How I won $2500 on The Price Is Right and never got the money.
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I pull myself out of bed at 4am on the morning of October 2, 2007 with a ticket to see the Drew Carey version of The Price As Right and no serious aspirations of hitting any jackpots. I am more curious in seeing how Drew performs as a host in the long shadow of Bob Barker.
After a light breakfast, I fly down the I-10 towards CBS Television City, with semis tailgating me and white knuckles on the steering wheel. This is L.A. You drive 80 miles per hour bumper to bumper. Google Maps estimates a 45-minute drive from my parents' home in Upland to the studio at Beverly and Fairfax in Los Angeles.
5:30am. I arrive outside the studio gate, tucking myself into a parking space on the street opposite the growing line of eager contestants outside TV City. I know from two previous trips here you have to arrive early to assure yourself a seat. But today's line isn't long -- only about 40 people, who cheer as I approach them waving my ticket in my hand. I have no fears of getting in. A lady next to me says CBS actually brought in paid seat-fillers for some shows.
"How much do you make at that kind of job?" I ask.
"Seven dollars an hour," she says. It's chicken feed, but how many jobs pay you for sitting around?
6am. Another cheer erupts. The beloved CBS pages in their maroon suits open the gates and start passing out Order Of Arrival slips. I get number 41. With it in my hand, it's time to move the car.
No way am I paying 20 bucks to park at The Grove shopping center next door. The friendly lady next to me has tipped me off to a five-dollar lot up the street on Fairfax. I think I've found it next to Canter's Deli, but nobody's in the attendant booth. I wait 30 minutes in this lot after driving around and around, trying to score a possible free spot on a side street. But I can't wait forever. I have to get back to the studio for the next step. I head back down Fairfax and park by a meter, feeding it enough for half an hour.
7:30am. It's time to exchange one number for another number. The crowd sits on metal benches outside TV City as the CBS Pages come around again, taking my Order Of Arrival slip and exchanging it for a priority number, written on my ticket. It's time to move the car again.
8:15am. Back at the lot next to Canter's Deli, the guy gives me a rate of $10 all day. I ask if there's a discount rate for TPIR contestants. No such rate exists. But for $10 versus $20, I'm not going to argue. I'm parked, off and walking back down Fairfax.
9:45am. Once again, I'm back on the benches at TV City, having briefly explored The Grove to the beat of my iPod. I'm not going to zone out on tunes any more this day. I will need all the support and alliances I can muster from my fellow possible contestants on the bench besides me.
The CBS pages start taking us around the corner to begin the contestant processing. The woman next to me has been on the show several times in the last week without getting picked. She would have been on two more times last Thursday if the taping had not been canceled. Drew Carey was ill, I'm told.
People are already warm to Drew even though his first TPIR show has yet to air, as of this day. Some people wear Cleveland Browns jerseys. A group of people don t-shirts with a caricature of Drew on front and "I drew Drew" on the back. Another group's t-shirts say "Move over Barker's Beauties, here come Carey's Cuties!" Another group: "Canada loves Drew!"
10:15am. We're filling out contestant information cards. A CBS page has gone over the rules for eligibility. He says people who are employed by CBS Broadcasting or its subsidiaries are not eligible. He says nothing about CBS affiliates who air the show. I figure I'm eligible, even though I work for a CBS affiliate. The rules on the Internet say nothing about affiliates either.
11:00am. My price-tag name tag is on my shirt. The poor CBS page had to write "Christopher" instead of "Chris" because that's my legal name on my driver's license. It took him three tries to get it right.
11:20am. Stan Blits, producer, walks out to start contestant interviews. He's an instantly likable fellow who loves his job of picking potential winners. Stan interviews contestants in groups of ten with an assistant by his side to take down the numbers underneath our name tags. We will take those numbers off just before taping begins.
I know for sure one guy from Yuma is going to get picked to come on down. He's big, black, and overwhelmingly the crowd favorite. He's celebrating his 40th birthday, and he's got a voice on him like Fat Albert. I want to see him on stage as much as everybody else.
