Roger Dobkowitz, the longtime producer of The Price Is Right, has this perfectly plausible theory of why college kids tune into programs like his. A program that happens to be so profoundly uncool, so blissfully buzz-free, so totally retro, that it would make even Anchorman's Ron Burgundy sneer.
"It's been around for 33 years [in its current form], and these are the same kids who used to watch when they were 5, 6, 7 years old," he explains. "Now they are facing a whole new world, but they can turn on the TV set and there's good ol' Bob and Price Is Right."
This is the same theory behind a bizarre cultural hiccup in the early '70s, when another Bob - Buffalo Bob Smith - did a nationwide tour of college campuses with his puppet pal, Howdy Doody. There he was, singing the classic songs from his old TV show to packed gyms, with the sweet scent of cannabis wafting through the air.
Why was Bob competing with Simon & Garfunkel? Because these students were 5, 6, 7 years old when The Howdy Doody Show was originally on the air. With Vietnam raging, here was a gentle, nostalgic blast from a much simpler past.
This goes a long way, too, toward explaining why we still love game shows, especially Price, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy - which, suddenly, is one of the hottest shows on TV, thanks to Ken "Joe DiMaggio" Jennings (whose win streak stood at 37, as of Friday morning).
This is the immutable TV Law of the Familiar - a sense that everything else in life may be thrown asunder, but Alex Trebek will forever remain his dear old dull Canadian self, while Pat Sajak will forever hold the card, and Vanna White will remain forever young and blond and mute.
What makes these shows so special is precisely their very unspecialness.
They are remarkable shows, too - in the sense that they never seem to change, which is pure illusion. In response to the once-blistering Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jeopardy boosted its cash prizes a couple of seasons ago, then last year dropped the so-called "five-show rule." This was huge news in game show land, because it meant winners could build a winning streak beyond just five days.
Bob Boden, a former executive with the Game Show Network, explains: "The five-show rule goes back to the quiz show scandals [of the 1950s] and was the networks' respectful answer to the Federal Communications Commission to prevent contestants from becoming professionals."
Meanwhile, the networks and the FCC established safeguards to prevent the rigging of game shows, "so the rules are very clear and very strict, and they work," says Harry Friedman, executive producer of both Jeopardy and Wheel.
But an obvious risk for Jeopardy is this: a brainiac who's less than telegenic lands on the show and never leaves. Says Friedman, "Really, the whole sky-is-the-limit change is still a work in progress, and it's still too soon to know whether it's successful."
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.