Dialing for Dollars was a franchised format local television program in the United States and Canada, popular in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
These two ads show the Dialing for Dollars format in 1972-73 on two sister stations, KXMB-TV in Bismarck/Mandan, N.D. and KXMC-TV in Minot, N.D. They illustrate how local stations used their own talent and set design to create a Dialing for Dollars series.
The program’s usual format had the host, a local television personality, announce a certain password to the audience at the beginning of the program (on most stations, “the count and the amount”). He would then randomly select a phone number to call from a bowl or drum, either from those that had been previously submitted by viewers, or by scraps of paper cut from residential telephone directories. Viewers watching the show would know that they were being called, answer the phone with the correct password, and would win a monetary prize. If the viewer did not respond correctly or failed to answer the call altogether, the prize money would continue to increase.
“The count” consisted of a number (1 through 9) and direction (up/down or top/bottom), randomly selected at the beginning of the show, that served to determine which number would be called. Slips were cut from pages of the viewing area’s telephone book(s), each containing several numbers; at each playing, one slip was drawn and the appropriate number was selected. If the count was “6 Down,” for example, the sixth number down from the top of the slip was called. “The amount” was the value of the cash prize at stake.
Dialing for Dollars originated as a radio program in 1939 on WCBM in Baltimore, Maryland, hosted by Homer Todd. With the rapid development of commercial television broadcasting in the U.S. in the late 1940s and 1950s, the format switched to television and was franchised nationally as a popular, low-budget way to fill local market airtime, especially in the late mornings.
On some stations (such as KTVU hosted by Pat McCormick, who also did voices for the Charley & Humphry puppets during a local cartoon show), the Dialing for Dollars format would be used during the local telecasting of a morning or afternoon movie. The film would be interrupted by a dialing for dollars segment every so often, rather than going to a commercial break, after which the program either went to a commercial or directly back to the film. On others, such as WKBW’s version, the show was a full one-hour variety show complete with studio audience and mini-games.
By the mid-1970s, the popularity faded for the Dialing for Dollars format, as competition developed from daytime talk shows, and more sophisticated game shows were syndicated. Another factor in the show’s decline was the trend of fewer households having stay-at-home members available to answer the phone during the day. Dialing for Dollars left the Baltimore airwaves in 1977 (although it is still seen in a few markets), after giving away $800,000 locally in its 38-year run there on radio and television.
Broadway producer Lee Guber attempted to resurrect the concept on a national basis in 1987, meeting with Canadian broadcaster Peter Emmerson with regards to hosting what would have emanated from the former GFG Productions facilities in Brooklyn. The project was never completed due to Guber’s illness which was diagnosed soon after; he died of a brain tumor on March 27, 1988.
The program has also been satirized on Second City TV.
Live! with Kelly and Michael carries on the tradition with its daily Travel Trivia contest, and a few local shows directly trace their lineage to Dialing for Dollars (an example is AM Buffalo).