Upfront 07

Will This Golden Age of Game Shows Last?

Now That You Know You Aren't Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader, Get Ready for ABC's 'National Bingo Night'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the beginning, back in the 1950s, there was "Twenty-One" and "Truth or Consequences," and it was good. Years later, there was "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and it was good again -- so good, in fact, that for a stretch in 2000, ABC aired the show several nights a week. Alas, both eras quickly came to an end, victims of network overexposure and ever-quirky viewer tastes.

Ask me anything: Fox is bringing families together to test their fifth-grade knowledge.

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So now that "Deal or No Deal" and "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?" have ushered in what many say is a third golden age for prime-time game shows, should viewers and marketers get their hopes up that this one might not be as fleeting as the others?

Grand-prize answer: Maybe.

Sounding a note of caution is Chris Geraci, director-national TV investment at OMD, New York. "As we've seen, [networks] have a tendency to kill the golden goose," he says. "Going in, you have to be realistic about that and keep your expectations pretty low."

MediaVest's Louis Roloff, on the other hand, sees greater potential for sustained success than he did during the "Millionaire" era.

"Look at some of the most popular things on TV -- 'American Idol,' 'Dancing With the Stars,' 'Survivor.' At their core, they're contests. That bodes well for these shows," says Mr. Roloff, VP-director of video investment and activation at the New York media-buying agency.

In place of drama
The networks agree -- for now, anyway. Game shows seem on the verge of replacing procedural dramas as TV's latest, greatest genre. Among the Big Four broadcast networks:
  • NBC is already fully invested with "Deal or No Deal," "Identity" and "1 vs. 100."
  • The next high-profile entry, ABC's "National Bingo Night," arrives May 18.
  • CBS, a game-show holdout with the exception of occasional "The Price Is Right" specials and last summer's "Game Show Marathon," is diving back in with "The Power of 10" and an unnamed project from the "Beauty and the Geek" team of Ashton Kutcher and Jason Goldberg.
  • Fox Exec VP-Alternative Programming Mike Darnell, who oversees "Fifth-Grader" and "Idol," says his network has picked up another game show ("we're still filling in the lines, but karaoke is involved") that it hopes to pair with "Fifth-Grader."
It's no mystery why the major networks are smitten with game shows: They're cheap. Mr. Geraci estimates a game show costs 20% of a half-hour of scripted programming.

They also require much less in the way of development. Mr. Darnell notes that a mere 7 and a half weeks elapsed between when "Fifth-Grader" was first pitched to Fox and when the show hit the air.

For marketers, prime-time game shows remain tantalizing. They offer family-friendly content (no violence or offensive language) and broad appeal. And the best ones can become sensations practically overnight.

Note: Sept. 18, 2006-April 1, 2007
Source: Nielsen Media Research

Clearing the bandwagon
During the heyday of "Millionaire," the show drew as many as 30 million viewers a day, three times a week. A few years and several "celebrity versions" later, "Millionaire" was lucky to attract a quarter of that figure, meaning that marketers who got in on the action late didn't get much bang for their buck.

"That bandwagon emptied real fast," says Rich Cronin, president-CEO of cable's GSN (which originally stood for Game Show Network).

That lesson isn't lost on David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, which produces "Deal or No Deal." He admits to some trepidation about the show's life span, pointing to ABC's handling of "Millionaire" as a cautionary tale.

"There's a tendency of broadcasters to over-rely on something that gets viewers and doesn't cost much to produce. That's not exactly news," he says. "We were fortunate in that NBC was willing to work with us to make sure we didn't burn out."

Syndication immortality
Today, "Millionaire" lives on in syndication via Buena Vista Television. Mr. Goldberg expects a syndicated version of "Deal or No Deal" to appear in 2008 even if it's still running on NBC.

For marketers wanting in this time around, product-integration opportunities abound, both in the form of sponsored segments and prizes. One could make an argument, actually, that game shows were the first true product-placement venue. Announcer Don Pardo, after all, didn't just bellow that winners would receive a new car -- it was "a brand-new Chevrolet!"

Viewers have come to expect that name-brand prizes will be involved. Product or brand integrations thus come across much more naturally than they do in scripted fare.

"National Bingo Night" creator and Executive Producer Andrew Glassman, who plans to "turn America into a giant interactive bingo hall," has inked Kmart Corp. as a partner for the first of the show's three nightly bingo games. Viewers playing along at home who hit bingo on cards printed out from the web will get $5 Kmart gift cards; one will win a $10,000 shopping spree.

Despite the brand-integration potential, however, most observers dismiss producers' contention that prime-time game shows are relatively TiVo-proof.

"I'm not sure there's anything that doesn't get TiVoed by a lot of people anymore," Mr. Roloff says.

Different feel
Fox's Mr. Darnell sides with the skeptics, describing prime-time game shows as "interestingly missable. Once they air, they feel disposable. You say to yourself, 'OK, I'll just see the next one.' It's not like a drama."

Therein may lie the problem: There's little certainty that this era of prime-time game shows won't end like the last one, with a host of indifferent viewers left in its wake. While producers and network executives go out of their way to avoid the word "fad," they worry that viewers will either get overwhelmed by the slate of game-show programming about to be unleashed or become bored with their pat formats.

"There are no story arc and no characters you can introduce," Mr. Geraci says. "There's not a lot you can change about these shows. It's one idea, and it stays one idea forever."

Endemol's Mr. Goldberg cautions against making sweeping predictions about the game genre's long-term prospects. "Like everything else," he says, "it will depend largely upon the ability of producers working in concert with broadcasters to come up with unique ideas that have legs.

"You don't hear anybody say, 'We're sick of sitcoms.' A great idea and production will always find an audience."
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