What Made Bob Barker the Perfect Host for ‘The Price Is Right’

The television personality, who died last week at 99, was part of a match that made game show history

Bob Barker on the Price Is Right
Host Bob Barker announces the showcase showdown at the taping of the 35th season premiere of "The Price Is Right" in 2006. Michael Buckner / Getty Images

Bob Barker, the beloved host of the beloved daytime game show “The Price Is Right,” once heard from a network executive who wanted the program to start giving away cars made outside of the United States. For the first several decades of the show’s existence, the cars offered as prizes were all American-made brands like Ford and Chevrolet. Barker wanted to uphold that practice, and it didn’t take long for him to get his way. As he recalled in his autobiography, Priceless Memories, he immediately reached out to a high-ranking official in the United Automobile Workers union. The labor executive made a phone call to the network executive, and within the hour, Barker heard that the show’s prized cars would remain American-made only.

Barker was “The Price Is Right” for decades, a figure beloved especially by those of us who associate the show with childhood sick days: ginger ale, saltine crackers and Bob’s voice letting us know how lucky he felt to spend the hour with us. We watched him pull audience members up onstage after they properly guessed the prices of various pieces of merchandise without going over the actual dollar amount. When Barker died last week at the age of 99, many social media users pointed out that he made it as close to 100 as a person can get—without going over.

“‘The Price Is Right,’” said host Drew Carey, who took over for Bob Barker in 2007, during an interview upon the show’s 50th anniversary, “is a show about regular people having a really great day.”

Those great days haven’t changed much since September 4, 1972, when the show premiered on CBS. For 51 seasons, “TPIR” has, every weekday, plucked a handful of enthusiastic contestants from an ecstatic studio audience and given them the chance to win another chance, and maybe more chances after that—to get up on stage with the host, to win a car or a hot tub or $25,000, to spin a giant wheel that will, if luck is shining upon them that day, stop when a red arrow is pointing to a spot that says “$1.00,” and then to bid on a package of prizes loosely organized by theme—a set of snorkeling equipment and a new boat, perhaps, or a trip around the world with stops in New York City, Rome and Bangkok.

“All this,” the announcer intones, “can be yours … if the price is right.”

From the archives: "The Price Is Right" host Bob Barker

And it often is: Since its debut, the show has given away more than $300 million in cash and prizes, including more than 8,400 cars. (The most expensive prize ever given away on the show was an Audi R8—a European sports car.) Over the course of 9,300 episodes and counting, the show has been sending contestants on what Carey calls “a hero’s journey kind of adventure.” Carey, for his part, never intended to take over the show. He turned CBS down the first time it asked, and, when he did commit, he was careful not to position himself as Barker’s replacement, because, as he puts it, “there is no replacing Bob.”

To the everyman hoping to be plucked from the audience and to the folks watching at home, Barker felt less like a glamorous television celebrity and more like a friend. The day he debuted his gray hair on the show, after several years of covering it with dye, he was met with a standing ovation from the audience, so happy were they to see more of the real Bob.

Barker referred to his devoted viewers as “loyal friends and true,” and he never failed to mention what an honor it was that people watching at home chose to spend the hour with him—a tradition carried on by Carey, who spent the height of the COVID-19 pandemic imploring viewers to wear masks and stay safe so that they could continue to spend mornings with him. Carey also takes care to include Barker’s famous daily send-off about spaying and neutering pets, a cause dear to the former host’s heart. Animal shelters and welfare organizations had been among his most devoted admirers, honoring him regularly for over 50 years.

The idea of putting non-famous people on television wasn’t invented by “The Price Is Right,” and it certainly didn’t stop there. But “TPIR” is remarkable in that it rewards ordinary people for being ordinary. “On a show like ‘The Bachelor,’” said Carey, “you have to be really great-looking or really cunning or really outrageous to either win or make a name for yourself.” On “Jeopardy!,” winners have an exhaustive knowledge of science, history and popular culture. On “American Idol,” contestants have to demonstrate an ability to sing well enough to inspire awe (or be comically bad enough to merit 30 seconds of airtime).

On “The Price Is Right,” though, winners win because they know stuff like how much it costs to buy a jar of pickles or a gallon of laundry detergent, or because they can accurately guesstimate the cost of a reliable but not flashy car like a Toyota Corolla. Sometimes, when presented with a collection of designer handbags, they win because they correctly surmise that luxuries almost always cost more than necessities.

