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Phone-in Game Shows

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Come on! You only have 60 seconds left to call in for a shot at $100! All you have to do is unscramble this famous proper noun! "TVTROPES"! Keep ringing those phones! We don't have all night! Call! Call now!note 

A phone-in game show is a form of live Game Show where viewers can call in to a special number (normally a 900 Number) and hopefully get a chance to come on air to potentially win something by providing an answer to a question or logic puzzle. It is a logical extension of the concept of a Home Participation Sweepstakes, except in this case, the whole show is one. They were quite popular in Europe as a fixture of late-night television on commercial television channels, and even on dedicated quiz channels that dedicated their lineup to just this genre. If done right, they can at least be fun to watch, and give viewers a temptation to participate.

Despite the allure these programs have to viewers, they're not without controversy. The idea of a phone-in game show is pretty much a trope on its own, because practically every single phone-in quiz show on Earth follows roughly the exact same series of events:

  1. Pose a question to the audience. Usually they were some sort of math or trivia question, but occasionally there were shows that used Family Feud-like survey questions or Match Game "Super Match"-style prompts, with different answers being assigned to different prizes.
  2. Encourage people to phone in for a chance to win a prize by answering said question.
  3. Have the presenters pad things out with cheap talk and encouragement to keep calling in so you don't have to waste your precious airtime actually taking calls. (the Canadian game Brain Battle subverted this by having a studio game too, but it was later dropped — thus making it partly an Artifact Title. The Endemol-created format Puzzle Time (Known in the UK as Brainteaser) also combined phone-in segments with a puzzle-based game show.
  4. Use a premium-rate phone number, so you can scrape money off callers. Offer an online entry form when legally required, but in any case, bury any of this important information in an Unreadable Disclaimer.
  5. Take few calls, or don't take any at all! Hope they don't actually have the winning answers, especially if you made the question ridiculously hard or ridiculously easy.
  6. Wash, rinse, repeat until you run out of airtime.

Some politicians and regulatory organizations have asserted that despite appearing to be a game of skill, these programs are essentially a form of gambling since you need to pay to play (in most cases, serving as the main revenue source), and the odds of even getting on-air (or even getting the answer right for that matter) are quite slim.

In late 2006, these concerns became the conduit for part of series of scandals in Britain surrounding the use of premium-rate lines on television as a whole. It began when complaints surfaced that Quiz Call producers had allegedly told its receptionists to completely ignore calls for a period (where they received 100 to 200 calls at 75p each). Another Channel 4 series with a phone-in segment; Richard & Judy was also effected after a news article on February 18th had revealed allegations that the "You Pay We Say" segment was cheating viewers by inviting them to phone in after the winning contestant had already been chosen, in-which Channel 4 was later fined £150,000 in July. On March 13th, ITV confirmed that they had overcharged callers on The X Factor by £200,000. This eventually led to a massive scandal.

In the same month, Brainteaser went on a sudden axing after it was revealed that Endemol, the show's production company, had faked winners on the show's call-in segments, and Five was fined £300,000. Another Endemol show: Deal or No Deal was also hit on the controversy after its phone line operator was fined £30,000 by ICSTIS because the program gave the impression that the viewers watching could win any one of the three prizes on offer, although the producers of the series knew which prize would be available before the lines had even opened. Channel 4 eventually ditched the phone-in segment on that show as well. Channel 4 themselves were fined £1.5 Million for both Richard and Judy and Deal or No Deal.

Eventually, The scandal also widened to include unethical non-quiz phone-ins. Examples included inviting callers to request dedications on a show which had already been recorded, and ignoring the name which kiddies chose for the Blue Peter dog. ITV's breakfast franchise at the time, GMTV was also fined £2 Million for its phone ins between 2003-2007.

At the first signs of the scandal, the damage had already been done: ITV shut down its all-games digital channel ITV Play and suspended all use of premium-rate lines across its programming, Channel Four sold off its stake in Quiz Call (which folded at the start of 2007, but came back for a time on Five until 2009), and quiz channels became an endangered species in the UK altogether (what remaining quiz shows were left have typically been replaced by casino games, such as ITV's Jackpot24/7).

Similar controversies have occurred elsewhere, though. In Belgium, a comedic consumer watchdog program (who, through a mess of Loophole Abuse, also trolled a local music agency into demanding royalties for fictitious musicians they made up from the names of products they found in their kitchen) actually managed to get one of their own undercover as the host of such a show, obtained information about mathematics puzzles they had been planning to use, and determined that 16% of the "correct" answers they had were completely wrong. Spain had Telesierra, that basically was a huge scam with channel workers acting as callers and giving oddly wrong replies, as well as calls being hold to up to 30 minutes and other similar abuses.

