November 26, 1956-September 3, 1965


NBC Daytime: November 26, 1956 - September 6, 1963
NBC Prime Time: September 23, 1957 - September 6, 1963
ABC Daytime: September 9 - September 3, 1965
ABC Prime Time: September 18, 1963 - September 11, 1964


Don Pardo (NBC)
Johnny Gilbert (ABC)


Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions

"Today, these four bargain hunters match their shopping skills, as (sponsor) presents...The Price is Right: the exciting game of bidding, buying, and bargaining!"

"Tonight, these four contestants meet to compete for the prizes of a lifetime on...The Price is Right!"

"Backstage are some of the most exciting prizes on television...On our panel tonight is (celebrity guest)...Stand by for The Price is Right!"

Before "Come on down!" entered the American lexicon, Bill Cullen stood at the helm of the most celebrated game in television history. At nine years on daytime & prime time television, it would be the biggest success of his amazing career.

Four contestants, one a returning champion, compete for the whole show. A prize is presented & described, and the contestants alternate placing bids on it. The contestants can place as many bids as they want as long as their bid is higher than the previous bids (and sometimes there was a minimum enforced on how much higher the next bid had to be). Each contestant also has the option to "freeze," or stop bidding (indicated by an asterisk next to their final bid). Contestants are allowed to underbid, but only on the condition that they not place any more bids on the prize after that.

Bidding continues until either (#1) all four contestants freeze, or (#2) a buzzer sounds, indicating that the next round of bids will be the last. After all four contestants have placed their final bids, Bill reads the actual retail price, and the contestant who bid highest without going over wins the prize plus any attached bonuses. (More on those later...)
If everybody overbids, what happened next would vary. Sometimes, Bill would have them do more rounds of bidding (without announcing the actual retail price, naturally), and sometimes just one bid. Sometimes Bill would announce the actual retail price and have the prize carried over to the next round of bidding, offering it as a bonus to whoever won the next item up for bids. Sometimes, the prize would just be thrown out entirely. There was also apparently a rule early in the show's run that contestants who overbid were disqualified from bidding on the next item.

At least one item in every episode was a one-bid item, where contestants had only one bid on the item, with no bid increments, and underbidding was permitted.

Four or five prizes are bid on for every episode. At the end of the show, the final totals for all the prizes & bonuses won by each contestant are tallied up. Everybody keeps what they've earned, but the winner comes back to meet three contestants from the studio audience on the next broadcast.

The Home Viewer Showcase is presented each day, as well. A series of prizes is displayed and described by Don Pardo. Viewers then mailed in as many postcards as they want with their to-the-penny bids on the actual retail price of the entire showcase. After three weeks, the viewer who bids highest without going over wins the entire showcase. (In the event of a tie, the tied players had to submit, by telegram, a bid for a pre-selected single item in the showcase.)

During the next few years, two problems arose with the Home Viewer Showcase. #1, home viewers were a bit too enthusiastic...

"On Tuesday or Wednesday morning after the first Showcase, the postman comes in with maybe fifty cards. The girls quickly go through them. Thursday, he comes in with a bag of postcards, and the girls work to eleven o'clock. On Friday, he comes in with about six sacks of postcards, and we knew we were out of business. We hired a guy named Bobby O'Donnell, who had a company called Radioland Service. He had literally hundreds of housewives in Queens going through the postcards."

--Producer Bob Stewart, quoted in the book "The Box" by Jeff Kisseloff

#2, After a while, the viewers became far too good at bidding. The show fielded countless complaints from retail stores whose phone lines were constantly tied up by viewers trying to research items, and those viewers ultimately got to be far too good at bidding. Ties frequently had to be broken, including, for one showcase, a tie between 14 viewers who had submitted perfect bids. This led to a new game...

