/“The Price Is Right” is TV’s best car show—and not just during Dream Car Week

“The Price Is Right” is TV’s best car show—and not just during Dream Car Week

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I whisk myself in through the raised arm of the security booth at CBS Television City, Studio 33, and the attendant grins at my top-down ruby-red Bentley Continental GT. It flickers across his eyes; I must be someone he doesn’t recognize, a cardinal sin in L.A. Maybe a fill-in on “Ellen”? A warm body for one of the “NCIS” shows?

I’m actually just a guy having my own personal dream car week, and it’s about to get better.

The parking spot has my name on it. A ribbon of super-excited people hoots and hollers as it funnels through the studio’s main entrance. I step instead through the glass doors of the star’s entrance named for Carol Burnett and fight being star-struck. I forcibly pull my hand down from an instinctive clutch at invisible pearls.

Inside Studio 33, the commotion bears down with its own air pressure. Mic-ed up men and women whirl around a narrow hallway like second-hand sweeps on chronometers, pivoting in 270-degree spins around cars parked mirror-to-mirror and dormant game-show contests waiting to be wheeled on stage. An electronic audience of monitors and cameras ignores my every move, thank goodness, because I proceed to knock over a potted plant on a platform with a prize package worth thousands of dollars. I almost run right into a woman wrapped in a kelly green bathrobe and flawless makeup. A half-second later I realize I almost took out the reigning queen of spokesmodels, Rachel Reynolds. 

Before I do any more damage, I slip into a room off stage, tucked behind a studio between those belonging to “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “The Young and the Restless.” Across the table are people who love to give away dreams every weekday. They’ll tell me how they do it—and then I’ll be seated in the audience for the best car show on TV: “The Price Is Right.”

“The Price is Right” may shower contestants with everything from ramen noodles to round-the-world cruises, but under the veneer of the longest-running, most popular game show in history lurks a great car show. Who doesn’t respond to its bright lights, shocking colors, happy loud voices, and free new stuff—especially the big-ticket items like cars? And if that car’s a 4-speed Dodge Journey, well, so what? 

“The Price Is Right” has genuine enthusiasm for new cars that doesn’t bury itself in caliper sizes or model-year post-ups or the smoky burnouts that make most car television look like hormonal teenagers given too much budget and too much leeway. 

Most car shows revolve around egos and superegos. “The Price is Right” is the id. 

The Price Is Right Dream Car Week

The Price Is Right Dream Car Week

It premiered in 1956, but “The Price is Right” went dark until CBS rebooted it in 1972. It’s been on the air ever since, from the same studio on the CBS lot in Los Angeles: Bob Barker Studios, named for its long-time host and “Happy Gilmore” scene-stealer. Classic mid-morning couch-potato fare, the show has about five million viewers a day. They tune in from everywhere: doctor’s waiting rooms, car-repair centers, college campuses, and home offices. It’s not just a game show, it’s our cultural wallpaper.

The show has given away millions and millions of dollars worth of merchandise, the largest one-day payout being more than $260,000 in October 2019, to contestant Mike Stouber. (An evening edition of the show netted a contestant more than $1.15 million.) In its nearly 30,000-square-foot warehouse on the CBS lot, the show hoards millions of dollars in prizes to give away, including about three dozen cars at any given moment. 

The show’s complex choreography looks simple on screen. Show producers select contestants from the audience before taping; the lucky ones hear the shriek of a lifetime—“COME ON DOWN!”—and take a place in Contestant Row to bid on prizes. If they bid closest to the prize’s actual retail value without going over, they play for a Showcase prize. Win or lose, they get to spin the wheel in their half of the show during the Showcase Showdown. At the wheel, the highest spin amount without going over $1 goes to the Showcase, where two contestants bid. Again, the one who bids closer to actual retail prize value without going over wins. If the bid falls within $250 of the actual retail price, they win both showcases.

The show’s longevity means some games have become iconic: the wheel itself, the Check Game, the yodeling cry of Cliff Hangers. The show has been the subject of a documentary “Perfect Bid: The Contestant Who Knew Too Much.” In 2008, Terry Kniess bid the exact amount for his showcases: $23,743, and the show stopped production for nearly an hour while producers tried to figure out whether the show had been cheated. Kniess said he’d studied prices for weeks before attending. Producers changed games and prizes to eliminate the prospect of another moneyballer fouling the good-natured fun.

The show’s been on for so long, it’s been witness to the range of human behavior. Contestants have lost their clothes, have taken spills, or have even fainted. Models have revealed prices and accidentally given away free cars, have knocked over flat-screen TVs, and have dented cars during giveaways. It’s all very human; if the host or models make a pricing mistake on camera, the scene must be reshot. Other mistakes aren’t manicured out. The show’s imperfections are one reason for its longevity.

The Price Is Right Dream Car Week

The Price Is Right Dream Car Week

There’s another reason for the show’s longevity: the show’s synchronizers, director Adam Sandler and musical and talent director Stan Blits. Adam has been with the show for 25 years; Stan, for more than 41 years. The show runs as smoothly as an electric vehicle because of them. 

