Sale of the Century

“America’s biggest bargain Sale”

The ’80s version of Sale of the Century debuted on NBC on January 3, 1983, and aired weekdays until March 24, 1989. A concurrent syndicated version was offered to local stations during the 1985-86 season. (Reruns from both version aired on the USA Cable Network in the early ’90s.) The host was Jim Perry, a familiar face on NBC thanks to a 3 1/2 year run hosting Card Sharks, although his most successful stint was a twenty-year run on the Canadian game Definition. Jim was a perfect fit for Sale, combining no-nonsense, fast-paced questioning with skillfull salesmanship (often convincing players to buy instant bargains they otherwise wouldn’t have given a thought to).

A series of three co-hosts served with Jim over the years. First up was dizzy actress Sally Julian (above left), whose obvious struggles with cue cards, squeaky voice and unnatural delivery led to her being replaced after a mere two months. Next up was popular and glib Lee Menning (above center), the former dealer on Las Vegas Gambit. Lee left the show in 1984 to raise a family (although she would return to TV on Your Number’s Up the following year). Former Miss USA Summer Bartholomew (above right) took over for Lee and, after a self-described rough start, settled nicely into her role, staying with the show until its 1989 finale. Jay Stewart was the original announcer, replaced by Don Morrow in ’88.

Each day, three contestants – one a returning champ, unless a winner retired on the previous episode – were each spotted with $20. Jim then began reading a series of fairly easy buzz-in questions; the first to jump-in earned $5 for a correct answer or lost $5 for an incorrect one. The gameplay was interrupted six times through the show – roughly every six questions – for three “Instant Bargains” and three “Fame Games,” in alternating order.

“Instant Bargains” were merchandise prizes, offered to the contestant at a massive discount – usually $5-7 for the first, $9-12 for the second, and $15-18 for the third. The contestant in the lead was offered the chance to “buy” that prize by subtracting its price from their score. Usually Jim would try to sweeten the offer by throwing a few hundred dollars in cash and/or lowering the price by a buck or two. If two or all three players were tied for the lead, the discounts would go even deeper – sometimes down to a dollar. Also in the back of players’ minds, starting in 1985, was the “Sale Surprise,” an additional cash bonus that would occasionally be tied to a Bargain – but only announced after the item was bought or passed up for good.

Somewhere around 1986, the third Instant Bargain was replaced with “Instant Ca$h.” The player in the lead was offered the chance to select one of three boxes, two of which contained $100 bills, the other holding a cash prize that started at $1,000 and increased that much each day it was not won. The cost to try for it, though, was the contestant’s full lead over the 2nd-place player – so dominating players usually passed. As a result, the jackpot was frequently well over $5K, and on a few instances climbed above $15,000! (if there was a tie for the lead, Jim would lead another auction, dropping the price as low as one dollar.)

The “Fame Game” centered around a very long series of clues read by Jim to the identity of a famous person, place, or thing. Players could buzz in at any time and guess without a scoring penalty; if wrong, the game continued for the remaining players. A right answer earned a player the right to select from the Fame Game board. In the series’ early days, the board consisted of nine celebrity photos; behind eight were prizes that the contestant kept, win or lose, while the ninth hid a $25 money card – which was added to the player’s score.

About a year into the show’s run, the famous faces were replaced with the numbers 1-9. Soon after, $10 and $15 money cards were added to the mix, with one being added to the board in every round. (A $5 card was also seen occasionally.) Cash prizes of $500 – $1000 also began appearing, along with spaces offering the choice of cash or a second pick. Sometimes, it was even “Mystery Money or Pick Again,” which concealed prizes as high as $1500 or as low as $1.75. Around ’86, rather than choosing their number, the board became randomized a la Press Your Luck, with the player stopping the light with their buzzer. The money cards were revealed before the spin, to heighten the dramatic effect.

Starting in ’84, a 60-second speed round ended the game, and the highest scorer was named the day’s champion. (The speed round replaced an often-anticlimactic set of three questions.) Losing players received their score in cash, along with any prizes they may have picked up alon the way, while the winner proceeded to the show’s final act, which had three completely different formats over the show’s six years.

The first “endgame” of the ’80s Sale closely resembled that of the ’70s version. The winner’s front game winnings were available for him/her to use shopping in the show’s lavish prize gallery. The first available prize, usually in the neighborhood of $3500 in value, was offered up for purchase at a price of $55-$85. (if the player hadn’t scored enough to buy the first prize on their first win, a further discount was taken). The player could buy that prize and walk away from the show, or return to play again, hoping to win enough money to buy progressively better prizes – say, a home entertainment center for $235, a $10,000 trip for $450, a luxury automobile for $550, every prize on the stage for $635, and ultimately, every prize *plus* a growing cash jackpot (which started at $50,000 and went up $1,000 every episode until it was won) for $720. (These amounts are rough examples, as the actual amounts were adjusted frequently through the show’s run.) A player lucky enough to go all the way could leave the show with well over $100,000 in cash and prizes.

