Rich Cronin’s Got Game

Oct 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Cindy Ronzoni had a much busier time than she anticipated on election night. As VP of publicity and corporate communications for the Game Show Network, she knew some press would cover the taping of GSN’s live recall election “Victory Party,” in Culver City, Calif., but she was bowled over by what happened.
Broadcast and cable networks, local stations and paparazzi, many of which had not RSVP’ed in advance, showed up as if they were covering a fire and proceeded to fight for positions to watch funky gubernatorial candidates such as porn star Mary Carey, 20-year-old college junior Bryan Quinn, performance artist Trek Thunder Kelly and gun enthusiast Carl Mehr join emcee Kennedy and others on a set wrapped in red, white and blue.
The next day, images of the buxom Ms. Carey and the GSN logo were all over print and electronic media, sharing the coverage with Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and outgoing Gov. Gray Davis.
It was a level of exposure that no amount of money could buy. It was exactly the kind of publicity that helps build the profile of a TV programming outlet in an era when there are so many networks on the air, cable and satellite, they become a jumble in the public’s mind.
“We’re proud to have jumped on the bandwagon and seen this as a giant game show with candidates we thought were really like contestants,” said Rich Cronin, GSN president and CEO.
GSN certainly wasn’t alone in tagging along for the ride. VH1, TechTV and Comedy Central, among others, also got into the game. And of course, so did every news channel and talk show and many entertainment shows, including “Access Hollywood,” thanks to the irresistible attraction of Arnold.
“Television helped make this election a global phenomenon,” said Mr. Cronin, who was delighted with the exposure his network garnered. “You know it’s hard to get attention with so many networks out there. And to try and create something newsworthy is a big goal of ours. So why not jump on somebody else’s news?”
There is no question that the prize for the most effective use of TV goes to Mr. Schwarzenegger himself. He began his campaign with an announcement on the “Tonight” show, and then got millions of dollars in free exposure on both TV and radio by cashing in on his celebrity. Carefully choosing to appear only on friendly programs while avoiding all the debates but one, Mr. Schwarzenegger used his unique access and an understanding of the media developed during his years as a major movie star to control the flow of information to an unprecedented degree. His fame and campaign created such a powerful effect that a late flurry of negative stories (including “Grope-gate”) could not derail the Arnold express train to Sacramento, Calif.
The celebrity factor alone, which pumped up participation in the election to a historic level, ensured his ultimate victory, which in the end was a landslide of epic proportions.
So if the candidate was using TV, why shouldn’t TV use the election? In the case of GSN, it provided a unique showcase. Not only did the network get PR and programming out of the stunt, but it also drew in several million people to “vote” on its Web site, which is set up to offer games as well as the usual program content. At least some of those viewers will continue to watch and visit long after the election is a footnote in a history book.
There is no way GSN would ever have gotten this kind of publicity with reruns of older shows or even new ones. Since Mr. Cronin, a veteran of MTV Networks and Fox, took over GSN in May 2001 his goal has been to develop signature programming. That was the mandate from GSN’s parent companies, Sony and Liberty Media.
However, it has not been easy. A batch of low-budget game shows and even an expensive one with Chuck Woolery, all failed to find significant traction in the marketplace.
circus atmosphere
Then came the election. As everyone else focused on the top vote-getters, GSN saw the absurdity of the whole thing and went after pseudo-celebs such as Ms. Carey and Gary Coleman, helping to pump up the circus atmosphere.
If nothing else, it showed the raw muscle of the medium.
“People obviously can recognize the power of television, even if it is to poke fun at the system,” said James Rowley, one of the executive producers of the GSN election spoof, which was produced by Mindless Entertainment. “Politics is the ultimate game, and that’s why Game Show Network got involved in what has to be the ultimate election.”
And Mr. Cronin was already brainstorming what to do next. “We think there are all kinds of things coming up with elections and Olympics and a lot of other big events that we can also get involved in,” he added with glee.
After Ms. Carey was announced as the winner of GSN’s election game, Mr. Cronin asked her whether she was going to use the prize of $21,200 (the maximum corporate contribution allowed under California law) to get out of porn and clean up her life.
Ms. Carey, reveling in the attention, said she would donate some money “to needy strippers,” some to research into Parkinson’s disease and the rest to get her act ready for Las Vegas.
That’s right. The election may be over, but Ms. Carey now can really cash in, at least for a while, on her new celebrity in a city where fame is a negotiable currency.
So while Gray Davis, a decent man who lacks charisma and never learned how to effectively use TV, is now forced into early retirement, California gets a media-savvy new governor and Nevada gets a fresh attraction. And GSN, to borrow a phrase from another arena, has got game.