Like its predecessors, Family Feud and Match Game, Blockbusters was a creation of Goodson-Todman Productions, attributed to Steve Ryan within the company rather than Mark Goodson himself.
However, unlike those two formidable shows, it failed to amass a sufficient mainstream audience during its initial run to warrant spinoffs, imitators, or a decade-long presence.
Both the initial 372 episodes spanning from 1980 to 1982 and the brief revival of 85 more episodes in early 1987 were broadcast on NBC.
NBC’s co-producer role sheds light on the rationale behind resurrecting a moderately performing show just five years after its original cancellation.
With the network’s finances intertwined with both the production and broadcast of episodes, it made more sense to give Blockbusters another chance with some adjustments rather than creating an entirely new show to fill the void.
(A contemporary example of this is how CBS is indifferent to where Rules of Engagement are placed in the schedule as long as it fills a gap.
They’ll ensure that the show reaches 100 episodes and secures a syndication deal, no matter what!)
We’ll delve further into the reboot and its comparison to the original down the road.
Blockbusters commenced on October 27, 1980, featuring three contestants and a host.
From the inaugural episode to its conclusion less than two years later, there were no significant rule changes, though producers implemented some minor adjustments early on to iron out the typical issues encountered by new game shows.
Bill Cullen served as the master and commander throughout these two years, with Bob Hilton as his reliable announcer.
Bill Cullen, while relatively unknown for his contributions to the history of game shows at this point, was a genuine legend.
He had been collaborating with Goodson and Bill Todman since as early as 1952, and Cullen’s true calling was evident as a host, whether it was for radio or game shows.
The industry was fortunate that he ventured into hosting early in his career and stuck with it. In total, Bill Cullen, with his distinctive thick glasses, held the record for the most game shows hosted by a single individual—23 in all, varying in popularity and duration during his career.
Among his successes were shows like Joker’s Wild, Chain Reaction, and the primetime edition of $25,000 Pyramid.
He even had the distinction of being the inaugural host of the original The Price is Right for nine years, beginning way back in 1956.
His accomplishments, combined with his evident hosting skills and personality, prompted The Game Show Congress to establish the “Bill Cullen Career Achievement Award,” which he posthumously received as the first recipient 14 years after his passing in 2004 from lung cancer.
Cullen’s role as a host influenced the design of his shows’ sets and their presentation in a way that few other hosts required.
When he was still a child, he battled polio, which left him with limited use of his legs.
These challenges were further compounded by a car accident at the age of 17, leading to even greater difficulty in walking and moving without assistance. As a result of these limitations, the game shows he hosted were structured to avoid any need for him to walk or appear in a full-body shot.
Naturally, this posed challenges in an environment where interacting with contestants and moving about the stage was the norm, but Cullen managed.
In fact, many people were unaware of his physical limitations, which occasionally led to awkward situations, such as the one Mel Brooks recounted in a 2010 issue of GQ.
During the week of October 17–21 1966, when I was around 40 years old, Eye Guess featured a special celebrity week with Bill Cullen as the host.
The game closely resembled Concentration. I was partnered with Julia Meade, a familiar face—remember her?
She was an actress, a very attractive young woman with blonde hair. Well, never mind that.
I can’t say for sure if I emerged victorious, but I did receive the take-home game as a consolation prize.
Once the show concluded, I made my way towards the podium to bid farewell to Bill and express my gratitude for having me on the show.
To my surprise, Bill started moving across the stage towards me in an unusual manner. His feet were flopping, and his hands were flailing in all directions.
It was like he was performing a comical walk reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’s antics.
So, I thought, why not join in the fun? I began imitating, well, some sort of exaggerated walk, flapping my arms and doing my best Milton Berle impression with crossed legs—my own take on Jerry Lewis.
In the midst of this, Julia was whispering, “No! He’s disabled, Mel!” I didn’t even hear her.
Finally, we met in the middle, shared a hug, and he told me,
You know, you’re the only comedian who’s ever had the audacity to poke fun at my disabled walk. Everyone else is so cautious, but it actually makes me feel worse.
That’s when it dawned on me, oh my goodness, this guy is genuinely disabled!
It became one of my most embarrassing moments, and if you weren’t me, it’s probably one of the funniest things that ever happened.
Cullen’s ability to take it in stride and adapt to the situation provides insight into his amiable and charming nature, both on and off the camera.
Steering an entire show from behind a podium or while seated is no small feat, but this quick-witted dynamo never faltered.
The divergence between Blockbusters and its contemporaries wasn’t solely limited to working around hosting constraints.
Both the game’s rules and its gameplay had distinctive features compared to other game shows of the 1980s.
To start with, Blockbusters featured three contestants, which, in and of itself, wasn’t exceptionally unusual; for instance, Jeopardy! also had three individual contestants competing against each other.
What set Blockbusters apart was the arrangement of having two related contestants, who were not married, competing as a team against a third solo participant.
This format created a sense of imbalance in the proceedings as if the odds were stacked against the lone player.
The show was designed to counter any unfairness with specific rule structures, but initially, viewers couldn’t help but perceive the game as lopsided.
This shifted the overall atmosphere when watching the show.
By introducing an apparent underdog into the mix, viewers were naturally inclined to root, even if only slightly, against the duo at the start of each episode.
