For 42 years, generations of daytime TV watchers — the ill and house-bound, the college students, the unemployed, the stay-at-home parents, the lucky so-and-sos who can watch TV at their job — have enjoyed countless hours watching The Price is Right. CBS’s perennial game show is a television institution, but it also still holds a host of nagging mysteries, like, where do all those cars come from, how do they determine the “actual retail price,” and what are the producers looking for in a contestant?
With the show’s 42nd season premiering this week — including an unprecedented all-Plinko episode on Friday — BuzzFeed spoke with executive producer Mike Richards about how he puts the show on the air every day. (For one thing, they shoot the show twice a day, Monday through Wednesday, three weeks out of every month, and they spend the rest of their time preparing each episode.)
Here is what we learned:
1. Contestants should be excited to be there, but they shouldn’t force it.
One of the questions Richards says he gets most often is what qualities decide who gets to “come on down!” to be a contestant on the show. “The real answer is we’re looking for people that are being themselves, and not pretending to be more excited or more odd or whatever it is,” he says. “We’re looking for people who are authentically excited to be there, are naturally gregarious, are interested in having a good time, and who we think will enjoy the prizes that we’re giving away.”
Before loading into the Price is Right soundstage at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, audience producers interview each contestant, but they don’t have a great deal of time. “We have roughly 20 seconds with each person,” Richards says. “So are we able to really ascertain all that? No. We’re looking for any kind of cue that makes us think they’re going to like our prizes. Most people who come to the show like the types of things The Price is Right gives away.”
If it has seemed like contestants that arrive in a large group of people all wearing the same outfits have a better chance of getting on the show, Richards says that is only thanks to math. “If you come in a big group of 15 people all in the same shirt, just statistically, one of you is probably going to get chosen, just because there are 300 people in the audience, and we have to pick nine of them,” he says. “We almost have to pick you, because we need enough people to come down.”
2. They have the finding-contestants-in-the-audience thing down cold.
And when the contestants do come on down, the camera crew is remarkably quick in finding them in the audience. “We are expert Where’s Waldo players,” Richards says. “We’ve seen the pictures of [the contestants], and they each have numbers on them, so sometimes, that dictates where they’re sitting. And then we have a grid of the audience that we hand to the cameramen, so they know where they’re going.”
3. The show’s producers begin planning each episode months in advance, and they start at the end, with the showcases.
The reason is simple: The showcases should have the biggest prizes, and nothing else in the show should overshadow it. “You don’t want to repeat prizes that you’ve seen in the showcase,” says Richards. After the production team decides upon the showcase theme and main prizes, a lucky person called the “prize producer” begins to build out the rest of the show, planning each game and the prizes within that game. Which is perhaps not quite as fun as it sounds, since…
4. There are actually four subsets of prizes on The Price is Right. They are:
These are the items that open each of the show’s six main rounds, with the four contestants on the floor bidding on each prize to determine who gets to play the next game. “Those can [run] from $500 to $3,000,” says Richards. “And then we build in the rest of the prizes.”
These actually aren’t technically “prizes,” since contestants don’t actually win them. “They perform a function that you need to know the price of them to win the big prizes,” says Richards. “That’s all set up by a game producer who literally goes, ‘Hey, we want to put the peas here because they’re 69 cents, and this is how the game will play.’ We are good at knowing, ‘This will be hard to price; this will be easy to price,’ that kind of thing.”
These are items that contestants can win, but like the grocery items, they serve as a stepping stone to the major prize. “We want things that are varied, we want things that are cool, and we want things that people are going to know the price of,” Richards says. They typically run less than $100.
At last! These are the goals for the end of each game, but often the game itself can determine what this prize will be. “If it’s a car game, you’re going to put up a car, but if not, you’re going to put something else up,” says Richards.
5. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, there are over 70 games to choose from, and more new ones in the planning stages.