Introducing the Showcase Sweepstakes. Home viewers again had three weeks to submit as many postcards as they wanted with bids on the showcase. This time around, all postcards were divided into five numbered revolving drums. One postcard was drawn from each drum. The postcard out of those five that bid highest without going over wins the showcase and the trip to New York to be a contestant. (In the unlikely event of a tie, the winner is the postcard drawn from the drum with the lower number.)

Bill, by the way, had a neat little tradition each day when the Showcase was presented. As Don Pardo announced the mailing address and official contest rules (which took about a minute), Bill would play with a different wind-up toy. Here we see him with a monkey that shoots dice.

The prime time series was played the same but had its own returning champions. It also boasted a much larger budget for prizes (regularly giving away about $20,000 a week, while the daytime show hovered around $2,500 a day). To make it even more of an event, the prime time version was broadcast in living color (though unfortunately, all surviving film of the prime time version is in monochrome).

When the show jumped ship to ABC in 1963, an audience participation element was added. Three contestants and a weekly celebrity guest competed. All of the prizes won by the celebrity were given to randomly-selected members of the audience, and if the celebrity was the top winner, the contestant who finished in second would be the designated champion for the next episode.

To all things great, a beginning. the funny thing is, the more you learn about the history of "The Price is Right," the more amazing it is that the show has lasted to make all the television history that it has. To begin with, the show was pitched to Mark Goodson & Bill Todman by a relative unknown, a former salesman & local TV director with virtually no national TV credentials. At this point, his only game show production credit was the short-lived local series "The Sky's the Limit" hosted by Gene Rayburn. The company liked his idea, a show that he titled "Auction-aire,*"and mounted a pilot for NBC. That pilot, by all accounts, was a disaster. The bid displays malfunctioned early in the taping, and another technical problem later in the pilot caused Bill to be thrown against a wall.

Note: A number of sources state that Stewart's original title was "The Auctioneer," but in his interview with the Archive of American Television, Stewart himself says and spells out the intended title.

NBC eventually decided to pick up the series, mainly to get Goodson-Todman out of their hair, and "buried" the show against daytime megastar Arthur Godfrey. By the time "Price"'s initial 13-week contract ran out, they had higher ratings than Godfrey and a warehouse filled with prizes from manufacturers who wanted some exposure on the new hit. NBC had a crown jewel for their daytime line-up and gave it a shot in prime time, where it thrived.

Even if TV audiences flocked to it and liked what they saw, critics were convinced that they were witnessing the downfall of western civilization.

"The Price is Right is almost too cheap for critical evaluation. Bill Cullen is a noisy, shrill cashier whose prefabricated, homespun character in this idiocy consists of never ending a word with 'G' (singin', talkin', etc.) and a total performance about as real as a three-dollar bill. It all worked out with a convenient dispersal of winnings (no participant went away empty-handed) and started right off fighting for the title of worst show on night-time television"

- Jack O'Brien, September 24, 1957

Bill & "Price" had the last laugh on critics, though. The series lasted, being one of very few game shows to survive the game show scandals unscathed. The prime-time version of "The Price is Right" went on to rank as high as #8 in the Nielsen ratings, making it easily the most popular game show on television.

It sealed the reputation of the former salesman who developed the show, Bob Stewart, who would go on to create "To Tell the Truth" and "Password" for the company before quitting to form his own highly successful production company.

It also turned Bill into a superstar in his field. He was the best-known emcee in the profession, and being on a show that revolved around prices put him in demand as a pitchman for virtually any company that wanted to emphasize the low price for its products. Frigidaire  appliances, Cool Whip, Newport cigarettes, and Tender Leaf Tea were just a few of Bill's endorsement deals during "Price"'s run. A few companies even benefited from putting Bill's face on their coupons!

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and "The Price is Right" was successful enough to be sincerely flattered numerous times during its nine-year run. Bill & the show became popular fodder for satire, with MAD Magazine and "The Flintstones" providing memorable send-ups.

