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Barker still reigns supreme on CBS’s ‘Price Is Right’

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Bob Barker is the smoothest man on television.

Nothing ruffles this guy. Not the "Price Is Right" contestant whose top popped out of her tube top as she ran down to contestants' row. ("That happened 20 years ago and people are still asking me about it," Barker said.) Not the fact that he's hosted more than 10,000 episodes of game shows over the past 46 years.

Not the 1.5 million people who have sat in the studio audience for tapings in the past three decades. Not the 50,000 who made it to contestants' row. Not the more than $250 million in cash and prizes "Price" has given away.

Not the 10,000 people who showed up for a special 30th-anniversary "Price Is Right" taping in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago vying for 1,500 seats in the audience — or the 35 arrests Vegas police made for disorderly conduct in what became a rather unruly mob.

(The special airs Thursday at 7 p.m. on Ch. 2; the show can be seen regularly on weekdays at 9 a.m. on Ch. 2.)

Not even a room full of TV critics who, caught unawares (and, for many of us, in mid-bite) during a "Price Is Right"-themed lunch on the recently concluded press tour here who greeted Barker's call for questions with deafening silence for a few moments.

Ever unflappable, Barker simply proceeded to ask and answer his own questions.

"People always ask me if the contestants have changed over the years," he said. "They haven't. The contestants have always been dumb. They have been dumb for 46 years."

He was, of course, only kidding. Barker made it clear he loves the contestants on "The Price Is Right."

"They're what makes the show work," he said. "I think they are vastly underrated."

As is, perhaps, Barker himself. He's so good at his job that he makes it look easy. (He deserves every one of the record-breaking 11 Daytime Emmys he has received as outstanding game-show host.) You don't, perhaps, appreciate how good he is until you see someone trying to host a game show who doesn't have the easy charm, the ability to ad lib, the ability to relate to contestants and viewers, the ability to make people laugh.

(Just check out a number of game-show offerings on various cable networks.)

Here is a guy who appeals to an unbelievable range of viewers. My 75-year-old, decidedly non-star-struck mother asked me just last year, "Have you ever met Bob Barker?" And she was disappointed when my answer was negative.

And, after actually getting a chance to meet him, my 10-year-old, decidedly blasé daughter — yet another "Price Is Right" fan — was impressed. "Bob Barker? That's cool," she said.

Which he is. Yes, this is a show grandmothers watch — but it's also a show that's hot on college campuses.

"We have groups from various colleges at just about every taping," Barker said, attributing his popularity among the younger set at least in part to his appearance in the 1996 Adam Sandler comedy "Happy Gilmore." Barker appears in the film's most memorable scene, in which he beats Sandler to a pulp.

(At 78, Barker is more than twice Sandler's age, but he said he figured he could take him in real life. "Adam Sandler couldn't beat up Pat Sajak," Barker joked.)

Barker's longevity on television — he recently completed his 45th consecutive year, which includes 18 seasons as host of "Truth or Consequences" — is as amazing as the longevity of "The Price Is Right." Originally a prime-time program hosted by the late Bill Cullen from 1957-64 (on NBC and ABC), it was revived as a daytime half hour on Sept. 4, 1972, on CBS. At the time, it was one of a dozen game shows on network daytime schedules; today, it's the sole survivor.

(With the exception of "Price," game shows have moved to syndication and cable.)

Barker attributes the show's continuing popularity to a strong format that has plenty of room for change. He said that back in 1972, "Price" included a mere seven pricing games. Today, it has more than 70 — and new games are being rotated in on a regular basis.

"Other than that, the only thing that has changed about the show is the color of my hair," said Barker, who made news a few years ago when he stopped dying his.

He's happy and comfortable as the host of the show, and he has no plans to leave anytime soon. (He's in the midst of a longterm contract.)

What Barker would never want to be, however, is a "Price Is Right" contestant — he said he'd be "terrible."

"I don't know the price of anything," he joked.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com