'Millionaire's' godfather Davies banks on emerging media to fuel game show growth

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Michael davies may be best known as the man who brought "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to U.S. TV. The executive producer notes that the game show is now in its fourth season in syndication. But Mr. Davies, co-founder and CEO of Embassy Row, has a lot more in the works for syndication and other video venues, after his production company early in 2006 signed a three-year development deal with Sony Pictures Television. Mr. Davies discussed with Dan Lippe the allure of game shows, as well as other areas of syndication. Below is an edited transcript.

ADVERTISING AGE: You've now got a new deal with Sony for scripted and unscripted shows. Can you tell us what's in the pipeline?

MICHAEL DAVIES: There's never been a successful game show in syndication that didn't start on a network; our approach is to bring a lot of development to prime-time [network TV] and then move [those] first-run shows [to syndication] the same way "Millionaire" did [starting on ABC], and in the same way that I think "Deal or No Deal" will ... We're just about to go out with a bunch of network game-show ideas, which hopefully will get sold and get produced and they'll be big hits and [eventually] hit the syndication market.

AA: What about talk shows? They also seem to be perpetually strong performers.

MR. DAVIES: Talk, magazine, game, court-these are the building blocks of the first-run syndication business whether it's celebrity talk or single-topic talk. Somebody always seems to figure out a new way to go at these things.

My biggest criticism with the first-run business over the years is it's a very distribution-led business over a creatively led business. All TV does this, but I think it becomes exaggerated in syndication that people try to imitate hit shows, when hit shows are usually hit shows because they've broken off from what has worked in the past.

We always need to try to mine new territory. It's a funny thing about TV, but I think the audience who loves "Desperate Housewives" doesn't necessarily want to see seven shows like "Desperate Housewives."

AA: Networks and advertisers worry about the time-shifting ability of digital video recorders like TiVo. But isn't it a plus for syndication, where loyal viewers can time-shift a daytime syndicated show like "Oprah" and watch it in the evening?

MR. DAVIES: I think TiVo is a great thing obviously for TV viewers. ... [But] people only have a certain number of minutes and hours during the day to watch all this content on DVR and live and on their computers and on their cellphones and everywhere-sometimes as a business I think we're trying to assault people everywhere.

AA: And at some point that becomes a bad thing?

MR. DAVIES: Definitely.

AA: Your experience has spanned network TV, where "Millionaire" started, to cable, where you have a new deal with GSN via Sony, to syndication. What are the strengths and weaknesses of syndication vs. these other TV outlets?

MR. DAVIES: Once you've actually sold your show ... you have a great deal of freedom [in syndication] because you don't really have a network controlling every aspect. You work hand in hand with the studio to make your TV program, and I really love that.

That's why you see a lot of syndication brands run for a lot of years.

AA: What role do you see new-media platforms playing in programming?

MR. DAVIES: For the game show business it's great because it's going to allow shows like "Millionaire" to drive revenues from other extensions of the brand, whether it's online, whether it's wireless, DVD, CD-ROM, whatever. We have a wireless [offering for "Millionaire"].

One of the problems that a lot of people in TV have is that we're so used to telling stories in half an hour or an hour format, and a lot of what's going to drive these new businesses is finding ways to tell stories in much shorter form.

AA: And syndication can also take advantage of these new platforms?

MR. DAVIES: The margins for producers, distributors and stations have all diminished, partly because there's so much more choice in content and their audience has gotten a little bit smaller. So while the ad market has grown, there's also a lot more competition and there are a lot more players, so everyone is looking for more revenues, and every studio I know, every producer I know and every station I know is looking for more revenue streams from the brand that they program.
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