Features

How Celebrities Killed the Career Game Show Host

Alec Baldwin, Leslie Jones and Jane Krakowski have replaced the Gene Rayburns, David Ruprechts and Bill Cullens of the world.
  • Jane Krakowski (center) joins a crowded field of celebrity game show hosts as Name That Tunes premieres on FOX. (Photos: ABC, CBS, FOX)
    Jane Krakowski (center) joins a crowded field of celebrity game show hosts as Name That Tunes premieres on FOX. (Photos: ABC, CBS, FOX)

    Name That Tune, one of TV's most enduring game show concepts, returns tonight with a brand new primetime revival. Created in 1952 and revived multiple times since, the show's list of past hosts reads like a who's who of legendary game show emcees, including Bill Cullen, Dennis James, Tom Kennedy and Jim Lange.

    So who did FOX tap to host the show's latest primetime iteration? Not Marc Summers or Brooke Burns or a new up-and-coming game show host. Instead, Name That Tune's new host is a Tony and Emmy-winning actor, Jane Krakowski.

    As a fantastic singer and versatile performer, Krakowski is an inspired choice. But if it seems like an odd choice to have a celebrity to host a game show, you probably haven't been watching ABC much recently. Beginning in 2016, the network has seen a good deal of success reviving classic game shows with celebrities filling the roles that used to go to, well, hosts: Alec Baldwin hosting Match Game, Elizabeth Banks hosting Press Your Luck, and Anthony Anderson hosting To Tell the Truth.

    Make no mistake: celebrities can make for great game show hosts: Alec Baldwin awkwardly reading off a teleprompter and interacting with drunken celebrities is part of the fun of Match Game, while improvisational maestro Wayne Brady is perfect interacting with costumed weirdos on Let’s Make a Deal.

    On the new Supermarket Sweep, Leslie Jones takes on the role of host and announcer, as she narrates contestants’ run through the store’s aisles. But she wasn’t just cast for her name: She’s a huge fan of the show that she’s hosting, and her enthusiasm for the game makes it even more fun to watch — especially since it’s been produced without a live studio audience.

    Leslie Jones is great. But would we have had nostalgia for Supermarket Sweep had it not been for the goofy charm of its 1990s host, David Ruprecht? While he’s an actor too, he’s probably best known for his role asking questions and sending contestants off to grab groceries. There used to be game show hosts; now there are celebrities hosting game shows.

    Just think about how many beloved game show hosts were not household names before they began hosting: Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek, Double Dare’s Marc Summers, Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, Match Game’s Gene Rayburn, and Tic-Tac-Dough’s Wink Martindale. They became celebrities because of their personalities and their skill at emceeing games. That wasn’t always the case — Regis Philbin hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire at the peak of his popularity as a talk show host (albeit a daytime one) — but the list of well-known classic game show hosts is dominated by people who were not well-known when they were cast.

    Today, instead of a new generation of game show hosts, celebrities are just adding to their resumes and bank accounts.

    This isn’t entirely bad. Again, many of them are great at the job, and they’ve also helped change the industry for the better. Just look at this list: Of the classic, career game show hosts, nearly all of them are white men. The very few game show hosts who are women or Black people have started their gigs very recently, within the last 10 years.

    In game show history, up through the 1980s and 1990s, women were mostly relegated to the sidelines, like Vanna White turning letters on Wheel of Fortune or, worse, the silent models on The Price is Right. In the 2000s, this began to change, with Brooke Burns becoming a go-to game show host (The Chase, Dog Eat Dog, Hole in the Wall), and Meredith Viera taking over Millionaire.

    Casting celebrities as hosts of game shows has turned a role for older white men into one that’s now open to people who look like the show’s viewers: diverse in age, race, and life experience. Having a range of people in the hosting role makes for better television, and makes it possible to have stronger connections with their contestants, studio audiences, and viewers at home. It matters when viewers — and kids, especially — see people like themselves on screen.

    But let’s not give Hollywood too much credit. The primary reason celebrities have been cast as hosts of game and reality shows is that they bring immediate attention and recognition. Celebrities bring their fans, their social media platforms, and their names, which can generate headlines and media coverage.

    Which isn’t to say that it always works. John Cena hosted two seasons of FOX’s American Grit, but the show’s ratings were never higher than about 2.5 million viewers. Just about a quarter of his then-8 million Twitter followers watched the season-one finale.

    For three years in a row, CBS tried a new celebrity-hosted game or competition show: Mario Lopez hosted Candy Crush in 2017, Kevin Hart hosted TKO: Total Knock Out in 2018, and Tim Tebow hosted Million Dollar Mile in 2019. Each flopped and was cancelled after a season.

    ABC’s game shows have been successful in part because the format itself is a celebrity: well-known and beloved by people who may have watched Pyramid at night with their parents, or The Price is Right when they were home sick from school. Adding the right celebrity as host — matching personality with format — is critical, too.

    It’d be nice to see new or newly revived shows cast a talented but lesser-known talent as its host. As the now-beloved generation of classic game show hosts proved, there are many comedians, improvisers, and hosts capable of creating iconic television and establishing their own careers as hosts. Will Hollywood let them?

    FOX’s Jane Krakowski-hosted Name That Tune premieres January 6th at 9:00 PM ET

    Andy Dehnart is a writer, TV critic, and teacher who reviews and reports about reality TV at reality blurred.

    TOPICS: Name That Tune, ABC, FOX, Double Dare, Jeopardy!, Let's Make a Deal, Match Game, Million Dollar Mile, Press Your Luck, The Price is Right, Supermarket Sweep, TKO: Total Knock Out, To Tell the Truth, Wheel of Fortune, Alec Baldwin, Alex Trebek, Anthony Anderson, Bill Cullen, Brooke Burns, Chuck Woolery, David Ruprecht, Dennis James, Elizabeth Banks, Gene Rayburn, Jane Krakowski, Jim Lange, John Cena, Kevin Hart, Leslie Jones, Marc Summers, Mario Lopez, Meredith Vieira, Pat Sajak, Regis Philbin, Tim Tebow, Tom Kennedy, Vanna White, Wayne Brady