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Dean of Game Shows Proffers New Puzzle

Q&A: Merv Griffin on His Latest Endeavor, 'Let's Do Crosswords,' and What He Thinks of the Category Today

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Having created "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," Merv Griffin knows a thing or two about game shows. His newest project, "Let's Do Crosswords," from Merv Griffin Entertainment and Program Partners, will make its syndication debut Sept. 10. The showbiz legend took time out from ripping through crosswords -- at 81, he does a minimum of four a day -- to discuss with Larry Dobrow the state of the game-show genre.

Merv Griffin says that as opposed to the current crop of fairly mindless game shows, 'Let's Do Crosswords' will give viewers the sort of challenges they really desire.

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MediaWorks: "Let's Do Crosswords" -- why now?

Merv Griffin: It's a format that's been going around in my head for 10, 15, 20 years. I kept thinking, "It's impossible. You can't put up a crossword grid on a screen. People's eyes will be falling out at home." It drove me crazy.

MediaWorks: What makes it different from the current crop of game shows, both in prime-time broadcast and in syndication?

Mr. Griffin: The clues are not cut-and-dried. It's not "Who's buried in Grant's tomb?" Crosswords require such skill and knowledge.

Also, it's not a drama game. It's not based on cutting to people's faces and watching them retch over an answer, and then showing their mother and father and cousin and dragging everything out. Most of what you see today, they're more about the drama than the game.

MediaWorks: Why do you believe "Let's Do Crosswords" will catch on with viewers?

Mr. Griffin: When you think of crosswords, you don't think of action. You think of somebody sitting outside, like I'm doing right now, doing a crossword puzzle to jog their brain a little bit. And that's why it will work. It's smart. It makes you think. Look at me -- at the age of 81, boy, crosswords get my brain jumping all over the place. It's better than exercising.

MediaWorks: Yeah, but do viewers really want to be challenged by these games?

Mr. Griffin: I think they do, I really do. When we went around with this, we realized that everybody was looking for a traditional game show in the vein of "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" -- one that holds your attention, one you can play at home and get the answers before the contestants do and laugh a little.

Although I do like "[Who Wants to Be a] Millionaire," even that is multiple choice. I'm not a fan of multiple choice. There are only so many ways they can make sure a question is interesting and different.

When you think about it, there are no new ideas out there. Every game show you see is basically a revival. That made things a little difficult for us: When we went to staff "Let's Do Crosswords," we all laughed, because there hasn't been a show like this in years. There was nobody with credits for a game show.

MediaWorks: What kind of feedback have you gotten from the marketing community so far?

Mr. Griffin: I think they like that we'll be on NBC-owned and -operated stations and that we're shooting 225 episodes right out of the box. At NATPE, we were mobbed in the suite, so I went down on the floor. I hadn't done that since when I gave "Wheel of Fortune" to King World to syndicate. Back then, the King brothers stood there and served pastrami sandwiches and beer. That pastrami helped them become a very big syndication company. [Laughs.]

MediaWorks: In a big-picture sense, what's your opinion of today's game shows?

Mr. Griffin: They're a little mindless -- even "Deal or No Deal," which is a good show. I guess that's what people want at night, to turn off their minds after the workdays they put in and after hearing the day's front-page news. The problem is that they go on the air and then go away, then they come back at a different time. I don't know if that helps anyone -- people at home, people who advertise, anybody.

It's the old question: Do [these shows] have legs? It's true with "Deal" to a certain extent. Can we really, a year from now, still be yelling, "Open No. 9"? There's got to be more than that.

MediaWorks: What do game shows offer in the way of product integration and sponsorship opportunities that marketers can't get elsewhere?

Mr. Griffin: There are always prizes. There are always segments: "This next 'crossword extra' is brought to you by bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup." You know me. I'm always concerned more with the game than with the ancillary.

MediaWorks: One concern, at least for some of the media people, is that the shows don't change much.

Mr. Griffin: Change is good! Everybody says, "Don't make a change," but hell, "Wheel of Fortune" used to have a shopping component to it. One day I said, "Let's add some cash and put in more puzzles." There were screams from affiliates, but they sure died down when the ratings jumped up. The more puzzles you get, the more people can play along at home. It's pretty basic.

MediaWorks: What will ultimately be the legacy of "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!"?

Mr. Griffin: They've become America's games. I was watching "House" the other night, and there was some old lady on the show who had had too much sex: "He's so insistent, I haven't watched 'Jeopardy!' in two months." I almost fell off my chair! The games have registered is what I'm trying to say.
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