By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
Inspired by hits such as “Deal or No Deal” on prime-time television, the daytime game show category is making a comeback. Several new game shows are scheduled to premiere this fall, which should ensure the survival of the Daytime Game Show Emmy category that looked so endangered a year ago. Even Merv Griffin is back in the game, so to speak, with “Let’s Play Crosswords!” seeking clearances with independent distributor Program Partners.
Last year only six shows competed for the award, and according to the National Television Academy’s custom, only one third of those were nominated for best show and best host. Among the two nominated in each category, Sony Pictures Television/King World co-production “Jeopardy!” and its host Alex Trebek won, for the 11th and fourth time respectively. The quiz show has collected 27 Emmys overall, making it the most honored game show in history.
Until the new shows actually get on the air pickings will remain slim, with only four game shows currently running in daytime syndication. Last year’s other nominee, the syndicated version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” distributed by Buena Vista Television and hosted by Meredith Vieira, is expected to make another strong showing. “Millionaire” continues to catch on with audiences; it ranks third among daytime game shows but its household ratings grew 10 percent year-to-year.
Cable is also contributing some freshness to the mix this year. GSN’s “Lingo” and Discovery Channel’s “Cash Cab” submitted entries, according to Brent Stanton, executive director of the Daytime Emmy Awards. “Lingo,” an adaptation of one of Europe’s longest-running game shows hosted by former “Wheel of Fortune” host Chuck Woolery, is GSN’s highest-rated original.
“Cash Cab,” which also originated in Europe, challenges the conventions of the genre. It is shot in the back of an actual taxi cab in New York as unsuspecting passengers are forced to answer trivia questions in order to be taken to their destination. Winners get to stay in the cab and win cash prizes, losers are kicked to the curb.
“We were delighted to see (`Cash Cab’) had entered,” said Mr. Stanton.
The comeback of the game show genre is not surprising, according to Harry Freidman, executive producer of “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” since 1999. It’s just part of the ebb and flow of the format wars.
“The history of the game show is such that it is in favor one year and out of favor the next,” Mr. Friedman said. “Like so many other forms, it really goes in cycles. Somehow we’ve managed to survive the ups and downs of those cycles.”
He says his shows have remained successful by adhering faithfully to their original formulas and maintaining the highest production values possible. The proliferation of game shows in prime time has actually raised the bar in terms of production values and prize money, forcing daytime producers to invest more to keep pace. This season producers invested an estimated $4 million to begin broadcasting “Wheel” and “Jeopardy!” in high definition, the first syndicated shows to do so.
What is surprising is that top-rated “Wheel of Fortune,” celebrating its 23rd year in syndication and recently renewed through the 2011-12 season, has never won a Daytime Emmy.
“We’d love to change that,” said Mr. Friedman.
Game shows are also succeeding because they deliver on viewer involvement and engagement, two of the biggest buzzwords on Madison Avenue. And the advent of interactive technologies is only helping to enhance the experience.
Besides adding huge incremental revenue for NBC and producer Endemol USA, the SMS-based interactive game on “Deal or No Deal” that gives viewers at home a chance to win $10,000 has helped make the show a phenomenon. National TV Academy President Peter Price suspects daytime game shows will begin to capitalize on this trend soon enough.
“There may be a renaissance of game shows on television because of interactivity,” Mr. Price said. “Questions-and-answers and audience participation are key elements of the game show and as more people have access to interactive media without having to buy a PlayStation, I suspect gaming programs will have a new day.”
Cable network GSN actually commissioned a study from Ball State University last year to examine how interactive games increase viewer involvement and engagement for advertisers.
The study, which combined field research with data collected from third-party iTV provider GoldPocket Interactive, found that “playing along” on a second screen made watching a game show much more compelling.
“People who watch game shows generally try to answer questions before the contestants on television, but we found that the level of competitiveness increases and the immersive nature of the experience deepens when home viewers have the opportunity to play against people from around the country through an online system,” said Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research for Ball State’s Center for Media Design.