Playing the syndication game

Dec 31, 2001  •  Post A Comment

After this season’s pack of low-rated dating shows and last season’s glut of failed court and talk shows, the odds aren’t spectacular that this season’s game show trio of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” “$100,000 Pyramid” and “Weakest Link” will be a winning combination.
Yet all three have some aces up their sleeves. While not as hot as when they first debuted, Buena Vista Television’s “Millionaire” and NBC Enterprises’ “Link” are network staples on ABC and NBC, respectively. And Columbia TriStar Television Distribution’s “Pyramid” boasts a classic format coupled with an intriguing host, Donny Osmond.
However, the three have to face two intimidating opponents. King World Productions-distributed “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” have been the No. 1- and No. 2-rated syndicated shows for almost 20 years.
“They’ve really stood the test of time,” said Harry Friedman, executive producer of both “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” “Viewers keep responding. We’re likable.”
“Wheel’s” numbers peaked in 1985 and “Jeopardy’s” in 1987, according to Nielsen Media Research’s household results, but for the week ending Nov. 19, 2001, “Wheel” nabbed a 9.5 and “Jeopardy!” earned an 8.3, which topped the networks’ “Weakest Link” (7.2) and “Millionaire” (6.6).
That’s pretty darn good, said Steve Mosko, president of Columbia TriStar Domestic Television. “But having said that, I believe there’s a place for `Pyramid,’ `Millionaire’ and `Weakest Link.’ You don’t have to limit yourself,” he said.
The recent success of “Millionaire” and “Link” has made game shows hip and cool again. Their lavish production values and chances for large cash prizes make them arguably more appealing than some past game efforts.
“It used to be that game shows were the Rodney Dangerfields of television,” said Mr. Friedman. “Millionaire” and “Link,” he said, have given the genre more street credibility.
Plus, there could be some chinks in “Wheel’s” and “Jeopardy’s” armor. This season through Dec. 2, the two ranked No. 8 and No. 10, scoring a 2.1 and a 2.3, respectively, among adults 18 to 49.
And the 18 to 49 demographic will be “Link’s” specialty, said Phil Gurin, executive producer of both the syndicated and the network versions of the show.
Linda Finnell, NBC’s senior VP of programming, described “Link” as the “anti-game show,” where, “You’re not saying, `Come on, you can do it!”’
It’s not as though producers are just throwing the dice with these game freshmen. Audiences already have a pretty good idea about what they are about.
“You don’t have to come up with an awareness campaign to show what our game is,” said Ms. Finnell, who considers that a major selling point for “Link.”
Columbia TriStar’s Mr. Mosko thinks “Pyramid” has what it takes to become a game show veteran a la “Wheel” or “Jeopardy!” “Pyramid” succeeded in its past forms, as “The $10,000 Pyramid” in the 1970s and “The $25,000 Pyramid” during the 1980s.
“This is already a show that people love,” Mr. Mosko said. And by incorporating a mix of celebrities in its format, “Pyramid” also has the show-biz elements often built in to the popular stunted episodes of the new games.
The coming “Millionaire” strip certainly has awareness going for it-it has run as often as four times a week on ABC. Of course, it isn’t breaking into the top 20 prime-time rankings as it used to. And ABC executives are now wondering whether they’ll even slot “Millionaire” on their schedule next fall.
Nevertheless, the buzz is that Regis Philbin will be chosen to host the syndicated version. So if just half of the network viewers tune in to what’s shaping up as a very similar “Millionaire” strip edition, that will be a better turnout than what most of the current syndicated shows are getting. For the past several seasons, most new strips haven’t been able to crack a 2.0 in households.
“Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” have felt threatened by the likes of the high rollers, upping their prize money to compete with “Link” and “Millionaire.” Mr. Friedman, their executive producer, has doubled the clue values on “Jeopardy!” and inserted a $100,000 bonus round on “Wheel of Fortune.”
But the allure of prizes doesn’t have everything to do with game shows’ appeal. “Link” contestants rarely win the pack of cash they might potentially score.
“Pyramid’s” jackpot is still under wraps, but Mr. Mosko believes that “Millionaire worked at first because of the money, but then it was all about the game. It was just fun to watch people play.”
“Link’s” Mr. Gurin remembers “giving away bucket loads of money” on his short-lived game series “Twenty One,” so “the overall entertainment value of a show is what matters.”