Cathode Ray Mission: LINGO (1987-88)

CanTV expert Cameron Archer navigates the often inhospitable landscape of Canadian television for the CATHODE RAY MISSION, our regular blog column that highlights some of Canadian television’s most offbeat offerings.

LINGO(Global/syndicated, 1987-88) is, at first glance, a footnote in the history of Canadian game shows that featured a format later became successful elsewhere. While not as fondly remembered as BUMPER STUMPERS (Global/USA Network, 1987-90), or THE NEW CHAIN REACTION (Global/USA Network, 1986-91), however, the show’s initial run serves as a warning to both American production companies and Canadian game shows.

One might think LINGO is just five letters and bingo. If it was, I wouldn’t make a Canuxploitation article out of it. 

The Basic (B-A-S-I-C) Formula

I refer to Wikipedia and Chuck Donegan’s Illustrious Game Show Page for full LINGO details. In essence, LINGO is bingo, with five-letter words forming the crux of the game. It’s a show best explained by actually watching an episode.

Michael Reagan, the adopted son of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, hosted for the majority of LINGO‘s run. Reagan lasted from September 28, 1987 to February 21, 1988. Officially, Reagan left to promote his book, ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN. In reality, Reagan had a contract dispute with Ralph Andrews Productions, prompting Ralph Andrews to take over hosting duties for LINGO‘s final five weeks.

On-camera announcer Dusty Martell left with Reagan. Margaux MacKenzie became the new announcer, until LINGO dropped out of first run.

The Backgrounder

LINGO was one of many 1980s game shows filmed in Canada, but meant for an American audience. This list includes BUMPER STUMPERS, THE NEW CHAIN REACTION, JACKPOT, the 1980-81 LET’S MAKE A DEAL, PITFALL (syndicated, 1981-82), THE NEW LIAR’S CLUB (Global/syndicated, 1988-89), LOVE ME, LOVE ME NOT (Global/USA Network, 1986-87), THE LAST WORD (Global/syndicated, 1989-90), SUPER PAY CARDS! (CTV/syndicated, 1981-82; CTV, 1973-75 as PAY CARDS!), and SPLIT SECOND (syndicated, 1986-87).

For a game based on five-letter words and bingo, LINGO works well on television, and has many revivals and international versions to its credit. America is most familiar with GSN’s 2002-07 and 2011- versions. LINGO is big in The Netherlands — its version began in 1989, and continues to this day. Quebec’s version, hosted by Paul Houde, aired on Radio-Canada from 1998-2001.

The 1987-88 LINGO promised decent prize money for a Canadian game show — up to $112,000 — and the set looked nice and big, in the manner of 1980s game shows. Compared to efforts like BUMPER STUMPERS, JACKPOT (Global/USA Network, 1985-88), and THE NEW CHAIN REACTION, LINGO was a rarity — a Canadian game show with a solid concept, and decent prize money.

Co-hosts/announcers Dutch Martell and Margaux MacKenzie were eye candy, meant to satisfy Canadian content regulations. This was a quirk of Canadian game shows — if the host wasn’t Canadian, a co-host was tacked on, and given camera time. Martell and MacKenzie weren’t terrible at their jobs, but it’s not like they had much to do beyond sponsor plugs.

Let’s Watch (W-A-T-C-H)

A clip from the first episode. It’s the first trip to the bonus round, or “No Lingo Round.” Since this is the first episode, the rules are explained in detail. Reagan isn’t a bad host, while Martell’s delivery is stilted. The board and the words are generated by a Commodore Amiga.

The second clip, near the beginning of the 65th episode. A team tries for $16,000 in the No Lingo Round. The 65th episode is where many North American affiliates jumped off the LINGO train.

British Columbia’s BCTV filmed LINGO from its Burnaby studios. Despite BCTV’s affiliation with CTV, LINGO was syndicated throughout North America.

