How 'Price is Right' Stays on Top: Ferraris, Drew Carey and a Secret Formula of Wins-Per-Minute

5:35 PM PST 09/23/2013 by Seth Abramovitch
CBS

TV's longest-running game show begins its 42nd season Monday.

The most expensive prize in The Price is Right history was a black Ferrari 458 Spider, priced at a cool $285,716. It wasn't product placement, but was dreamed up by the show's producers, who'd hoped to strike gold with a YouTube-able moment. It didn't quite go that way: The contestant ultimately crapped out in the Three Strikes game, and the Ferrari went back to the dealership. Cue loser sound effect.

"You're always trying to make the audience look forward to what’s going to happen next," says executive producer Mike Richards of the long-running CBS game show, which kicks off its 42nd season Monday. "On a show that's been around for this many years, that's not always easy to do." Whatever Richards and fellow executive producer Jennifer Mullin are doing, it appears to be working: Price recently picked up a Daytime Emmy for outstanding game show -- its sixth -- and the FremantleMedia North America-produced series remains daytime's top-rated program.

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Certainly those YouTube-able moments can't hurt, but as the Ferrari example proved, they're difficult to orchestrate. Instead, happy accidents seem to be best at fueling viral buzz, whether it be that recently resurfaced clip of a then-unknown Aaron Paul freaking out on contestants' row, or the "skateboard rabbi" contestant who was allegedly tripping on magic mushrooms during the taping. Another source of unwanted attention -- a discrimination case leveled against the show by model Brandi Cochran -- tipped heavily towards Price's favor after a judge threw out a $7.7 million settlement in March.

Richards, 38, splits his time between Price and Let's Make a Deal, and has worked in front of the cameras, too, most notably as host of The CW's Beauty and the Geek. He also was one of five faces who screen tested as a possible replacement for Bob Barker, who retired in 2007 after 35 iconic years as the show's smooth-talking master of ceremonies. None of those five got the job, which instead went to Drew Carey. The comedian proved reliably quick-witted and instantly likable, but it was quickly obvious that his hosting style was much different from his predecessor's. 

"Bob hit every mark perfectly," Richards explains. "Drew is improv. Drew is Drew, and he's going to go where he thinks the best moment is." That meant bringing some significant changes to the garishly decorated Studio 33 -- re-christened Bob Barker Studio in 1998 -- at CBS Television City, where the show has taped since 1972. Camera cues were tossed by the wayside, prizes were upgraded to appeal to the show's brand-savvy, female-skewing demo and the sheer volume of each taping skyrocketed. (Noise complaints from the set of The Bold and the Beautiful, which shoots next door, are a regular occurrence.)

Now six years into the gig, Carey, 55, appears to be having the time of his life. During a quiet moment backstage, the self-effacing funnyman, still wound-up and a little emotional after hosting a raucous Veterans' Day-themed episode, reveals to The Hollywood Reporter his secret to making game show magic: "There's a sign on my dressing room door. It says, 'Surf the contestants' wave.' If they're nervous, be calm. If they're excited, get excited. Be wherever they're at so they're having a good experience."

Season 42 brings with it a few new wrinkles, including the introduction of "Do the Math," a game in which contestants solve basic math equations on a virtual blackboard. "Plinko," the show's popular and prone-to-malfunctioning carnival game, turns 30 this season, earning it an "all-Plinko episode" scheduled for this Friday. There will also be more of those popular themed episodes -- besides Veterans' Day, breast cancer awareness, teachers, Halloween and April Fools will all be celebrated, Price is Right-style.

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Richard says the show's enduring popularity, which many thought wouldn't outlast Barker's departure, is baked right into its DNA: "It's a beautifully conceived game show in that every act has so many things that happen in it," he explains. "There's a chance for three wins in a four-minute act -- which is unlike any other game show. They figured out that just calling the contestant down is a win. Which is genius! Everywhere else it's a phone call and you're booked on the show, so you don't experience that moment. Then you bid, win a prize and come up on stage. A minute into the first act and you've already had two wins."

Carey, who commutes daily to the set via Vespa scooter ("I use it to beat traffic") admits that after a bumpy start, the show is now second-nature to him, having committed the rules to its 70-plus games to memory. He doesn't often cross paths with the 89-year-old Barker, whom he says is "witty, charming and has it all together," but did recently -- where else? -- at a charity event for animals.

"We took some pictures on the red carpet. That's the only time I get to talk to him. Everyone was all over him, just a parade of people. He said, 'Well, you really kept the weight off, and I'm really proud of you for that,'" Carey laughs.

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