to have two contestants vie against each other rather than take turns answering questions from a quizmaster. They were also the first to have the winner return each week until defeated. In fact, Winner Takes All became the first Goodson and Todman show on CBS' new television network. It debuted on July 8, 1948. Quiz shows were very popular with audiences, but they were just as popular with television executives because they cost so little to produce. In fact, the prizes were given to the stations for free in return for mentioning the company who donated the merchandise.

Most of the radio quiz shows that had been very successful did not transfer well to television because they were visually flat and did not involve an audience. Long before the advent of shows with huge prizes, Goodson and Todman created two formats that were extremely successful for them: shows with celebrity panels and shows involving ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

Their first successful panel show featuring a celebrity panel was What's My Line? It was originally called Occupation Unknown. It debuted in 1950. This show featured a panel of upper class celebrities from theater, publishing, politics, music, and entertainment dressed in tuxedos and gowns and had them play a glorified version of Twenty Questions in order to guess a contestant's profession. It also featured Celebrity Mystery Guests who tried to fool the panel while they wore blindfolds and the celebrity disguised his or her voice. The show ran for 17 seasons in prime time, the longest running prime time game show in television history.

On Beat the Clock, ordinary people attempted difficult and often ridiculous stunts against a clock in order to win prizes. These stunts often involved whipped cream, mashed potatoes, pies, water, and water balloons. Beat the Clock eventually became part of the trend to offer larger and larger prizes.

Throughout their careers, they tried other formats such as live drama, but their success was in the production of game shows. Each show has become part of history. For instance, I've Got a Secret, created by Allan Sherman (famous for song parodies such as "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh") and Howard Merrill, managed to book incredible names to keep America watching. On one occasion, Allan Sherman was the first to contact Edmund Hillary after his historic climb up Mt. Everest. On another, America was introduced to the pilot who, on the same day, broke the flight speed record. This pilot was future-astronaut, John Glenn. Eventually, Sherman lost that show when, during the days of game show scandals, it was leaked that Sherman asked guests to lie about what they had done.

As with many culture trends, by the year 1970, interest in game shows was waning, and the networks removed nearly all their game shows from their prime time and daytime lineups as well. Fortunately, Goodson-Todman Productions was smart enough to be able to take advantage of the Prime-Time Access rule, and continue their more successful games in syndicated versions.

The partnership continued until Bill Todman died in 1979, after which the company was renamed Mark Goodson Productions. Goodson's son Jonathan succeeded him as president and CEO of Mark Goodson Productions. In 1994, Goodson's company joined with Merv Griffin Enterprises to launch the Game Show Channel. The cable station shows old game shows from a library of 41,000 episodes, and new shows allowing home viewers to play along for prizes via interactive controllers.

Work by Felice Prager:

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