Cultural Legacy

The 1987-88 LINGO is one of the few game shows in North America that didn’t pay many of its contestants’ winnings. Other shows that claim this “distinction”  include Catalena Productions’ PITFALL, ABR Entertainment’s YAHTZEE (syndicated, 1988), and TIL Productions’ THE REEL TO REEL PICTURE SHOW (PAX, 1998.) As mentioned, Reagan left due to a salary dispute.

ABR Entertainment was a minor player during its brief existence. It distributed THE ALL NEW CROSS-WITS (syndicated, 1986-87), LINGO and YAHTZEE. ABR Entertainment was the 1980s/1990s distributor for YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS (ABC, December 6, 1974), and the American distributor for the 1987 Australian animated film, TREASURE ISLAND. ABR Entertainment, not surprisingly, dropped off the radar after YAHTZEE.

What truly sunk LINGO was a lawsuit between Ralph Andrews Productions, and Bernstein-Hovis Productions. Bernstein-Hovis Productions allegedly stole ANYTHING FOR MONEY‘s (syndicated, 1984-85) format from Andrews, and sold it to Paramount Pictures Corporation. Ralph Andrews Productions had an exclusive agreement with Columbia Pictures Television from 1980 to 1986, which gave Columbia rights to first refusal of any Andrews-related project.

After ANYTHING FOR MONEY was rejected by Columbia, Bernstein-Hovis Productions sold the show to Paramount, allegedly selling it as a Bernstein-Hovis property. The ensuing acrimony between Andrews, Bernstein and Hovis extended until at least 1990, even though both Ralph Andrews Productions and Bernstein-Hovis Productions produced LINGO and YAHTZEE. Low American syndicated clearances for YAHTZEE and LINGO killed both shows, after a single season.

Current Whereabouts

No IMDb credits for Ralph Andrews Productions, Bernstein-Hovis Productions or ABR Entertainment list anything after LINGO and YAHTZEE. Andrews moved to The Netherlands, where he set up IDRA Global Entertainment, B.V., in partnership with Dutch production company IDTV. Ralph Andrews’ name appears as a story producer for MY GHOST STORY (Biography Channel, 2010- ), 22 years after his YAHTZEE credit.

Larry Hovis was best known as Sergeant Andrew Carter on HOGAN’S HEROES (CBS, 1965-71), and Private Larry Gotschalk on the first season of GOMER PYLE, U.S.M.C. (CBS, 1964-69). After LINGO, Gary Bernstein and Larry Hovis produced TOTALLY HIDDEN VIDEO (Fox, 1989-92). Hovis was fired midway through TOTALLY HIDDEN VIDEO‘s first season, for faking his “hidden camera” segments. Hovis died in 2003.

As for the others, Michael Reagan became a conservative talk show radio host, and is now a conservative pundit. Dusty Martell’s only IMDb credit is LINGO. Margaux MacKenzie became a set decorator for such films as SEVERED (2005), LIES LIKE TRUTH (2004), Bob Clark’s THE KARATE DOG (2004), and TRACKS OF A KILLER (1996).

The Final (F-I-N-A-L) Cut

When Game Show Network revived LINGO in 2002, its first season was shot on the same set as the Netherlands’ version. With game show veteran Chuck Woolery at the helm, LINGO became one of GSN’s highest-rated original series, and lasted five seasons. The 2011 revival features comedian Bill Engvall, and a modified format.

LINGO was one of Canada’s more underrated game shows. Unfortunately, shows like DEFINITION (CTV, 1974-89), ACTING CRAZY (Global, 1991-92, 1994) and SUPERMARKET SWEEP (Global, 1992-95) are the norm for Canadian game shows – low-level entries, with cheap prizes. Few Canadian game shows even promise a $10,000 grand prize, never mind the $112,000 a team could theoretically win on LINGO.

While LINGO‘s grand prizes were too rich for Canadian television’s tastes, LINGO was caught in the crossfire between two acrimonious Hollywood production companies. LINGO eventually proved itself, both overseas and on GSN. LINGO will no doubt be revived in the future, but likely not in Canada. Then again, Canada now has its own MATCH GAME, so weirder blanks have happened.