When I was a kid, I used to wonder about the prizes on Bullseye. They'd introduce the prizes when talking around the prize board, and you'd see a VHS player or a barbecue laid out for display. I used to wonder, if they won the prize, whether they'd pack it up again and send them that one - or would they have another one they'd send to the winning contestants. And in that case, who would get the display model? Did Jim Bowen have a huge stash of crap HiFi systems at home he'd carted home from the show?
I imagined that big prizes like cars (and the speedboats on Bullseye) would be borrowed by the production company, and then if somebody actually won one, they'd go out and actually buy one. But that whole arrangement didn't seem worth it for a couple of chairs or a crystal decanter.
I was watching an old (Terry Wogan era) edition of Blankety Blank on Challenge the other day. It was much more raucous than I remember. Kenny Everett was a guest, and he was running around the studio and throwing the prizes around. He broke a couple of mugs from the mug tree prize. I do hope it realises that Terry Wogan would've got those to take home otherwise!
Another thing struck me in that moment. A mug tree. Six mugs on a bit of wood. That was actually a prize. the reality seemed to be, though, that the contestants didn't really care about the prizes. It was the thrill of winning and the fun of getting there which they were playing for. But compared with a modern gameshow there was something missing.
The drama from a modern gameshow is missing. The prizes on modern gameshows have got larger and larger, and the thread of the show now is about the money. We are invested in the contestants' progress because whether they win or not has a material impact on their life. They will either leave the studio with nothing, or leave with their mortgage paid off. The prizes are greater, but so are the losses. Deal or No Deal is built entirely around large sums of money being dangled in front of contestants and then whipped away. We are asked to imagine how much the money would change their life so that we feel true sorrow when they don't win it. It's an emotional journey, but it just doesn't feel enough fun.
In some shows - Who Wants to Be A Millionaire for example - the host even marks the point at which "this is becoming serious now!". The first few questions are thrown away and then suddenly the music changes, the lights dim and we start playing with the financial future of the contestant. And I thought gameshows were supposed to be entertaining...