It's my turn before Stan. I'm making sure I'm smiling.
"Christopher, what do you do?" he asks.
"I'm a television news producer in Tucson, Arizona."
"I feel sorry for you," Stan quips.
"Well I'm here now," I respond, still smiling.
"If you're here, who's doing your job then?"
I give him a slightly-stilted, effervescent response: "I have fill-ins and assistants who are taking care of business in my absence!"
I think I nailed it. I'll know for sure pretty soon.
Noon. We're on our last bench of the pre-show ritual, sitting right outside the studio door. Security make me give up my iPod, but I can keep the headphones. Applause and cheers erupt as each group of contestants files over to join us after completing the interviews. Every group walking in means we're that much closer to show time.
You can tell who the seat-fillers are. They're the ones who don't have the numbers under their name tags.
12:45pm. We're in the studio now. I'm in the third row from the front, which gives me a great view of the slightly-improved set. The theme is still 70's retro, with colorful curtains and carpets augmented by new lights and neon stripes on the prize doors. Everything seems brighter or lighter, but one thing hasn't changed: the studio still seems a lot smaller in person than on TV. Four cameras stand at attention on stage -- five if you count the jib camera for sweeping the audience.
Retro music pumps through the PA as the audience files in. The whole crowd gets into "YMCA," including one lady who jumps out of her seat to do the motions. Another woman grooves to "Footloose."
1pm. It's showtime. Announcer Rich Fields comes out and gives a few pointers, reminding us to take the numbers off our name tags, spit out any gum, and give plenty of help to the contestants who get up on stage to play pricing games.
1:05pm. Taping begins and Drew comes out to a standing ovation. He's just like I envision him -- a portly Bill Cullen in a sharp suit. He uses a thin stick microphone just like Bob used to do, only his version is wireless.
The first pricing game is "One Right Price," the odd choice of a starter, since it's fairly simple and has been used in the Bob Barker era to make up time. It becomes obvious very quickly that Drew is not as polished on the game mechanics as Bob was, but his personality makes up for a lot. Our first contestant picks the wrong prize for the one right price, and we're quickly into the first break.
Drew makes great use of the time, opening up to questions and basically doing some stand-up while he visits with Contestants' Row and the audience. The commercial breaks in the studio run at least a couple of minutes longer than they do on the air as the producers stop down tape to give them more time to set up for the next pricing game. A large panel drops in front of the doors to hide the game and prizes yet to come, assuring that the studio and TV audiences see them at the same time.
Game number two is "Half Off." Top prize is $10,000, hidden in one of 16 boxes with the dough. But you can take away half the boxes, then half again, then half once more, leaving only two possible boxes if you correctly identify prizes that are "half off." Our contestant does this perfectly, getting down to two boxes. She also picks up $500 for each correct guess, a change from the Barker version of the show. In the end, she picks the wrong box, yet she's walking away with $1500 and three small prizes.
Our birthday boy from Yuma makes it to Contestants' Row in the third game. He quickly wins his way on stage and gets to play "Temptation," one of the harder pricing games. More than $3000 worth of prizes roll out to him as he constructs the price of a car from the individual prices of the prizes. He elects to go for the car, putting the prizes at risk.
He's wrong on the second number, an unusual mistake. Most contestants miss on the last two numbers. He falls to the floor, humorously milking the heartbreak for the audience, but he'll be right back for the Showcase Showdown. He tries his best, but he can't make it to the showcase.
Game four rolls around after the break. And my moment, the one I doubted I'd ever get, has suddenly arrived.
The words from Rich Fields: "Christopher Francis, come on down!"
I point at myself as the audience cheers.
I run up to Contestants' Row in stupefying disbelief. I'm so beside myself I don't see the model entering with the next item up for bids. I think it's somewhere on the stage. But she's actually in Contestants' Row, standing right next to me with a professional-grade camcorder. Could this be any more perfect for me?
"Christopher, what do you bid for that?"
