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‘Game’ on for UPN

Feb 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

At UPN, the game is on to lure young video game players back to broadcast television.
The network, whose target audience is the 18 to 34 demo, is banking on television’s first CGI-animated television series, “Game Over,” to help do it. The half-hour show chronicles the lives of a family of video game characters after the game is turned off. It premieres March 10 at 8 p.m.
“Game Over” is “the first show on television to take this cultural phenomenon seriously and head-on and respectfully,” said creator and executive producer David Sacks.
“There has been a paradigm shift in the way people have decided they want to be entertained,” he said. “[Video games] have conquered pop culture, but no one realizes it yet.”
Mr. Sacks said he first came up with the idea to make a show about the real life of video game characters during the Internet boom a few years ago for the Web site Icebox.com. But like many Internet startups Icebox faced funding problems and it wasn’t able to produce the show.
The idea stuck with Mr. Sacks, however, and he decided to try to sell it as a TV show. He teamed with frequent collaborators David Goetsch, Jason Venokur and Ross Venokur to executive produce the show along with comedy powerhouse Carsey-Werner-Mandabach.
UPN executives were immediately attracted to the pitch. “It spoke to our target audience,” UPN Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff said. “We need to be different. We need to be on the cutting edge. We need to do things that most people aren’t thinking about. This was a check in every imaginable category. The CGI animation having never been used on television was just icing on the cake for us.”
While “Game Over” has a built-in potential core audience of gamers-video games are a $9.4 billion industry in the United States-it faces an uphill battle leading off Wednesday night for UPN. The network doesn’t have an obviously compatible show off of which to launch “Game Over.”
Instead, UPN will resurrect freshman sitcom “The Mullets,” which was pulled off the air last fall after garnering terrible ratings, to follow “Game Over.” Ms. Ostroff said the network originally envisioned pairing the two shows, but “Game Over” wasn’t ready in time this fall. She expects “Game Over” to appeal to UPN viewers who watch wrestling and “Enterprise.”
Ms. Ostroff also said UPN is developing half-hours for fall that would make good companions to the show.
UPN was the first network where producers pitched “Game Over” because UPN has more video game advertisers than any other broadcast network this season, making it a natural fit.
“We knew we were going to make an incredibly unique show,” Mr. Sacks said. “We wanted to make that an asset as opposed to a liability. On every other network it seemed like they were going to have this great issue of we love it but where do we put it? We thought UPN would be able to program around it to make it the pillar of a night.”
While the show has its inside jokes and popular stereotypical video game characters that frequent players will recognize-such as the ninjas who live next door to the Smashenburns, a first-person shooter and a serenely beautiful Japanese anime girl-at its core it is a family show with universal themes.
For example, government agent mom Raquel struggles with balancing her job and raising kids, race car driver dad Rip deals with the insecurities of having a wife who is more successful than he is, daughter Alice finds outlets for her teen angst and son Billy obsesses over the latest trends.
“One of the things we’re really striving to do creatively is not just have a standard animated show with video game references, but to really explore more and more what it means for a family to live in a video game universe,” Mr. Sacks said.
Added Ross Venokur: “You can’t build 100 episodes on bells and whistles. You need a heart.”
Video game manufacturers have given the creators permission to use some of their characters and scenery in the shows. Lara Croft will appear in an upcoming episode, and they’ve even been offered the use of an old favorite: Pac-Man.
The show will have a big Internet presence for fans, starting with the Web site www.gameover.tv. Mr. Goetsch said the producers will make the show’s characters and environments available on the Web and encourage fans to design their own video games, or “mods,” as they are called in gaming parlance.
“[That] is a really different approach in Hollywood,” Mr. Goetsch said. “The traditional Hollywood approach is to sue that person.”
If the series is successful, the producers said, they would like to create a full-fledged video game based on the TV show. Computer-generated animation has become the gold standard of animated feature films with titles such as DreamWorks’ “Shrek” and Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” racking up critical praise and box-office dollars.
“CG is the visual language of today’s generation,” Mr. Goetsch said. “Video games are all CG animation and that’s all people watch, so the fact that there hasn’t been a show in this style suggests to us that television is behind the times.”
Mr. Sacks said he wanted to use CGI for “Game Over” because it is the format used to create real video games and because it is visually arresting.
CGI has more practical benefits as well. It takes less time to make an episode from start to finish than traditional animation (about five months instead of eight) and it costs about $250,000 less than a traditional animated half-hour. Production on six episodes of “Game Over” is complete, and UPN has ordered six additional scripts.
CGI also allows the executive producers to be more involved in every step of the process. The characters and storyboards are created in Los Angeles and then sent to DKP Effects in Toronto, which animates the show. Because everything is done on a computer, DKP is able to send dailies of the animation to the Los Angeles-based producers. Most animated series farm out their animation to Korean companies, which usually take months to send a finished product back to producers.
The show will also become easier to create over time. “Unlike traditional animation, we’re banking everything we do,” Mr. Venokur said. “We’re not redrawing anything. We’re building this huge asset library.”