There’s a great piece of sleuthing and historical recreation over at The Videogame History Foundation, where Kate Willaert chronicles her attempt to track down the first video game commercial.
She offers tons of interesting tidbits in her article, but I found one artifact especially curious. It’s a clip from 1972 TV gameshow What’s My Line?, in which the Magnavox Odyssey makes an appearance. This episode of the long-running show ran on Oct. 16, 1972. We don’t know exactly when Odyssey launched, except that it was in the second half of 1972.
Given that Odyssey was the first commercial games console, this must be one of the first video game appearances on TV. We know that actual Odyssey commercials ran in early 1973, but they may have run earlier.
In What’s My Line?, panelists would guess the interesting secret of a contestant. In this case, Bob Fritsche is a sales exec for Magnavox. He’s playing a tennis game on Odyssey, on a TV screen that the panelists cannot see.
As Willaert points out, the panelists had no knowledge of video games (that name was not even in use at the time) and so their efforts are pretty valiant. “Are you altering the picture?” asks Melba Tolliver, a famous journalist at the time.
“You’re doing something sassy.” says Arlene Francis, an actor, well-known to 1970s TV audiences. “You’re reproducing something on that television screen.” The other panelists, actor Jim Backus and comedian Soupy Sales, were wide of the mark.
Host Larry Blyden finally reveals that he and Fritsche have been “playing tennis, and it’s more fun than anything I’ve done all day.” An assistant gamely drags the TV set into a position where the panel can see the screen. Fritsche gives a quick pitch for the “electronic game simulator.”
Presumably, the console’s appearance was based on some financial arrangement between broadcaster CBS and Magnavox. Perhaps it came as part of an ad buy. It’s certainly the earliest TV appearance of a video game that I’ve seen.
The clip ends with Blyden saying it’s “the most extraordinary thing,” and asking how you “tune it in.”
Head over to The Videogame History Foundation for more on Magnavox Odyssey’s early commercial life, including a rare video game connection with Frank Sinatra.