People behind me are screaming "$800!" But I think I know better.
I hear groans from behind me. Other bids come in under $1000.
Ding ding ding ding! The "perfect bid" bell goes off. I point at myself again, thinking I have to be it. Drew reminds the audience a perfect bidder gets a $500 bonus.
"And the person that gets the $500 bonus is the person that bid $2000!"
More bells. I run up on stage. If things were surreal before, they're in dreamland now as I walk up on the turntable and shake Drew Carey's hand. He hands me $500 in cash right on the spot, which I shove into my pocket.
"Huzzah!" I shout after getting the dough.
"Huzzah! Rejoice everyone, Huzzah!" Drew adds, obviously getting the anachronistic reference.
He directs my attention to one of the giant doors. My prize to play for is this beautiful bed.
"You can put that money on the bed and roll around on it," Drew says as we listen to Rich describe it.
The turntable spins around and I see I am going to play "Push Over." I'm mildly relieved. When I walked up to it, I thought I might have to play "Clock Game," which I can do... but it might not be pretty.
This one isn't easy either. I have no idea what this bed costs, but I know furniture is always expensive on Price. I rely on the audience to guide me as I push a line of numbered blocks through a window to set my guess of a price. I move slowly and carefully. Once a block falls into the bucket, I can't get it back. I watch the audience reaction. They're waving at me to push on. Finally they wave for me to halt. I make a halt sign with my hands to query them, and they respond back with the same. I have a price of four-thousand-something.
Drew flips down a panel to reveal the price, and alas, it's something in the two-thousand dollar range.
"Man, we just can't give anything away today," he says. There's still the big wheel and the showcase, I think.
Producer Roger Dobkowitz shakes my hand as he leads me over to the side of the stage and asks for the cash.
"We'll send you a check," he says about the $500 bonus. "We use this money over and over."
I understand completely and dig the money out of my pocket. He guides me over to a row of seats for contestants who play pricing games, and another production assistant gives me some paperwork to sign.
This is where I notice the clause on the first page, which states you affirm you are not employed by CBS, "or affiliates, or any television station that broadcasts the program."
Now, again, when I read the rules on the Internet, and when the CBS page announced the rules, nothing was ever said about affiliates. Still, I point out the potential conflict to the PA.
"We'll check on it," she says.
Meanwhile, I anticipate the big wheel. I get to spin second.
"And you're a television news producer from?" Drew asks just before we take turns spinning.
"Tucson, Arizona," I say. A few "ooohs" rise from the crowd.
"I wish you many fires," Drew cracks.
(This program was taped before the destructive Southern California wildfires. Producers later edited the wisecrack out.)
The big wheel, by the way, is just about as heavy as I expect: heavy enough to require some exertion and both hands, but light enough for me to get it all the way around.
"Do you want to say hello to anybody?" Drew asks.
I'd thought about this moment before, and I'm ready: "Hello to my Mom and Dad, to everybody in Phoenix with We Make History, and everybody in Tucson. Huzzah!"
Short and simple. And I would need to spin again, only getting 50 cents the first time -- not enough to beat the leader. I give it another pull with a grunt.
"Heavy isn't it?" Drew says.
This time, of all the times not to get a dollar, I get one here. "Not now," I cry. But it lands there. Sorry and thanks for playing. One more handshake from Drew and my TV face time is up. No showcase for me.
During the next commercial break, Drew comes up to me again and says he was just kidding about the "many fires" remark.
"Oh, that's all right -- we have a lot of wildfires in Arizona."
"Yeah, you do!" he said, agreeing.
His kindness stuns me. He just apologized for a joke that was obviously a joke, when he didn't need to. He shows that affection constantly. And if people at home plug into that, this new version of TPIR is going to run a long time.
After the taping is over, everybody who won something meets with one of the CBS people to pick up and sign more paperwork. Again I tell the lady about the possible conflict and how I didn't see a problem beforehand.
"I know why that rule is there," I say. "I don't work for any promotion connected with the show. I work in the newsroom."