“I don’t think there’s a single person in America who can’t relate to cars in one way or the other,” Adam tells me from one of the only quiet, calm, and dimly lit niches in all of Studio 33. “It’s aspirational, it’s fun. People come from far and wide to see this show. People make it a part of their travel plans.” 

While Adam—no relation to the comedian-actor Adam Sandler—conducts the symphony of cameras and prizes, Stan interviews all the contestants who line the sidewalk at Studio 33, in groups of a couple dozen, to choose who will be brought to contestant’s row. He talks to more than 50,000 people a year and chooses people who can carry their excitement through the pre-show hours, without pandering. Costumes are right out; cheer and cheering are right in. Pure enthusiasm wins him over, and can win a spot in Contestant Row.

Stan casts the people, and as the show’s car strategist, he casts vehicles, too—a car in the show’s first three contests, then one in the second three, then usually one or two in the finale. On any given day, “The Price Is Right” might not give away any cars—or it might give away four or five.

It’s part science, part art. Stan pairs giveaway cars with games in a formula only he knows. He has a book filled with spreadsheets of car specs and prices—the show’s data bible—and quotes chapter and verse to spread them out for maximum effect. He decides when to play simpler games and include less expensive cars, and how to keep the rumba line of hot wheels in motion. He won’t put two SUVs in one show, or two hatchbacks, or two vehicles from the same brand if he can avoid it. 

He casts the cars as characters in the drama. “You can’t just stick any car into any game,” he says. “We’ll look at a Porsche 911 and say, will a 98-year-old woman really want to win that? Some people don’t even know what a Maserati is.”

It all comes from his spreadsheets, and how he processes all their information. He likens it to a Rubik’s Cube. He’s a part of the matrix. Stan is the algorithm.

The steady stream of new cars on the CBS lot means the show has a side hustle. It operates the equivalent of a new-car auction. The team works with local dealers to snare cars for giveaways, and schedule them for games that may be played within a week—or within a few months. Dealers retain the right to sell the cars before they’re given away, which can cause last-minute rejiggerings of the game plan but the relationships run smoothly, Stan says. “They don’t hate that we buy 17 cars a month from them.”

Most of the cars cost less than $25,000, which allows him to give away a lot of new cars and to stick to a budget. It’s become much harder to give away some vehicles now that the average paid price of a new car nears $40,000.

They give away fewer trucks now than in the past. “Trucks are expensive,” Stan says. “Trucks used to be our go-to like 10, 15 years ago. They were like skateboards with lawn mower engines and they were like $8,000. Now, they’re like $30,000, $40,000. They’re not cheap anymore.”

The cars have skewed toward economy models, but “The Price Is Right” has ventured deeply into exotic cars, usually during its annual Dream Car Week. In 2013, schoolteacher Sheree Heil won an Audi R8 V-8 Spyder worth $157,300. The show tried to give away a $285,716 Ferrari 458 Spider in April 2013; the contestant lost playing 3 Strikes. The show also gave away a classic 1964 Bentley S3 in April 2010 in the Hole in One game, and it will be giving away more vintage iron soon.

That kind of variety keeps the show fresh, Adam says. “This show’s been on for 48 seasons, and 9,000 episodes. You don’t get there without giving them variety. When you watch it, it’s still that same old great ‘Price Is Right,’ but it’s something different everyday.

“I spoke to a college class a couple weeks ago,” he says, leaning back in a nondescript office chair at the end of a very long day; he reminds me so strongly of Anthony Edwards on “ER” that I expect to see a stethoscope around his neck. “I was explaining to them that ‘The Price Is Right’ is such a happy place that even when you lose, it’s still a win.” 

When contestants do lose, it’s usually because they underbid and don’t realize how expensive a car is, Stan explains. “If it’s all wins then it’s not fun anymore. A loss makes great television.”

Cars remain a staple of the show, in part, because Stan and Adam and even its host are car fans, too. Stan is a regular fixture at the Los Angeles Auto Show, on public days.

“The car show is a religious experience for me over here,” he says. “I had to bargain with family members. They wanted to go with me and I said ‘no, I need to touch them, rub up against them. Hold them, caress them, kiss them, and I don’t want you there when I’m doing it.’”

Both Adam and Stan drive electric cars. Both have owned Chevy Volts; its 50-mile-plus electric range was perfect for Adam’s daily commute, and the CBS lot has convenient electric-car charging. “I was actually able to go an entire year on one tank of gas,” Adam says. “The original tank of gas that I got.”

Stan considers his first- and second-generation Volts his favorite cars. His husband drives a Lexus hybrid, while Stan drives a Fiat 500e on a bargain lease deal so cheap, “I said, ‘dear God, it’s like buying a Vespa.’ I get back into the Lexus after two weeks of driving the Fiat, and I say, ‘oh my God, it’s like a Bentley in here.’”

Adam pilots a Tesla Model 3 when he isn’t letting its Autopilot do the dirty work. “The thing drives me home,” he says. “The car’s smarter than I am. It really is a piece of the future.” He rides a motorcycle, too, having been turned on to two wheels by his show’s host Drew Carey. 

Carey, now in his 13th season as the host, has bikes as well as a fleet of cars, including his own privately commissioned art car. He has his own dream-car story to tell.

Come on down on February 4 for part two of this story, with host Drew Carey.