By James Hibberd and Daisy Whitney
“You’re just in time; we’re about to go live,” said executive producer John Roberts as he rushed from room to room at GSN’s Culver City, Calif., production facility.
At 10 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Mr. Roberts was giving a whirlwind backstage tour of GSN’s first live series, “Playmania.” The program represents a breakthrough effort to introduce European-style interactive television to North America-or it could end up as simply another late-night cable TV call-in show viewed by a handful of insomniacs.
Mr. Roberts, who also serves as GSN’s senior VP of digital media and interactive entertainment, has laid his bet.
“This is a whole new live interactive programming experience, and people are getting addicted to it,” Mr. Roberts said. “We’re the first network to bring this to the United States. We get more calls week by week. … We’re building a community.”
But Karen Lennon, CEO of interactive TV production firm Beyond Z in Atlanta, cautioned against assuming a show will play in Peoria simply because it worked well overseas. “I don’t believe our population will follow as consistently with some of the formulas in other countries because we are already a strong media culture as is,” Ms. Lennon said. “Our consumption patterns will be a bit different.”
“Playmania” premiered April 6 during GSN’s late-night block (which is not Nielsen-rated). The series is a hyper, two-hour commercial-free game show in which viewers call in to answer on-screen puzzles for prize money. The series was inspired by the United Kingdom’s QuizNation channel, whose owners, Optimistic Entertainment, produce “Playmania” with GSN.
After the game began, host and QuizNation veteran Mel Peachey introduced puzzle after puzzle, displayed e-mail after e-mail, answered call after call.
In the studio, Mr. Roberts was excited. A true game show aficionado, he doesn’t want his staff to tell him the puzzle solutions. As a child watching “$64,000 Pyramid,” he covered up the bottom of the television screen with his hands to hide the answers so he could guess along with the contestants-just as he does now.
“Tackle box!” Mr. Roberts exclaimed, solving an anagram.
On screen, a caller received $50 for answering the same, plus a gift certificate from the show’s sporting goods sponsor. Which meant somebody, somewhere, likely sitting on the couch at home, just won a prize for essentially doing what game show viewers have been doing for decades-shouting answers at the screen-except now viewers can actually be heard by the show.
Mr. Roberts grinned. “I want ‘Playmania’ everywhere!”
New Twist on Old Format
Interactivity has failed to take off in the U.S. because cable operators have been sluggish to deploy technology that enables viewers to interact using remotes.
“Playmania,” which runs Thursday through Saturday at 1 a.m. (ET), tries to bypass this roadblock by being faux high-tech. By sending text messages and e-mails, viewers can send messages to the show that occasionally appear on the screen, or enter a queue to become a live contestant. But the heart of the program simply is phone-in viewers solving word-game puzzles.
The essentials of the show could have been done 20 years ago and, in fact, were previously attempted in the early days of GSN. Mr. Roberts said “Playmania” is a different breed. The use of a successful U.K. format, production technology that allows rapid-fire participation of a large number of individual viewers into the show’s narrative and the interactivity using e-mail and text messaging make for a unique stateside program that captures the essence of the U.K. interactive gaming craze without the advanced set-top boxes.
“When Game Show Network tried this early on, we did this with 800 numbers,” Mr. Roberts said. “The technology today lends itself to being more efficient. The show is in some ways this simplistic, but the technology behind it is more advanced.”
Ratings show that simple games often perform best, from the trivia Q&A of “Jeopardy!” to the yes-or-no questions posed on “Deal or No Deal.”
Three years ago Optimistic Entertainment launched the live quiz television channel QuizNation in the U.K. Its schedule is stuffed with participation TV shows-7,000 hours of live programming each year centered on the call-in TV format. “We see ‘Playmania’ as a best of breed of QuizNation,” said Carolyn Maze, managing director of Optimistic Entertainment PLC.
Lost in Translation?
Stateside, GSN has been tinkering with interactivity on several of its shows and has more than 100 hours per week of interactive programming.
Also, interactivity holds great promise as a vehicle for greater engagement, which is becoming critical for advertisers.
GSN conducted a study last fall with Ball State University that found that 76 percent of GSN viewers who play along with a program online will also interact with commercials containing interactive content.
“Someone who responds to a call to action and gets more involved in the programming or advertising than the casual viewer is clearly more engaged,” said Mike Bloxham, director of testing and assessment for the Center for Media Design at Ball State University. “Indeed, some form of participation or interaction with the content may be the only way to keep TV a mass medium in 15 years’ time.”