The most popular games — like Plinko and Cliff Hangers — get cycled in roughly every two weeks. “The magic of Price is… if you watch the show four out of five days, and you missed those six games, you could go a month and never see them again,” says Richards. “It’s part of the genius of what I think this format is, which is, even though you know the games, you still get a treat when you see them. It’s really easy, even as a die-hard Price fan, to miss Plinko and not see it for two months because you just happened to miss that day, or that half hour.”
6. Speaking of Plinko, there are only 10 — yes, 10 — Plinko chips in existence (five for the show, and five as backup).
“They’re enormously expensive to make,” says Richards. “They’re weighted exactly the same and made exactly the same, so they ‘plink.’ They came out on a towel, and they’re put into little boxes and very protected. They’ve been around for a long time because you don’t want to change them.”
7. The “actual retail price” comes from actual retailers — and the same retailers each time.
To keep the price continuity uniform throughout the show, the producers get the retail prices from the same group of retailers, largely based in California. “We’re not shopping in Alabama for peas one day, then Florida, then Maine, then Nevada,” says Richards.
8. At least deciding which cars to showcase is easy, because at any time, The Price is Right has between 37 and 45 cars on the CBS Television City lot.
Why so many? “We do six shows a week, and each episode, for the most part, has three cars in it,” say Richards. “So we’re through 18 cars in a week. And then the next week, I don’t want to see the same car, and I don’t think our viewers do either. So then you’ve got to have a whole other set of cars. And then rotate out the ones you saw before, so they don’t see them again.”
That is just a mere fraction of how many prizes are at Richards’ disposal, however. “It’s insane,” he says. “Each show has, like, 30 prizes in it. That doesn’t include the under-$100 prizes or the grocery items. Just the pure volume, when you do 190 episodes, if you saw the amount of things that go through there TV-wise, motorcycle-wise, computer-wise… We call it ‘The Firehose of Prizes.’” And that hose draws from three separate warehouses on the CBS Television City lot. Richards says that essentially, “It’s a Walmart!”
9. And yet, many of the prizes on the show are not what the contestants take home, especially the cars.
“If someone wins [a car] and they’re from Alabama, they don’t want to have to drive that car to Alabama, and they don’t get the car that day anyway,” Richards explains. “We’ll set it up with a dealership near their house and set up us buying the car and then coming to pick it up in their hometown.” After they appear on the show, the cars go back to the dealer that supplied them to be purchased by someone who likely will never know their car was once showcased on The Price is Right. “I always think it would be fun to go, ‘As seen on The Price is Right,’” says Richards with a laugh. “If I bought it, I would go, ‘Hey, that’s cool! That was on the show.’ I’d get the license plate frame and everything.”
10. You have to wait a long time to claim your prizes.
The show’s prize department doesn’t even start working with the contestants to get them their prizes until after the show has aired. That can be a long wait: The all-Plinko episode that airs this Friday, Sept. 27, taped three months ago, on June 26.
“We want it to be a surprise even in their community,” says Richards. “We want [contestants] to say that they went to a taping, and a lot of times people will say, ‘I was on it.’ But we don’t want them to give away what happened, because that takes away some of the fun of watching a game show. So we don’t want a brand new car with a Price is Right license plate frame sitting in the front yard a month before the show airs, because it kind of gives it away.”
11. Don’t expect to get the cash value of your prize if you win — you either claim your prize, or decline it.
“We want to give you the prize that you won, not just the cash,” says Richards. So even if a contestant who lives in Oklahoma not near any large lakes ends up winning a boat, the producers will “strongly encourage” the contestant to take the boat. “We’re in the business of giving things away,” he says. “There’s usually someone in your family who does live near the water, or a way to sell it — something that you could do that would benefit you greatly. I’ve never won anything, but I would imagine it’s a nice thing to have happen.”
Wait. The executive producer of the most popular game show on daytime TV has never actually won a prize? “Never. I have not.” But Richards, who’s 37, did sit in the Price is Right audience well before he took over running the show. “I remember going home and going, ‘Why are my hands sore?’ It was from clapping. I was exhausted and my voice was hoarse. I was like, ‘That’s the most insane thing I’ve ever been through in my life.’” And from the look on his face, he could not have been happier.