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Famous (and infamous) big money moments in game show history

Big money moments in game show history

Image source: Frederick M. Brown | Getty Images

Game shows began airing in the U.S. in the 1950s. Sixty years later, they continue to provide American television viewers with some of their most treasured memories. Richard Dawson yelling, "Survey says!" Regis Philbin asking if that's a contestant's final answer. Bob Eubanks asking newlyweds their favorite location in which to make whoopee.

Like any other long-running entertainment format, the game show has had its ups and downs, and has been declared dead numerous times. However, it seems like every time the form is thought to have drawn its last breath, a new spin comes along to revitalize it. Quiz shows gave way to panel shows, which gave way to team competitions, family competitions, and highly competitive, physically challenging shows in which contestants vie to be the last one standing.

Game shows provide high drama combined with big money, a mixture that's kept viewers glued to their TVs for decades. Read ahead to see CNBC.com's list of some of the most memorable big money moments in this highly popular form.

By Daniel Bukszpan
Posted 9 Sept. 2013

Longest-Running Game Show

A contestant and host Bob Barker during "The Price Is Right" million dollar spectacular.
Image source: Getty Images

"The Price is Right" premiered on the CBS network in 1972, and 41 years later it remains the longest-running game show in U.S. history. To put this in perspective, consider that the second-longest-running game show in history is "What's My Line?" which ran for 18 years. "The Price is Right" blew past that milestone in 1990, a full two years before Miley Cyrus was born.

For the first 35 years, the show was hosted by debonair animal rights activist Bob Barker. In 2007, he handed the reins over to comedian Drew Carey, who has been telling contestants to "come on down" ever since. The show will wrap up a nationwide contestant search for its 42nd season in Chicago on Sept. 12, according to a press release.

Biggest Jackpot

Image source: Virginia Sherwood | ABC | Getty Images

The game show with the biggest jackpot in U.S. history was "Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire?" The show was a 12-episode spin-off of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" which ran in February and May 2004 and offered contestants the tantalizing possibility of going home $10 million richer.

The structure of the show was almost identical to the original, right down to its host, Regis Philbin, but none of the contestants ever came anywhere close to winning the record jackpot. The biggest winner was computer specialist Robert Essig, who won $1 million, a mere 10 percent of what could have been taken home.

Longest Winning Streak

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, (L) and contestant Ken Jennings on Jeopardy in 2004.
Image source: Getty Images

Ken Jennings was a "Jeopardy!" contestant who had the longest winning streak in game show history, at 74 consecutive games. The software engineer from Utah dominated the proceedings from June 2 until Nov. 30, 2004, when he gave an incorrect response during Final Jeopardy to the clue, "Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white-collar employees work only four months a year."

Jennings wrote "FedEx," but the correct response was the tax preparation company H&R Block, so he was sent packing, with $2,520,700 in winnings to console him. In response, H&R Block offered him free tax planning for life.

The Most Expensive Game Show Ever Made

Simon Cowell
Image source: Getty Images

"Red or Black" was a U.K. game show developed by Syco Entertainment, a joint venture between Sony and Simon Cowell of "American Idol" fame. It premiered in September 2011, and according to The Daily Mail, it had a budget of $23.4 million.

Sadly, all the Sterling in the world couldn't save the show from a brutal media response. A review in the U.K.'s The Metro said that the show "marks a new era in Syco's lazy, sinister attempts to make money from a hopelessly stupid viewing public." The show suffered declining ratings and though it ran for a second season, its final episode ran on Sept. 29, 2012.

There has been no sign of season three.

The Mysterious Contestant

Image source: YouTube

"Press Your Luck" was a CBS game show that ran from 1983 to 1986. Contestants would battle an electronic board that lit up with rapidly alternating prizes, known simply as "the big board." In 1984, contestant Michael Larson went on a $110,000 winning streak after watching at home and memorizing the board's patterns.

In 2010, game monitor Darlene Tipton told "This American Life" that it quickly became clear during Larson's winning streak that he had a suspicious advantage over his fellow contestants. However, no one from the show could stop him, because he wasn't cheating.

"He wasn't breaking any of the rules of the game," she said. "He was playing it according to the rules set out. We had no rule against what he was doing."

Larson died in 1999. His story became the subject of a two-hour documentary called "Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal," which appeared on The Game Show Network in 2003.

The Quiz Show Scandal

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"Twenty-One" was a television quiz show that aired on NBC from 1956 to 1958. In 1991, co-producer Dan Enright said that the first episode was so dull that he and his partner Jack Barry received a phone call from a sponsor, in which they were told to liven things up, or else. "From that moment on, we decided to rig 'Twenty-One,'" he said in the documentary film, "The Quiz Show Scandal."

The contestants who appeared on the show from that moment forward were coached, including one Herb Stempel, whose loss to the equally coached, but more telegenic, Charles Van Doren was orchestrated to boost ratings. Stempel responded by blowing the whistle on the whole affair, and Van Doren ultimately testified before a congressional committee that he had been given the answers in advance. The scandal was dramatized in the 1994 film "Quiz Show," which starred Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Turturro as Stempel.

The Million Second Quiz

Hosted by Ryan Seacrest, "The Million Second Quiz" is a state-of-the-art, electrifying new live competition where contestants test the limits of their knowledge, nerve and endurance as they battle each other in intense head-to-head bouts of trivia for 12 consecutive days and nights. When the million second draw to a close, the champions will compete in a grand finale and the ultimate winner will claim the largest prize in game show history.

The competition, where time equals money, will air in primetime, LIVE from a three-story hourglass-shaped structure in the heart of Manhattan. Money is accumulated by sitting in the "Money Chair" and answering trivia questions against a rival. For each second a player remains in the chair the money meter will add $10 to the total. The longer a contestant stays in the chair, the more money is added until he/she is defeated by a challenger.

The show will be the first fully convergent television experience, where viewers from all across America will be able to play along in sync with the game during primetime and get a chance to be chosen live on air as a contestant for the following night's primetime show.

Catch the premiere Monday, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. ET.