I leave them my phone number in California and they say they would call me before the end of the week.
I walk out of the Bob Barker Studio with my paperwork in hand and a few more congratulatory audience members greeting me. I chat with them outside the gate on the experience -- especially nailing that $2000 camera. The production staffer says they're going to give me $2000 in place of the camera, which they have the right to do. Some of the prizes are bought by the show and not provided, meaning they probably need them to use again as props.
Now I need lunch. A guy stands on the corner of Beverly and Fairfax with a Subway sign in his hand -- and coupons. That's where I feast -- on ham and swiss, celebrating a $2500 win and an experience I'll never forget. Huzzah!
I enjoy it while I can. Two days later, my winnings would evaporate just as suddenly as they accumulated.
A man with CBS Promotion calls, and after asking a question or two about my job and what station I worked for, he says he can't award me the money.
Like with the other CBS production people, I tell him that I didn't see anything in the rules online or in the CBS page's spiel barring eligibility for being employed by an affiliate, even though it was in the document I signed. He said he needs to have the website fixed to clarify that, and the CBS page should have made things clear too. I can tell he regrets it, but still, he can't bend the rules.
He says this isn't the first time something like this has happened. He says a person who worked for Simon & Schuster was disqualified in the same manner because, in the octopus tentacles of media ownership, the book company is a unit of Viacom (which at one time was connected to CBS). He also says the spiel given by the pages will be clarified to include the fact that those employed by CBS affiliates are ineligible. The CBS TPIR web page has been updated to reflect this.
I ask what would have happened if I had not said anything about it and gotten caught. He tells me there would have been "affiliate consequences," but doesn't elaborate. I later tell my assistant news director that I had no choice to be honest, and I ask what would have happened if I had concealed my employment. He says "misdirection" would be bad, but we don't get into specifics. I can see CBS taking action against KOLD in the form of fines or some other sanction. And anything that would embarrass the station or cause trouble with the affiliation agreement would be a firing offense, not to mention the bad publicity the whole scandal would generate.
My assistant boss shares my disappointment. "I'd been spreading this like wildfire," he says, talking about the news of my win. Now he's going to have to break it to everybody else.
What weighs on me is how my honesty didn't mean very much to the CBS brass. True, it kept me, CBS, and KOLD out of trouble. But there will be no consolation prize other than my time on TV and the memories they can't take away. I can't even donate the money to charity. It's gone to the Twilight Zone.
I understand why CBS is so strict on the rules. After the 50's quiz show scandals, rigging a game show became a federal offense. CBS aired two of the most notorious offenders: Dotto and The $64,000 Question. And I imagine they are still smarting from paying Michael Larson more than $110,000 after he beat the board on Press Your Luck. But in Larson's case, he admitted he found a flaw in the game without any help from inside and still got the cash.
My father fumes when he hears me explain all this. He wants me to write a letter to CBS about it. He thinks I should have kept my mouth shut, and I can't blame him. All his life he has conducted himself and his business in an ethical and honest manner, and several times, in several different jobs, others have taken advantage of him, lied about him, and used him. Seeing his son deprived by a huge corporate albatross -- especially in the face of fair play -- draws his wrath. My mother saw it coming: "I was afraid they would find a way to [mess with] you."
This is the kind of thing that tests the depth of my faith. I gave thanks to God for my newly won wealth after the taping while I sat in Subway for the post-game feast. Many wonderful things have happened to me in the past year or so, and I am convinced God is watching over me and demonstrating His love. I have seen many Miracle Moments. But I must also accept some rewards are in Heaven, not on Earth. I pray now for contentment, for serenity, for the wisdom not to mourn money I never really lost. Suing isn't worth it, but if I gather if I had won a car, the sting would throb harder.
(A disclaimer was added to the end of the show. Rich Fields said over the credits, "The fourth contestant on stage was found to be ineligible and will not receive his prizes.")
My episode aired Wednesday, November 28. Some clips are in this post.