So what was it that captured the public's imagination, exactly? Let's break down the reasons for its appeal. In an era of isolation booth-dwelling experts, it was one of the few games that anybody could play. We deal with prices every day. We see them in newspapers, on television, and just about every corner we might glance toward as we walk down the street. "The Price is Right" touched on a truly universal area of knowledge.

The prizes on the show always gave viewers something to talk about the next day. Rooms of furniture --or sometimes a house-- were up for grabs. Trips to Paris, five-figured-priced necklaces, Ferris Wheels, airplanes, and a private island off the coast of Maine were just a few of the extravagant items that smart shoppers collected for their bids.

The heart of the show, according to Bob Stewart, was the fabulous-but-peculiar bonuses that contestants received in addition to the items they bid for. At least once on each show, and often more than that, a bell clanged, revealing that the winning bidder was taking home more than what they had just bid on, and there was the true excitement, because viewers knew that, more than any other game show on the air at that point, the bonus prizes of "The Price is Right" would be something to talk about the next day. Among the bonuses offered by the show: 5,000 Eskimo pies (in case a contestant got overheated in her new sauna); a new 1958 Oldsmobile for the winner of a restored 1901 Oldsmobile; stacks of foreign currency plus $,1000 US for a contestant who won a trip to four European countries; and 97 electric appliances for a contestant who won a single 69-cent lightbulb, as a salute to Thomas Edison.

But that's not all! Contestants also won 50 each of towels, blankets, and sheets; a French Poodle; and a television for every room in the house (including, yes, a TV for the bathroom).

And then there were those times when the surprise came from what a contestant didn't win. The contestants once bid on a diamond necklace that looked beautiful but was very vaguely described. When the final bids were in, Bill revealed that it was false jewelry costing only $30, and that everybody had overbid. The bell sounded and revealed a check attached to the price tag. It was a check for $1,000.

For a touch of something extra-special, bonus games were sometimes played instead of just handing the winner extra prizes. These were precursors to the pricing games used on the legendary CBS version, but surprisingly, most were concerned with luck or skill and virtually nothing to do with guessing prices. Here are some of the games played by winners on Bill Cullen's "Price is Right."

THE MIRROR GAME: One model stands behind the contestant and holds up a list of prizes. Another model stands in front of the contestant and holds up a mirror, so the contestant can only see the list backwards. The contestant wins every prize that s/he can identify in 15 seconds.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?: The contestant is shown a longitude-latitude coordinate and temperature for the day of taping for 5 world locations. The contestant wins a trip to the location s/he selects. (Usually, one of the locations was a joke area like a steam room or butcher's freezer.)

PICK THREE: A list of ten prizes are displayed but disguised somehow (scrambled letters or written in a foreign language, usually). The contestant selects three prizes from the list and Bill reveals what they are.

CULLEN'S OLDE ANTIQUE SHOPPE: Played for prizes such as jewelry, restored furniture, or paintings; three prizes were presented; two were valuable, but one was only worth $10-$50.

Bill, the former host of "Name That Tune," couldn't escape music when he arrived at "The Price is Right." The contestant on the receiving end of this bonus is going to get the sheet music for a simple song, plus a crash lesson in playing the xylophone. Next week, she'll come back to play the song, and for every note she plays correctly, she gets $10.

This contestant has just received good news from Bill: win or lose, he's coming back next week. He'll be sitting to the side of the stage, watching the entire game. After every round of bidding, Bill will ask him which contestant he thinks is going to win the item. Every time he's correct, he wins a duplicate prize.

This game was part of an all-newlyweds special. Bill brought the winning bidder's wife onstage and asked a series of personal questions. Every time the winning bidder matched her answer, they won $1,000 for their unborn child's trust fund. Sadly, none of Bill's personal questions required him to use the word "whoopee."

