Games grow infectious

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The renewed success of network game shows has pushed syndication to roll out more game show product, which until recently was thought to be a dying genre.

One show with promise appears to be a comeback vehicle for Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman). His "You Don't Know Jack," from Carsey Werner, is based on the popular computer quiz game.

Pearson Television has been an active player. It is planning a new version of an old game, "To Tell The Truth," with host John O'Hurley, who played J. Peterman on "Seinfeld."

Pearson already has found moderate success with the new version of "Family Feud," hosted by Louie Anderson. The show, which debuted in September, had a 2.0 season-to-date rating through Dec. 5, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.

"What could be better than yucking it up watching families compete with each other," says Joe Scotti, president of domestic distribution and marketing at Pearson. "The game show format offers entertainment that is positive and satisfying."

STAYING POWER OF GAMES

Syndicators, of course, have known the power of games for years. For more than a decade, King World Productions' "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" have been the top ratings producers in syndication.

After a long drought, the industry launched in syndication King World's "Hollywood Squares," with Whoopi Goldberg at its center. In the midst of its second season, "Hollywood Squares" flaunted a 4.2 rating for the week of Dec. 6, according to Nielsen data.

In a tribute to the everlasting staying power of game shows and the stunning success of prime-time game shows, such as ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," other networks are also getting in on the game with revamped classics such as "Twenty-One" at NBC and "The $64,000 Question" at CBS. CBS will also introduce a new game, "Winning Lines," hosted by Dick Clark.

Blending fact, fiction, past and present, led NBC to make a historical link between the once and future "Twenty-One."

" `Twenty-One' jumped off the page, frankly, because of its notorious past," says Rick Ludwin, senior VP-specials, prime time and alternative programming at NBC.

To further build on suspense and drama, Mr. Ludwin is considering a big-time stunt for the show.

"To be candid with you, I would love to have Herb Stempel come back and be a contestant," he says.

Mr. Stempel was the "Twenty-One" contestant profiled in Robert Redford's 1994 movie, "Quiz Show." He is the man who helped uncover the scandal-ridden game shows of the 1950s.

To have Mr. Stempel appear on the remake of "Twenty-One" would inject the show with the kind of drama that draws viewers to the genre.

Syndicators would love to see their shows injected with the drama that would allow them to become a runaway hit similar to "Millionaire."

Still, some programming executives say ABC didn't realize what it had on its hands early on.

"Obviously, if ABC thought `Millionaire' was going to be this huge runaway, they wouldn't have run it in the summer," says Bill Carroll, senior VP-programming for Katz Television Group. "It was a combination of the right program at the right time."

For ABC, it was a low-risk endeavor because game shows are notoriously cheap to make and offer versatile scheduling options.

"Games shows are like newsmagazine shows," says Brad Adgate, director of media research for Horizon Media, New York. "They are similar in costs and can be moved around on the schedule."

Indeed, this month "Millionaire" is airing Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at 9 p.m. and again Tuesdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Eastern time, mainly newsmagazine time periods.

Games shows are entertaining, yet adaptable programming, adds Mr. Adgate. He cites the demographic profiles for "Millionaire" and Fox TV's "Greed." "Millionaire" is strongest in older female and male demographics -- an 8.5 rating in men 25-54 and a 10.4 rating in females 25-54 in the November period. Similarly, Fox is stronger in young males, 18-34 with a 4.4 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.

CABLE STAPLE

Game shows also have been a staple on cable networks for years. MTV soars with "Remote Control;" Comedy Central continues to strike good ratings with "Win Ben Stein's Money." MTV's "WebRiot" and Game Show Network's "Inquisition" are the newest entries.

No matter what TV venue, the secret theme of success winding through all these game shows is simplicity.

"When you walk by your TV set and you hear a `Jeopardy!' question, you don't need an explanation to know that you need to answer the question," says Jack Tauber, senior VP-programming for Game Show Network. "When you see the puzzle on `Wheel of Fortune,' it doesn't take any rules to tell you, `I have to guess what that [phrase] is.' You turn it on and you get it."

Contributing: Sheree R. Curry.

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