A TRUCK CRASHES Into The Price Is Right Set During Wild Showcase Sketch! - The Price Is Right 1983

Game shows didn’t start out rewarding this kind of knowledge, says media historian Olaf Hoerschelmann, author of Rules of the Game: Quiz Shows and American Culture. “In the 1950s, quiz shows were about getting serious people to show off how much they knew about serious subjects—travel, history, high culture.” Like most midcentury shows, these game shows were filmed in black and white, and the camera stayed mostly still, filming contestants seated in a neat, orderly row. By the late 1950s the genre was in a state of chaos thanks to a series of cheating scandals—producers of shows like “Twenty-One” and “The Big Surprise” were accused of feeding answers to contestants, casting doubt on the whole enterprise.

That, says Hoerschelmann, made television fertile ground for anyone who could come up with an alternative.

“The Price Is Right,” created by Bob Stewart, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, premiered as “The New Price Is Right,” a nod to an earlier (unsuccessful) version of the show that aired in the mid-1960s. It instantly differentiated itself from earlier quiz shows in a number of ways, chief among them the set, with glittery numbers and splashy colors (which, for the 1970s, meant varying shades of orange and yellow). This was a quiz show that felt like a Las Vegas revue—especially once the gorgeous models started to appear, thrilled to show off the prizes and crack wise with the show’s host. It was then that the idea of a quiz show was transformed into something we now call a game show.

As the now-iconic music roared to a crescendo, stage doors opened, and out stepped Barker. Hoerschelmann says Barker was an integral part of the show’s success from the beginning. Previously the host of a stunt-based show called “Truth or Consequences,” Barker tried, whenever he got the chance, to address the camera, speaking directly to the viewers at home. They responded to his smooth voice and bright smile.

Growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Mission, South Dakota, and before joining the U.S. Navy Reserve, Barker honed his craft at radio stations across the country. He would go on to great career heights, but not without facing some controversy: In 1994, Barker was named in a sexual harassment lawsuit by one of the show’s former models (the suit was dropped the following year, and Barker steadfastly denied any wrongdoing). Later, other models sued the show itself, alleging a pattern of racial and sexual discrimination. Beyond “TPIR,” Barker made appearances in the classic Adam Sandler comedy Happy Gilmore and an episode of “WWE Raw”billed as “The Price Is Raw”—where he delighted and surprised viewers by sparring (verbally, at least) with wrestling superstar Chris Jericho.

Barker’s love of animals was inextricably linked with his celebrity: During his time as the host of “Truth or Consequences,” Barker’s basset hound Mr. Hubbard escaped from home. Barker and his wife put up signs looking for the pup all over town and made an appeal on the evening news, and eventually pet and owner were reunited. While hosting “TPIR,” Barker adopted a number of dogs, many of whom were rescued directly from the street. Federico, a dog Barker found on the side of the road in Riverside, California, appeared with him in a photo promoting a spay and neuter campaign. When fans wrote in to the network asking for signed photos, he recalled in his autobiography, they almost always asked for “that picture of Federico and Bob.” Barker devoted most of his life to championing the cause of animal rescue and welfare, using the show as his main platform until his retirement in in 2007.

The show’s history is Barker’s history: The first game he emceed, still played on the show today, was called “Any Number.” The first prize he gave away was a Chevrolet Vega, worth $2,746 at the time. The show today, as hosted by Carey, is remarkably unchanged—108 pricing games were played over the first 50 seasons, with nearly 80 still in the rotation. After the addition of the wheel and the showcases in the late 1970s, the show’s format was set. The iconography has endured, even inspiring a Smithsonian exhibition of its own, where visitors were challenged to guess the prices of household objects throughout history by playing a “TPIR”-style guessing game.

The heart of the show’s appeal is still the idea that the average person shopping at the local supermarket deserves to be showered with praise—and prizes. We cheer when someone knows that a bottle of carpet cleaner costs more than a candy bar, and we feel the sting of the signature sad trombone music when a hopeful contestant guesses that a car’s price ends with the number 8 instead of the number 4. With Barker at the helm, the show elevated the everyday and made us feel that any one of us could be plucked out of a crowd and celebrated for being exactly who we are.

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