Mel's Diner: Rich Cronin
February 9, 2007 2:33 AM
Who: Rich Cronin, president-CEO, GSN
When: Feb. 6, 2007, dinner
Where: Chez Jay, Santa Monica
Dined on: I’m just glad we didn’t get tossed out on my first trip to Chez Jay. I always wanted to eat there and hoped to have the full experience.
Of course, in my first five minutes there I had to get busy pushing the limits of the joint.
I started our dinner by busting an almost five-decade-old house rule: no cameras.
Owner Jay Fiondella created the celeb-friendly atmosphere by long keeping to a policy of no talking to the tabs and no pictures, so says the excerpt from a book about the restaurant Rich brought along.
So the photos I took of Rich there must be pretty rare, right? Welcome to Mel’s Diner, ladies and gents—the new gonzo journalism. I snapped Rich with the crudite, as well as Rich with his swordfish with béarnaise sauce (he called it mercury sauce). Probably lucky for us, my camera battery died before anyone with authority caught on to my Kodak.
As highly as Rich recommended the mercury-of-the-day, I went with chicken marsala. Dennis Johnson from GSN’s corporate communications department, who arranged dinner, had New York steak.
The more we talked about how mercury gets into fish the more I realized this very well may be how Rich gets his competitive edge.
Sure, a lot of mercury will make you crazy or kill you. Maybe it’s the dashes at the dinner table that juice the bright ideas. Yes, yes. That’s why Rich is president-CEO and I … digress.
Rich and Dennis and I dished for a couple of hours. We topped off the meal with two great desserts, blueberry cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake.
Rich, a longtime Westsider, loves Chez Jay. He has been here dozens of times, knows lots of Chez Jay trivia and once held an ad sales meeting in the back room meant for 12 people. (GSN brought a raucous 25.)
Chez Jay is good and dark, with décor anchored by red booths that’s got to be the same as it ever was. I get why the small room caters easily to the clientele it’s become known for—both a casual local crowd as well as the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Madonna, and formerly Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum and Judy Garland.
We left the place and found the fog off the Pacific had thickened, completely salting my car and shrouding Chez Jay’s blue neon sign on Ocean Avenue. The whole effect made the famed celebrity dive feel like a movie set from the 1960s. Or maybe the ’70s. Actually, it could have been the ’80s, ’90s or today. This place prides itself on never changing. Its sign is even a little behind. It reads: “Chez Jay Come In and See Us 1959-2004 Anniversary.”
The Dish: We dined during a break in a busy production week for GSN. On Tuesday, the sixth season of “Lingo” went into production in Los Angeles, and the first round of Michael Davies’ “Chain Reaction” was scheduled to start taping in New York on Thursday.
All the while Rich continues to plot a growth strategy for the channel, which includes keeping an eye on opportunities in the interactive world and the social aspects of game-playing. He’s trying to marry what people are talking about with fun-to-play-and/or-watch games. He constantly considers whether online, mobile and video games can become TV shows, and whether TV shows can become an online game, mobile game, video game or even an event.
He’s also courting some controversy. He just slated a new show tentatively for summer, “Without Prejudice?,” based on a U.K. series of the same name. It features a panel of people who get the chance to award a contestant a load of cash. The panel zaps players out of the running based on a combination of their appearance and limited tidbits they reveal about themselves.
“It’s risky, but it could work,” he said.
In recent months, GSN has launched online games based on Mel Gibson’s drunken tirade, a Rosie vs. Donald feature and one on North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il called Missile Maniac.
“You’ve got to be a little controversial to get attention, but we don’t go to the bomb-scare level,” he said with a nod to Turner’s Adult Swim PR stunt gone awry. (Join the discussion on that mess on Marianne Paskowski’s TVWeek.com blog.)
He was inspired to do the Gibson game when he heard everyone talking about the incident, making light of it. Rich figured a combo of tapping the zeitgeist with something that’s fun to play would pay off.
The online games have turned out to be handy marketing tools.
“They’re viral, like a joke or a video people forward to their friends,” he said.
The games at GSN.com do seem to be holding people’s attention. Right now the site averages more than 700,000 monthly unique users, according to GSN data.
GSN has come a long way since Rich took over what was then dubbed Game Show Network nearly six years ago. When he first started, he told me he hoped to do four things: up the network’s distribution, ratings and acquisitions and establish an in-house ad sales team. Within months he did all four.
Since he started in April 2001, GSN’s distribution has doubled from something like 31 million homes to more than 62 million today.
We agreed it’s about time to set another goal I can hold him to a year from now. So we made a pact to meet back at Chez Jay next February, when he expects to be able to easily say GSN.com averages more than a million unique users monthly.
The network is in an interesting spot right now.
Being co-owned by Sony and Liberty, Rich and his team have a good amount of autonomy as long as they hit their numbers. It’s not unlike the days when Comedy Central was able to let completely loose, being owned by both Time Warner and Viacom, rather than having to kowtow as it does now to sibling Viacom divisions such as Paramount Pictures (Read: the whole Tom Cruise-Scientology-“South Park” dealio).
Also, the outlet has no direct competitors, being as Rich says, “the only network focused 100 percent on games.”
But it’s fighting for attention in a world where most other networks have far more leverage in the marketplace. When Bravo has a new series, for example, it can get the word out with promos on a bunch of different channels owned by its parent, NBC Universal. GSN has to buy paid advertising.
So, not surprisingly, Rich’s POV on GSN clips showing up on YouTube tends to differ from execs at some of the big companies he used to work for. Viacom, which owns MTV Networks—where Rich worked from 1984 to 1997—earlier this month demanded that YouTube take down 100,000 of its clips.
Rich counts on word of mouth.
In a search for GSN series “High Stakes Poker” on YouTube, more than 4 million views of some 400 different short clip videos are recorded, Dennis said.
“We love it,” Rich said.
He’s generally having good times at GSN. When I tried to press him on where his deal stands with the network’s owners to continue taking it to more advanced rounds, he would only say: “It’s still fun. Life is short, and you should have fun.”
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