Bill enlisted the help of an Italian stagehand for this game, which bore a striking resemblance to "Eye Guess." Bill revealed a list of five prizes, then the Italian translations for each prize, while the stagehand taught pronunciation to the contestant for each one. The contestant won each prize that he could remember and pronounce correctly.

Another musical game: Bill played a spliced recording of six singers performing the same song. The contestant wrote down her guesses to the identities of each singer as it played; every correct guess paid $100.

Mr. Day had just won silver service when stagehands & models walked onstage with a giant scale & bags of silver were brought out onstage. Mr. Day's wife stood on one tray; his goal was to guess how many bags of silver he could load on the other tray without exceeding his wife's weight. If he did so successfully, he would win the cash equivalent of the silver that he used. He successfully estimated that he could put six bags on the tray, and the happy couple took home $2,040.

This contestant's challenge: stick her arm through a hole in the wall and touch three prizes. Afterward, she had to decide, by number, which prize she wanted. As Bill explained after the fact, the payoff they were shooting for here was that she would select the dog, thinking it was a fur coat. She wasn't fooled though, and she went home with a television.

More fun with spouses...the winning bidder and his wife stood on opposite sides of a partition, and the contestant wins a cash bonus each time he can correctly answer a question about what she is wearing.

And from there, we discuss the man at the helm and his role in the success of the show. Believe it or not, Bill wasn't NBC's first choice to host the show. In fact, Bill himself wasn't even sure that he'd be up to the task. He saw his role as bringing out wit and humor from what was going on. He openly expressed concern that he couldn't bring life or comedy to a show where contestants just spent 30 minutes saying, "$200...$300...$400..." But at all times in the show's development, he was surrounded by a team that had total faith in his abilities, and over the next nine years, he justified that faith time and time again.

The concern from NBC, meanwhile, was that Bill had other priorities. In an era of live broadcasting, hiring Bill would mean that every morning, he would have to walk nine blocks from his radio studio to the theatre where "The Price is Right" was going on the air in 30 minutes. This was crucial because it meant Bill would have to do every show with no adequate rehearsal or preparation. Bob Stewart's response to NBC's concern: "I'd rather have Bill Cullen with no rehearsal than any other emcee with rehearsal."

Even in this stage of his career, which had still had decades ahead of it, Bill was held in such high regard by his peers that for the next nine years, he would prepare for each show by listening to a stand-in reading notes to him while he sat in his make-up chair minutes before showtime. And he handled the task beautifully. No matter how extravagant the prize, no matter how elaborate the bonus prizes, no matter how nervous or excited the contestants were, he was prepared and able to handle any situation. ANY situation.

Bill's ability to get through anything was put to perhaps its most extreme test when the contestants for one show were offered a live circus elephant. The elephant was brought onstage, and to the shock of Bill, the contestants, the staff, and the audience at home & in the theater, the elephant defecated on a coast-to-coast television broadcast. Everybody cracked up at the sight...except one man. Bill remained in total control, looked into the camera with a straight face, waited for the audience howls to die down, and then deadpanned, "Be sure to join us next week when 'The Price is Right' offers equal time to the Democratic party."

Bill was at his peak. He was the master of masters of ceremonies here, alternately joking, building suspense, and just amiably chatting with the contestants. And despite all that, he never ceased being as average or ordinary as the contestants joining him onstage. No matter how many TV Guide covers he graced or how many viewers the show brought in, he was always the regular guy who happened to show up and be the star of the series. It's easy to see why he stuck around in the business for a few more decades.

Click the appropriate cover for TV Guide cover stories about "The Price is Right" starring Bill Cullen.

A well-known photo of Bill used for publicity with various TV & radio shows for  the next ten years. It also appeared to be the one that Bill preferred to use for mailing autographs to fans. If you haven't found this one on Ebay, you haven't been looking.

Notice that the show has been on for less than three years and they're already boasting about its longevity. If they only knew.

A odd photo of Bill promoting the show's move to ABC in 1963. Where are his eyes?


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