Interactive elements get game juices going

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At a rate of about 3 million new subscribers per quarter, the Game Show Network has become one of the fastest growing channels in cable, leaping from 19.5 million subscribers in October 1999 to more than 34 million today.

The key to keeping that number growing, GSN President Michael Fleming believes, is to get the audience involved-literally. His strategy: a growing lineup of original shows that take advantage of emerging interactive technologies to get people to push GSN's buttons.

"Games are intrinsically interactive," Mr. Fleming says. "Thanks to interactive television technology, we can now offer the opportunity to play a game live in real time, to play `Jeopardy!' as it happens."

Beginning three years ago with interactive episodes of "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," GSN has put itself on the front lines of new technology the entire TV industry is eager to harness. Through partnerships with several interactive TV developers, including Mixed Signals Technologies, Spiderdance and ACTV, GSN has created programming to take advantage of a variety of interactive formats, from live phone competition to participation through digital set-top boxes.

"Inquizition," a game show in which contestants in the studio and on the phone answer rapid-fire trivia questions, is entering its third season with a new Internet participation feature in addition to its telephonic and WebTV components.

The network's signature original show, "Hollywood Showdown," also recently added an interactive component, allowing viewers to compete at home via Microsoft Corp.'s WebTV Plus and set-top boxes. Other shows being outfitted with interactive aspects include "Mall Masters" and the classic "$100,000 Pyramid," with more planned for the future.

Game Show Network's programming mix currently is only about 20% original programming, with "classic" game shows filling out the rest of the schedule.

"We are a unique proposition in that we pretty much own all our content," Mr. Fleming says.

Taking advantage of parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment's library of such game show favorites as "Card Sharks," "Family Feud" and "Match Game," while also developing innovative new shows, has put GSN on the ratings map. "Mall Masters," set at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, rated a 0.6 this winter, while "Match Game" consistently earns a 1.1.


"There's a whole generation of people who have no idea who [`Match Game' host] Gene Rayburn is, and they love the show," says Stuart Zimmerman, VP-advertiser sales for GSN. According to Nielsen Media Research, GSN's prime-time ratings have increased in eight of nine months from last May to January, matching the network's rising subscriber numbers.

Despite strong ratings for classic shows, network brass hope to boost original content to 50% of programming by 2003. New fall additions that were well-received at the upfront sales meeting March 7 include "Shoot for Love," a dating game with a camcorder twist, and "Billboard Living," in which contestants live on billboards across the country and compete with each other reality-TV style.

All the action has drawn a diverse crowd.

"The audience distribution has been national; there hasn't been a focus that's geographically centered," adds Aaron Cohen, senior VP-national broadcast at Horizon Media, New York. "In general, it seems to be a more mature viewer."

While the target audience is women ages 25 to 54, an increasing number of men are watching.

"We've seen more men coming into the flux, and we're happy about that," Mr. Zimmerman says. Prime-time audiences tend to be about 55% women, 45% men, while daytime viewership skews more female, he says.

"We're continuing to define our audience as we continue to mine the brand platform of `You Can't Help But Play,' " says Dena Kaplan, senior VP-marketing for GSN. The network's TV campaign "You Know You Know," was created by its agency, Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, San Francisco.


As GSN continues to grow, the plan is to deliver an even more focused audience for advertisers. Mr. Cohen says what differentiates the network are its hosts and the interactivity of its shows. Scott Lee, a media buyer at True North Communications' TN Media, New York, who works on S.C. Johnson & Son products, agrees.

"For us, the priority is efficiency," he says. "It's a good network to be on. The growth we see in distribution and audience is very efficient, very positive."

While growth has been steady, the challenge has been to get viewers, cable-service operators and advertisers to notice GSN's interactive fare without the aid of a media conglomerate parent.

Six-year-old GSN began as a subsidiary of Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Entertainment; while this gave GSN access to movie screens (the network ran self-promotional ads during film previews in Loews and Sony theaters in 1998), opportunities for cross-pollination have otherwise been few.


In late February, new-media company Liberty Digital acquired a 50% stake in the network, but it's too early to tell how the connection will play out in strategic alliances or other opportunities.

"Because we aren't vertically integrated and we don't have sticks to poke cable service operators in the eye with, we have to use carrots to get them interested," says Anne Droste, senior VP-sales and affiliate relations for GSN.

When a service operator agrees to carry GSN, the carrots come in the form of Sony product tie-ins to help operators expand their business. For instance, the network provided AT&T Corp. with Sony-made phones to bundle with new cable subscriptions for a promotion to boost AT&T phone service sign-ups. In another scenario, the first 30 people to sign up for digital cable receive a Sony VAIO computer.

"We're not part of the Disney family or the Time Warner family-we're part of the Sony family and we've been able to leverage other Sony products," Ms. Kaplan adds.

Another big hurdle has been convincing advertisers to recognize the network as a valuable conduit to consumers.

"There has been a disconnect among advertisers in seeing game shows as a profitable area," Mr. Fleming laments. He says the popularity of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" and reality-based game shows like "Survivor" have changed that mindset. " `Millionaire' helped, and our interactive TV opportunities are starting to turn their heads."

As the ad market softens along with the economy, the challenge may no longer be convincing media buyers of GSN's value, but instead just getting them to advertise.


"It's tougher for the smaller guys than for the top-tier networks, so I do see them getting hurt a little," Mr. Lee says. "But if their distribution continues to rise the way it has, our commitment will grow, too."

In the meantime, GSN executives are focusing on strong shows people watch.

"We're still in the TV business. Our business is first and foremost creating compelling programming," Mr. Fleming says. "Interactive TV is a parallel business, not the icing on the cake. It's the same old block and tackle-create good shows, do some marketing to get the audience in, and be able to go to advertisers and say, `Here you go, this is your audience.' "

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