Game On

Nov 21, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The high-stakes, high-profile game show game may be back on.

With the competition reality market softening and nostalgia series such as “Dancing With the Stars” drawing viewers, several networks are turning to game shows to provide low-cost event programming.

CBS has picked up “Game Show Marathon,” a postmodern take on classic game shows based on a U.K. hit; Discovery has purchased another U.K. format, “Cash Cab”; and GSN is reinvigorating its game show development slate after years of emphasizing other genres.

Experts said game shows will not become “the next poker” unless one is a breakout hit. But after the game show drought that followed the prime-time saturation bombing of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on ABC, networks are once again willing to spin the wheel on the format.

Should the new projects ignite a true wave of demand for game shows, a bevy of producers have a supply of additional ideas ready to be unleashed. One top agent said he has several clients poised to jump in.

“We have about 20 different game shows that are ready to go,” the agent said. “If even one game show does remotely well, you’re going to see four or five projects get bought, almost immediately.”

First up, CBS has commissioned a seven-episode U.S. version of “Game Show Marathon” from FremantleMedia and Granada. An air date has not been determined, but a Fremantle executive said she expects the program to be on the air within six months.

In each episode of “Marathon,” celebrity contestants play one of several traditional game show formats from the Fremantle library, such as “The Price Is Right,” “Family Feud,” “Sale of the Century” or “Card Sharks.” The U.K. version, “Ant & Dec’s Gameshow Marathon,” became a surprise success during its recent seven-episode prime-time run on ITV1.

“With reality hitting a dry moment, this brings back game shows in a big event-style way that plays on the kitsch and nostalgia for game shows, the way ‘Dancing With the Stars’ did for dancing shows,” said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America.

NBC also has a game show in the works. A few months ago the network announced “Deal or No Deal,” based on a hit format that has aired in several countries.

Meanwhile, Discovery is producing a U.S. version of another successful U.K. game show, “Cash Cab,” a conceptual cross between “Taxicab Confessions” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Discovery plans to run 40 episodes of the show at 6 p.m. (ET) weeknights starting Dec. 3.

On the program, unsuspecting New Yorkers will have a chance to earn thousands when they hail an ordinary-looking taxi that is actually the roving “Cash Cab” set. When stuck on difficult questions, rather than phoning a friend, contestants can elect to do a “shout-out” for help from a passer-by.

“Cash Cab” will be Discovery’s only game show, breaking with the network’s strategy of documentaries and reality shows-genres that have been drawing lower ratings in recent quarters.

Also on the cable side, GSN has re-embraced its game show roots.

In search of younger viewers, GSN in recent years pushed its programming efforts away from the traditional game shows that gave the former Game Show Network its original, older-skewing audience. While it kept its daytime block of classic game shows, GSN focused on ordering and promoting new series about casino gaming, horse racing, video gaming and obscure sports.

But that was before “Lingo,” a prime-time series that has become the best-performing original game show in GSN’s history and has boosted its nightly 7 p.m. time slot by 56 percent over last year. GSN has renewed “Lingo” for another season and is ordering several new game show concepts.

“For us, game shows are coming back,” said Ian Valentine, senior VP of programming for GSN. “We have created an internal group to reinvigorate our game show development. We’ve always had a few games shows in development at any given time, but we’ve decided that the success of ‘Lingo’ has been so extraordinary we see great opportunity doing more game shows that have other revenue possibilities.”

Among its programming developments, GSN has recently received a produced pilot for “I’ve Got a Secret,” which sources said is close to a series order. Another project in development is “Poll This,” which will soon go to pilot.

GSN has also been in talks with syndicators to develop a game show to be second-windowed into syndication.

“There has been a lot of discussion with syndicators the last few weeks that are looking at the desolate landscape of syndication and noting concepts like ‘Family Feud,’ ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune’ have been successful for a long time,” Mr. Valentine said. “It’s not, ‘We know game shows are coming back,’ but, particularly in daytime and cable, game shows have not been visited effectively over the past four to five years and it’s time to visit them again.”

One oft-cited benefit of game shows, especially for cable and syndication buyers, is that a successful concept can run for years-not just stalwarts like “Jeopardy!” but even niche titles such as “Supermarket Sweep.” Originals of “Sweep” ran from 1993 to 2000 on Lifetime and The Family Channel, and its reruns continue to air on Pax.

But the syndication market has not produced a new game show in years. And for cable, some say the price of game shows is still not right.

Producer Mark Cronin launched his career with game shows (“Singled Out,” “Beat the Geeks”) before hitting reality pay dirt with “The Surreal Life” and “My Fair Brady.” Mr. Cronin said he has heard plenty of talk about game shows, but has seen little action.

“I think it’s true in development circles that they say they want game shows, but I don’t think they really do,” Mr. Cronin said. “The economics of cable is you want a show that repeats. But game shows are inherently bad repeaters. Even competition reality is hurting for the same reason. Networks may take pitches and make pilots, but I doubt you’re going to see very many on the air.”

Even Discovery, with its order for “Cash Cab,” said the purchase was inspired by the particulars of the concept rather than the genre.

“I don’t think this came about because anybody was searching for a game show,” said Mary Donahue, executive producer for Discovery. “What intrigued us was not the game show component but the chance to deliver knowledge in a way that’s fresh and fun. … It’s embedded fun.”