One of the biggest controversies however occurred in The Netherlands in 2008, when a research conducted by the Dutch FIOD-ECD showed that they would be illegal, after which they were banned. A few opponents of the format still bring up why other countries do not follow the same road.

In the United States, the concept was mainly a middling to complete failure, with only Game Show Network's PlayMania actually getting any attention (GSN's earliest originals were in fact these kinds of shows; early on they even had Peter Tomarken as the host!). Attempts by TBS, Fox's television stations and the Tribune stations lasted a few weeks to months. Not helping was the ubiquity of Infomercials and other brokered programming (such as Byron Allen shows) as time filler in dead periods, which only require the painstaking task of queuing them to air after The Late Late Show before you leave for the day, rather than needing to have the staff and budget necessary to put on a live program at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. At the same time, there is a Budapest-based production company, Telemedia InteracTV, which has made their living producing these shows en masse for various broadcasters, including Canada and Ireland most infamously.

A large stigma of pay-per-call numbers in the US going back to the kid-targeted 1-900 lines of the late 80's and early 90's didn't help either. There were phone-in interactive games on 1-900 lines (often based on popular real game shows such as Let's Make a Deal, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, or otherwise endorsed by a Game Show Host of the era), but these were all played with a touch-tone phone and viewers interacting with a computer system, and not an actual TV show. In 1993, what was then The Family Channel built a quartet of game shows around this idea —Trivial Pursuit, Boggle, Shuffle and Jumble — which were all hosted and produced by Wink Martindale, and had "playbreak" segments during commercial breaks, wherein viewers could call in and play along with the questions on-screen. Even then, they did not interact with a live host, and excepting Trivial Pursuit, none of them were very good. The U.S. also had two early examples of the concept: one in Dialing for Dollarsnote  (where it was the producers who called the contestors' homes, and not the other way - thus it could be more accurately called a phone-out game show), a franchise which was at its most popular from the 1950s to the 1970s, way before 1-900 numbers were popular, and can still be seen in few markets,note  and a more traditional one in Stop the Music.

Even with most of the contests using toll-free 1-800 numbers, a credit card was often required as a 'verification' measure which was charged an 'entry fee' unless the entry was made online, and once the state consumer protection agencies (and the possibility of different laws in conflict with each other) got involved, the networks decided the legal pain wasn't worth it to continue further (though the terrible ratings didn't help either). Note that in the United States most contests have 'no purchase necessary' requirements, but as the only way to enter without a purchase was via online or sending a physical postcard to the show, it was likely that a contest show could easily ignore the 'no purchase necessary' entry channels and only focus on phone entries.

To note, there are far too many of these shows to count, so this page will mainly be general to the genre since they're all rather similar.

Okay, you're on the air! Name us a trope relating to this type of show, one of them on the prize board is hiding $5,000!

  • Bonus Round: Some of these shows offered bonus games to win jackpot prizes.
  • Carried by the Hosts: It's a given, since we're often dealing with cheap, late-night entertainment here.
  • Double the Dollars: Sometimes done as an incentive to "double the dialers".
  • Excuse Question: Often, it boils down to this.
  • Let's Just See What WOULD Have Happened: In the case of puzzles having more than one answer.
  • Personnel:
  • Progressive Jackpot
  • Unexpectedly Obscure Answer: Played straight to the Nth degree. Is it any wonder why these shows are targeted by politicians and governments so often? You could probably do a whole page on them, so here are some notable ones:
    • Play TV Canada (which was produced out of Budapest by the aforementioned Telemedia InteracTV) threw several idiotic questions at viewers, as documented in a complaint to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council:
      • The Cats on a Bus puzzle has the hallmarks of a Moon Logic Puzzle: "4 girls are travelling on a bus. Each of them have 3 baskets, in each basket there are 4 cats. Each cat has 3 little kittens. How many legs are in the bus?"note 
      • Here's another one: "4 girls are travelling on a bus. In each hand they hold 4 baskets, in each basket there are 4 cats. Each cat has 3 little kittens. One cat gets away. How many legs are on the bus?"note 
      • Now, let's try a skill-testing question: "9+7-3×0+5-2+4-7+(4+6)×2=?"note 
    • During the British phone-in scandals, one complaint alleged that a show had named "rawlplugs" (a piece of hardware used to anchor a screw into a drywall or plaster wall) and "a balaclava" as items a woman would keep in her handbag.
    • Five's Quiz Call: "White ______" had "White BlackBerry" and "White Russian Dwarf Hamster" as answers.
    • PlayMania once had a top five game show list. Number one was PlayMania.