In late 1985, shopping was replaced with the “Winner’s Board.” The champion faced a 20-number board and chose squares one at a time, looking to match two squares with the same prize and win that prize. The board concealed six prizes worth between $2500 and $15,000, the luxury car, $3000 cash, $10,000 cash, and two “WIN!” cards, which when revealed gave the contestant the next prize they chose automatically.

Players kept returning until they cleared everything off the board, then faced one of the toughest decisions in game shows: quit and take it all home, or return for one more game. if they returned and lost, they forfeited every prize they collected off the Winner’s Board; if they won, they kept it all, plus $50,000 in cash.

Finally, in 1987, the end game strayed completely from the show’s format by introducing the “Winner’s Big Money Game.” The day’s winner (who automatically received a prize valued between $2,000 and $3,500) then faced a series of six-word clues – revealed one word at a time – to famous people, places or things. Solving four in 20 seconds (originally 5 in 25 seconds) won the player $5000 cash on their first attempt, $6000 for their second, and so on up to $10,000 on their sixth. The seventh day, they played for the car; on the eighth, for $50,000 in cash.

The Original Series The original Sale of the Century debuted on NBC’s daytime schedule on September 29, 1969. The show was a Jones-Howard Production (The Howard in question was Al, who was also responsible for Supermarket Sweep.) Hosted by Jack Kelly until 1971, then by Joe Garagiola until the series’ end, it played virtually the same as the ’80s Grundy versions, except for the lack of a “Fame Game” and the questions increasing in value from $5 to $10 and finally $15.

In 1973, the show changed its format to allow for two couples to compete in lieu of three solo players. Also at that time, the $15 round was replaced with the “Century Round”, consisting of five questions worth $20 each. This format remained in place until the NBC daytime version left the air on July 13, 1973. It is assumed that the couples rules were also used during a short-lived syndicated weekly version during the ’73-’74 season.

As of this writing, no episodes of the original Sale have been seen since their original airings. Like many shows of the ’60s and ’70s, the tapes appear to have been reused , lost or otherwise disposed of. This doesn’t mean they’ll never turn up, though – just that it’s very unlikely.

World-wide Sale

UK: From Norwich…it’s the Quiz of the Week!

The worldwide Sale phenomenon starts in Great Britain, when Anglia Productions bought the rights to launch the series on ITV. Hosted by Nicholas Parsons, the show ran once a week from 1971 until 1983 and was Britain’s most popular quiz for many of those years. Of note in this version was that any contestant could buy an Instant Bargain, regardless of their score. A remake appeared in 1989 on ITV, produced by London Weekend Television and following the Grundy format (Fame Games and all), hosted by Peter Marshall (the British one, not the American one). A second remake, hosted by Keith Chegwin, debuted on Challenge TV, Britain’s all game-show channel, in 1998 and it continued into the 2000s. The new show reinstated the ’70s UK format.

Australia: The world’s richest quiz!

Australian TV mogul Reg Grundy was very fond of the Sale format, and tried to obtain the rights to air an Aussie version almost immediately. While he didn’t gain full format rights until the mid-’70s, he was able to launch a very similar show (my Aussie friends have since given me the greenlight to call this a “total ripoff”) called Temptation on the Seven Network in 1971. It lasted until 1976, also spawning a nighttime version called The Great Temptation. Tony Barber emceed both, and Barber would return when Grundy finally obtained the rights to produce his own bona fide Sale of the Century. The show debuted in 1980 on the Nine Network and aired every weeknight for twenty-one years. Barber was with the show until 1990, when Glen Ridge took over. A major format overhaul took place in 2000, when the show became Sale of the New Century and featured four contestants per night in an elimination format. Sale reverted to its regular name and three-contestant format in 2001, its final year. Sale was reported to be returning to Nine in 2003 with John Burgess – former host of Wheel of Fortune – at the podium, but that didn’t come about. However, in a surprising turn, Nine announced it was bringing the show back on 30 May 2005, as Temptation: the New Sale of the Century. Ed Phillips, formerly of Ten’s Good Morning Australia, will host.

Grundy parlayed Sale’s down-under success into a worldwide industry, producing versions of the show in over a dozen countries, including Germany, New Zealand, the U.K. and of course the U.S. – becoming the first overseas producer of an American game show format (Grundy also gave NBC the highly-successful Scrabble from 1984-89 and again in ’93, as well as Hot Streak, a 1985 star vehicle for legendary British emcee Bruce Forsyth). The Grundy corporation soon gained worldwide rights to a number of Goodson-Todman formats, including Family Feud, Match Game and The Price is Right. the company is now part of FremantleMedia, the worldwide media conglomerate most known for the Pop Idol worldwide phenomenon.