Gameplay commences with all contestants seated behind a table featuring a four-by-five grid of hexagons placed before them.
This grid is outlined with red lighting at the top and bottom and white lighting on the sides. Each hexagon within the grid contains a distinct letter of the alphabet.
The primary objective of the game is to create a path of hexagons, stretching from one side of the board to the other (either from top to bottom or from left to right), by providing correct answers to questions.
The contestants take turns selecting a hexagon, and their chosen hexagon must have an answer to the associated question beginning with the letter inside it.
The first one to buzz in and answer correctly claims the space, which illuminates in either red or white.
Once a hexagon is won, it cannot be selected again, and if it lies in the path of an opponent aiming to connect their blocks, they must find a way around it.
In case of an incorrect answer, the opposing side gets an opportunity to respond correctly.
If both are unsuccessful, the hexagon remains in play until someone provides a valid answer commencing with the corresponding letter.
Although forming a grid by answering questions correctly may sound straightforward, it’s actually more challenging than it appears.
As mentioned earlier, the rules prevent the team from dominating the game simply due to their numerical advantage.
The solo player’s task is to connect a vertical route consisting of four blocks, while the team needs to connect a horizontal route of five.
This levels the playing field when it comes to answering questions, and it also makes it easier for the solo player to navigate around any obstacles the opposing team may create.
Furthermore, the solo player has a wider range of potential paths to choose from in order to traverse from one end to the other.
The victors of each round collect a specific cash prize in their bank.
Initially, this reward was a trip to the “Gold Run” bonus rounds, but it was subsequently modified to a monetary value.
In the bonus round, the questions become more challenging, and the hexagons feature multiple letters, indicating answers consisting of multiple words.
It’s understandable that the show’s organizers aimed to make contestants put in some effort to earn the enticing five thousand dollars awaiting those who managed to connect five blocks in just 60 seconds.
Given that a returning contestant could defend their title for a maximum of 20 times (an increase from eight to 10 and eventually 20 during this series of episodes), it was possible to accumulate a substantial sum of money by winning a few final rounds along the way.
In the embedded episode below, you can see contestant Leland Yung attempting to augment his already impressive earnings of $31,900 against a challenging team during the main round.
It’s undoubtedly an impressive achievement, and Cullen, with the finesse of a discerning host, duly acknowledges and credits his performance throughout the episode.
The format itself wasn’t inherently flawed, which makes the alterations introduced in the 1987 reboot of Blockbusters somewhat intriguing.
Presumably, in an effort to broaden the show’s appeal beyond the original run, NBC made several adjustments, including modifying the gameplay.
The new host, Bill Rafferty, now had only two contestants to oversee rather than the more captivating and entertaining three.
With the removal of the two-person team, Blockbusters lost not only the advantage/disadvantage dynamic but also the camaraderie that arose when two family members collaborated against a random third contestant.
Simultaneously, observing only two individuals at a time highlighted the awkwardness of the original version, where one person sat there alone without anyone to interact with, while the family team could congratulate and engage with each other.
Following this alteration, as neither side held a particular disadvantage, a new board was introduced for the third round.
The first two rounds alternated, ensuring that each contestant played with the four-block path once and the five-block path once.
In the event of a tie after these two rounds, the third and final round unfolded on a newly devised four-by-four “tiebreaker” board.
After numerous episodes with the traditional grid, the four-by-four grid utilized in the reboot appeared almost sacrilegious.
Even the intriguing twist in the Gold Run round—where the jackpot increased by $5,000 each time someone failed to secure the big prize—couldn’t entirely compensate for the rest of the alterations implemented by the producers.
Among all the adjustments made during the five years between the two iterations of Blockbusters, the alterations to the set and the technological aspects stand out as some of the most unfortunate.
In the original show, yes, the walls sported that unmistakably garish mustard color.
And yes, random hexagons were scattered all over, creating the impression that everyone involved was trapped within a colossal beehive, possibly leading to a corny title like “Honeycombers.”
It’s reasonable to acknowledge that if the host changed, it justified a revamp of the set to avoid direct comparisons with the first edition.
However, the reality is that the initial Blockbusters set was undeniably emblematic of the ’80s, whereas the set design chosen five years later seemed better suited for the screen of a Game Boy than a television program.
Adapting to the times is completely understandable, and returning with the exact same set would indeed be odd.
Yet, the integration of current technology for these changes was terribly mishandled.
If one were to imagine that all the participants were actually trapped inside a video game rather than merely appearing on a game show, it might be just as, if not more, entertaining.
This perspective would provide a rationale for the computer-generated flying hexagons in the intro and a board that stands out conspicuously instead of blending seamlessly with the player podium, as in the original version.
These technological transitions, albeit awkward, reflected a phase in the industry when game shows, in general, began to revamp their appearances to appear less cozy and more aligned with technology and contemporary trends.
Not every show fumbled the transformation as severely as “Blockbusters 2: The Busting” did while striving for a more modern set, but in this particular instance, it’s easy to be grateful that this reboot had only a brief run of a few months.
Thankfully, the majority of syndicated episodes hail from the original version, and they continue to provide quality entertainment even 30 years later, irrespective of the extent of digitization in the set.