The battle for CBS prime access

Apr 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Some prime real estate is available for the right star.
Buena Vista Television and King World Productions are each seeking an A-list name to a fill high-profile seat on their respective game shows, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Hollywood Squares.”
Both series are cleared on the CBS owned-and-operated stations, and both are under enormous pressure to fill the slots quickly as stations ready promo spots for the fall and decide which show deserves the coveted access time slot.
General managers at the CBS O&Os are keeping a close eye on the overall situation. The station group paid dearly for the rights to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” last year, prompting even some Buena Vista executives to charge that “Millionaire” would be the successor to “Squares” in the prestigious access time slots come fall.
However, a long silence in the Buena Vista camp on who will fill Regis Philbin’s shoes in syndication has likely jeopardized that hope. One major-market CBS O&O general manager was quick to note that at least for this season, “Hollywood Squares” will remain in the access time slot with “Millionaire” likely being placed in early fringe. Of course, should “Millionaire” prove to be a hit, that could change in the 2003 season.
“Right now, it’s already too late to make a significant programming shift, at least on our station,” said the general manager. “Its true we spent a lot on [`Millionaire’], probably enough to justify putting it in access. But without the buzz we were hoping to generate from an A-list host and a prime-time airing, it could be suicide to take that kind of gamble right now.”
However, the departure of Whoopi Goldberg as center square and executive producers John Moffitt and Pat Lee on “Hollywood Squares” created uncertainty for the established show. Some analysts last week speculated that the show’s new troubles, combined with a 24 percent dip in ratings from last year, could spell cancellation. That, of course, will not happen with two years remaining on station contracts.
Still, a star of Ms. Goldberg’s caliber can be costly. Her salary had been estimated to be as much as $10 million a year and, according to sources close to the situation, the hunt is on for a replacement. As for “Millionaire,” speculation has run rampant since the syndicated version of the series was announced last summer.
Speculation on star names for both series continues, with benefits and drawbacks arising with every name mentioned. Rosie O’Donnell has been rumored to be a possibility for both projects (although few people actually expect any deal to come to fruition) after leaving her talk show at the end of the season. Some insiders speculate that “Squares” could end up rotating a trio of center squares including regulars such as Gilbert Gottfried, although most experts feel that stability would be more successful than cost-efficiency.
On “Millionaire,” there is some movement to pressure Buena Vista into making a last-ditch effort to land Regis Philbin, who previously announced that he would not take the job. “Survivor” host Jeff Probst is another name being tossed around.
“They are hot right now and want to get this taken care of as soon as possible,” one insider said. “For Buena Vista, they clearly need to make an impact to justify the costs stations paid for the show. However, King World is looking to make this more of a game show than an entertainment show, and whoever is signed will reflect that.”
Indeed, the departure of Moffitt-Lee Productions signals an overall change in attitude for “Squares.” Head writer and show regular Bruce Vilanch is also expected to join the exodus while a new production company, almost certainly with more game show experience, is brought in to take the reins.
“Pat and John are great producers who we have a lot of respect for, but we feel that we need to make some changes on the show,” said Roger King, chairman and CEO of CBS Enterprises and King World Productions.
The good news for “Squares” fans is that host and Emmy-winner Tom Bergeron will return even if he is named co-host of CBS’s “The Early Show” as many have speculated. The show’s schedule would be adjusted to fit Mr. Bergeron’s schedule if that happens, as “The Early Show” is based in New York while “Squares” tapes in Los Angeles. Fortunately, “Squares” typically tapes on the weekends, making the schedule easier on the well-regarded host.