1913 - 2005
Few television producers have had the long and successful career of Ralph Edwards, Even at 92, Edwards was still busy with the current edition of “The People’s Court”–a revamp of the syndicated show that first aired in 1981. Ralph Edwards was in many ways the great-grandfather of today’s reality genre, specializing in programs that used real people as entertainment. Many of today’s reality TV producers should tip a hat to this pioneer.
The Colorado-born Edwards moved to California with his family at the age of 12, and worked in radio stations while still in high school. He became a CBS staff announcer in 1936. Four years later, he launched the audience participation show “Truth or Consequences” on the NBC radio network. As host, Edwards asked studio audience members a question; if they answered wrong they had to pay the “consequences”–by taking part in a studio stunt. Yet at the same time, “Truth or Consequences” did good work for charities and groups during World War Two by raising money for the war effort and for various causes. After failing with several different hosts, the show made a successful transition to television in 1956 when a young announcer named Bob Barker was tapped to host the video version; it ran until 1971 on both NBC and in syndication. The idea of an entertainment show doing good deeds set “Truth or Consequences” apart from other programs. It was so successful, the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico changed its name to Truth Or Consequences in 1950!
Edwards’ biggest hit came with the debut of “This Is Your Life.” Originally a radio show, the programme became a smash when it began airing on NBC television in October 1952. As host, Edwards would surprise an individual who just happened to be near the studio, and told him or her “So and so, this is your life!” The subject would then be escorted into the studio, where Edwards told his or life story, complete with reunions from long-lost friends and family members. While average individuals were profiled, it was the celebrity versions that remain familiar to Americans who watched. Most were overjoyed; a few (such as the celebrated journalist Lowell Thomas) were visibly dismayed. But then, that was live television. Edwards would have filmed versions ready to go in case the subject of the night was not cooperative. A few people were told beforehand they would be profiled; one of those was the singer Lillian Roth, because of her successful bout against alcoholism. Roth’s show proved to be so popular, it was rebroadcast and recreated for the 1955 film “I’ll Cry Tomorrow.”
Edwards himself was never profiled on “This Is Your Life.” That was by design; he warned his staff that everyone would be fired if they made him the subject. And he meant it. Despite that, “This Is Your Life” ran until 1961 and was briefly brought back several times in syndication.
Edwards kept busy in later years producing other programmes, including such game shows as “Name That Tune,” “It Could Be You” and “Cross-Wits,” along with “The People’s Court.” Another Edwards innovation came in 1950 and lives on today: When “Truth or Consequences” made the move to television, Edwards shot the game show live on film with multiple cameras before a live studio audience. That system–with some modifications–was used a year later by Desi Arnaz for the now-legendary “I Love Lucy;” the multi-camera/live audience format is still used by sitcoms to this day.
Ralph Edwards succeeded by showcasing the average person and making him or her the star. He realized John and Mary Doe had interesting personalities and good stories to tell. That was the secret of his success–and for better or worse, the basis of reality television today. Ralph Edwards died November 16th, 2005 at his West Hollywood, California home.
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