Oh, time's up! Here's what was behind the money on the TropeBoard!

  • Luck-Based Mission: It feels like one, but we can legally prove that it's not!
  • No Budget: Aside from the prizes themselves, these shows tend to be on the cheap end of the scale, production-wise.
  • One-Episode Wonder: The Debbie King Show, aired by ITV Play, was a cross between a phone-in quiz and a news satire. Hosted by QuizMania's Debbie King, they still decided to go on with the show, even though ITV had announced earlier that day that the Play channel would be "suspended" as part of investigations into their use of premium-rate lines. Neither ITV Play or The Debbie King Show ever returned.
  • Screwed by the Network: The 0898-gate scandals caused just about every single phone-in quiz game in the United Kingdom to be cancelled or put on hiatus.
  • Special Effects Failure: Given that they're often No Budget, this is bound to happen. This incident from TBS' Midnight Money Madness counts as a minor case of Trash the Set as well.
    • And according to YouTube comments, they covered the final answer (Wasting ***brain cells***) back up after the break, but the next caller either wasn't paying attention or didn't see the mishap, giving an incorrect response.
  • Star-Derailing Role: This tends to happen to the presenters on these shows to the point they fall into obscurity.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Swedish show Nightlife had an infamous example in 2007. During one episode, host Eva Nazemson suddenly turned to her side and projectile vomited right in the middle of the show. Not even a minute later, she returned to her position, and continued the show as if nothing happened whatsoever. The next contestant asked her about it, and she cited period pains.

For our next game, we need you to name parodies of these shows!

  • The Scottish comedy Limmy's Show had the recurring sketch "Adventure Call", a phone-in text adventure game hosted by a man named Falconhoof. The callers are erratic (and probably drunk), and things inevitably go wrong.
    • In one episode, Falconhoof doesn't allow a player to get the winged sandals he needed to cross the chasm and get the treasure, because he didn't allow him to finish explaining the options.
    • In another episode, Falconhoof gets a Jester as his new Lovely Assistant, but the caller doesn't like it and wants her dead.
    • Another episode dealt with a You Can't Get Ye Flask problem surrounding a player's attempt to deal with a troll.
  • Touch Me, I'm Karen Taylor had a similar sketch called "Cash Cow". In one episode, the answers to the category "Things you might do" included "Borrow an angle grinder", "See the film Coneheads", and "Oology".
    "I'm legally obliged to point out that calls cost £5 a minute, and that you're not gonna win."
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: "All you have to do is Spot the Loony!"
    • Also the "Stop the Film" segment of Blackmail, where the subject of a compromising film has to call in to stop it before the money with which he's being extorted gets too high.
    Presenter: (to subject on phone) No, sir, we don't morally censure, we just want the money.
  • In the song "Mercedes Benz" by Janis Joplin, one of the things she wants God to buy for her is a color TV, so she could watch the afforementioned Dialing for Dollars whenever they called her in.
  • In a 1988 Garfield comic, Garfield the cat is listening to a radio game show. The question asked is what sound a "felis domesticus" makes. Garfield quickly dials in and meows, getting the question right. However, since he can't actually speak, he is unable to tell the show hosts who he is and where he lives to redeem his prize.
  • The Chaser's War On Everything had a segment on the shows that were running on Australian TV at the time, capturing, among other things, a moment where someone had the right answer to a movie quote question ("The Karate Kid"), only to accidentally call the wrong show.
  • In the Bugs Bunny cartoon "People Are Bunny," Bugs becomes a phone contestant (he's being called in the phone booth in which Daffy has him locked) and answers a difficult multiplication problem in zero time, winning him a jackpot. When the caller asks how he got the answer so fast, Bugs replies "If there's one thing us rabbits can do, it's multiply!"
  • 31 Minutos: A flashback reveals Tulio, Juanín and Bodoque got exiled to the "late-late-late-late-late-late night slot" into a garbage-tier Call-and-Win show. It airs at 5 AM, the production values are garbage, the winning question Trivially Obvious, the outfits humilliating and the call costs absurdly huge, and the underpaid hosts hated every last minute of it to the point the threat of getting thrown back in there serves to keep them in line. Bodoque in particular is absolutely traumatized.

...oh I'm so sorry, the answer we were looking for was "Vest Port", a popular retailer of sweatervests!