Bye bye Barker

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A photograph hangs in CBS senior vp daytime programs Barbara Bloom's office: In the shot, a grinning, middle-aged woman stands in line outside of CBS Television City in Los Angeles holding a sign that reads, "My Dream: Going to See Bob Barker on 'The Price Is Right.'"

In his three-plus decades hosting the longest-running game show in U.S. history, Barker has become an American icon, inspiring generations of devoted fans to stand in line for admission to the 325-seat Bob Barker Studio, which was dedicated in 1998, waiting for the chance to be called to "Come on down!" to Contestants' Row.

And though he might not have been the first to helm the game show, Barker unquestionably has made "Price" his own since stepping onto the stage 35 years ago.

"Bob Barker is the greatest game show host of all time," GSN president and CEO Rich Cronin says. "He has the combination of being a people person, he's very relaxed and he has great charisma, but he lets the contestants shine. When he jokes, it's very good-natured and never at their expense. There are a lot of people viewing at home that are alone, and Bob is their best friend in the world." Barker also has been a very good friend to CBS and production company FremantleMedia North America, helping to pull in roughly 5.5 million viewers daily, according to CBS, which makes "Price" the highest-rated game show on television. Over the years, international editions of the show have been produced locally in 28 countries, with a live version of the program running at Bally's in Las Vegas and another set to open May 19 at Harrah's in Tunica, Miss.

Last year, ad revenue for "Price" was $101.2 million, with a 30-second spot selling for $12,248, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. "As both a (daytime program) anchor and a moneymaker, its value is immeasurable," Bloom says.

With Barker set to retire next month, "Price" is about to undergo a dramatic change that will mark a new era for the game show. While CBS had not yet announced Barker's replacement at press time, the network is sending the venerable host off in style with an amped-up primetime version of his show airing tonight -- "The Price Is Right Million Dollar Spectacular" -- and a special highlighting his five decades on the air, "Bob Barker: A Celebration of 50 Years on Television," airing Thursday.

"I'm thrilled we get to give him these two primetime shows and see him achieve all this recognition," Bloom says. "Bob has been extraordinarily gracious and made it clear to everyone that he is ready to retire. When he steps onstage, (he gives) 150%. That's the standard he sets. That's the departure he's mapped out, and we are all choosing to honor that."

When "Price" debuted in 1956 with host Bill Cullen, Barker was hosting CBS' "Truth or Consequences." Serious set malfunctions made "the pilot (of 'Price') a catastrophe," creator Bob Stewart recalls. NBC had to be talked out of backing away from its 13-week commitment to the show, which went on air late that year. By the end of its initial run, the game show had become a hit.

"Price" appealed to the post-World War II consumer who was still reveling in the newfound availability of material goods following years of rationing, Stewart says. "The show put onscreen for America to see all these wonderful things in their minds: furniture, fur coats, autos, all this wealth and prosperity that developed after the war," he says. "Manufacturers and stores lined up by the thousands to get (their products) on."

Although the initial response did eventually subside -- leading to "Price's" cancellation in 1965 -- the concept lived on. A revamped version of the program returned to the CBS lineup in 1972 with Barker at the microphone -- even as he continued to host "Truth," a setup that lasted until 1974. From the start, insiders say that Barker hit his mark with the audience. His ability to relate to guests and his talent for ad-libbing made him an ideal host.

"It's that Midwestern thing that he has, you can't put your finger on it," says "Price" consultant Syd Vinnedge of Barker, who was born in Darrington, Wa., but later moved to Missouri. "It's like fellow Midwesterners Johnny Carson or Jack Benny. He knows how to make the joke happen. He doesn't have to say the snappy funny thing. He lets (the contestant) say it."

Before long, Barker had taken over hosting duties for the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants -- he did both for 21 years -- the Pillsbury Bake-Off and Pasadena's annual Rose Parade. In 1978, he launched a traveling show, Bob Barker's Fun and Games, which enabled him to interact with audiences across the country, who would turn up to play original games not seen on "Price."

By the early 1980s, Barker had begun to wrangle concessions from the producers on a range of issues he felt were important. A longtime animal-rights supporter, he requested that all fur and leather prizes be pulled from the show, and anyone who has watched the show at all knows that Barker is careful to remind viewers to spay and neuter their pets at the close of every episode. (Out of respect for Barker's vegetarianism, the show's behind-the-scenes team even places vegetables on the grills it gives away instead of meat.)

Barker and producer Roger Dobkowitz also came up with a plan to only give away cars manufactured by American makers in order to support U.S. workers.

"Bob is a consummate professional and an extraordinary gentleman to work with, but he doesn't compromise his belief in his work," Bloom says. "We don't have any products on the show that would conflict with his beliefs."

In fact, Barker ultimately decided to resign from his pageant hosting duties because organizers of the Miss USA/Miss Universe pageants continued to award furs to contestants.

As longtime executive producer of the show, Barker oversees all facets of "Price" and has a firm hand in deciding how things are done.

According to announcer Rich Fields, "It's not mean-spirited in any way how he rules, (but) when Bob speaks, that's it. There's no gray area, and you can't second-guess him. He knows the craft and has a certain innate sensibility about what should be where."

Not to say that Barker's tenure with the game show has been entirely without incident. There was, of course, the instance in 1977 in which contestant Yolanda Bowsley lost her tube top on her way to Contestants' Row, but there also were serious allegations against "Price" and Barker that resulted in several lawsuits -- a handful alleging wrongful-termination suits and a high-profile sexual-harassment suit filed in 1994 by former "Barker's Beauty" Dian Parkinson, which was later dropped.

Still, though, it's a sunnier legacy that Barker leaves behind, even if the forces behind "Price" are facing their most daunting challenge in decades: namely, finding someone to replace the legendary frontman with the same sort of universal appeal among college students, homemakers and retirees. Sources say that George Hamilton, Mark Steines and Todd Newton, one of the rotating hosts of the Las Vegas version of "Price," are in the running, with some insiders predicting that the job ultimately will go to Steines.

Whoever is selected, though, will have a new cordless microphone -- Barker's corded mic is retiring along with him.

"It's going to be a daunting and difficult task," FMNA CEO Cecile Frot-Coutaz says of hiring a new host. "It's going to be scary. You could try to find someone like Bob -- which is difficult and doesn't exist -- or do a radical departure, but that's risky."

Both FMNA and CBS execs say they won't be surprised if the game show's ratings drop temporarily after Barker leaves. "We probably will take a hit," Bloom says. "I'm sure some people will say, 'It's not Bob,' but the audience loves the games, and I think they'll give us a shot. Hopefully, we'll do right by them."

Frot-Coutaz echoes those same sentiments, vowing that the nuts and bolts of the game show viewers have grown to appreciate will not be dramatically altered. In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. "The show is not going to change; the games aren't going to change," she says.

For his part, Barker plans to conclude his run with the show without any sort of dramatic flourishes -- and just focus on the games and the contestants playing them, as he has for the past 35 years.

"I'll probably thank people for allowing me to come into their homes all these years," he says. "But I'm going to do the show just as if it were another show."  


MORE PRICE IS RIGHT COVERAGE
Bye bye Barker: Passing the microphone to the next generation
Match point: Four on-air guessing games
It's all in the game: The 'Price' brand
All about Bob: Accolades from Barker's inner circle
Host with the most: Dialogue with Barker
Playing for time: A walk through 'Price' history
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