Gaming the System — With Cash Prizes


Cable networks are starting to up the ante
on game shows.

Whether it’s remaking traditional, “shiny-floor” game
shows, like GSN’s revival of The $100,000 Pyramid, or new,
innovative and viewer-interactive shows like Fuse’s Funny
or Die’s Billy
on the Street, network executives said the thrill
of instant gratification and financial gain in a troubled economic
environment has drawn viewers back to a genre that
has been around since television’s earliest days.

“Programming always reflects what’s going on in the
country, and we’re in tough economic times, so wishfulfillment
programming is popular,” Amy Introcaso-
Davis, executive vice president of programming for GSN,
said. “Game shows give people a chance to win money and
feel good. It’s feel-good programming.”

Like reality-competition shows such as Food Network’s
Chopped and Bravo’s Top Chef, game shows provide cable
networks with relatively inexpensive programming that
can capture the audience with often intense and edge-ofyour-
seat programming that features the promise of instant
fame or wealth.


“[Game shows] are well-suited to cable, because you can run
[many contestants] through multiple episodes without a tremendous
amount of cost,” Mark Stern, president of original
content for Syfy, said. Syfy recently joined the game-show
ranks with TotalBlackout.

“One of the reasons why a lot of cable networks like to
use the format is because you can actually mount a lot of
hours of television that your audience really likes and is
familiar with for not a lot of economical cost,” Stern said.

Networks such as IFC are also using the game format
to better position the network’s brand to viewers. IFC is
combining the game-show model with its comedy-based
original programming strategy in its new series Bunk,
senior vice president of original programming Debbie
DeMontreux said.

In Bunk, contestants will participate in random improvisational
games, such as who can draw the best character
or who can deliver the best insult line to a puppy. Contestants
play for unusual stakes: One participant played to
quick smoking; another to reunite his divorced parents.

Bunk is a comedy improv show
that’s told through a game-show
lens, because the game-show format
is so tried and true and something
that people feel comfortable
with,” she said. “It’s a reinvention
of the game-show convention, but
it’s also another alternative comedy
show that we’re adding to a slate
of shows of that nature.”

Syfy is using the game-show
format to extend its “Imagine
Greater” brand with viewers,
through its new series Total Blackout.
The “extreme” game show
puts contestants in a totally dark
room, where they must identify cockroaches, fish, smelly
sneakers or other strange objects by touch or smell. Viewers
can see what they can’t. A cash prize of $5,000 is at stake.

Total Blackout
has averaged 1.1 million viewers since its
April 25 launch, according to Stern.

The show has also been successful in drawing younger
viewers who are looking for more thrill-seeking content.
“We’re looking for thrill rides and things that feel appropriate
for our brand but are also taking some chances and pushing
the envelope, and that gets really fun with shows like Total
,” Stern said. “They’re super-serving an audience
that has a younger skew, and it allows you to reach into the
audience you have and extend your brand.”

Hip-hop music-heavy MTV2 will put a new twist on a
classic game show on Tuesday (May 22), when it debuts
Hip-Hop Squares. A contemporary takeoff on the venerable
Hollywood Squares, the tic-tac-toe-based game show
will feature on its panel such rap artists as Fat Joe and Biz
Markie, and will offer cash prizes.

“We were looking for a lot of formats that we thought
could be updated, but that the audience could quickly understand,
and even if they hadn’t seen the original, they
would know what this is,” Paul Ricci, senior vice president
of programming and production for MTV2, said. “We came
across Hollywood Squares, but with hip-hop talent. We’re
very aware of all the noise that you have to break through
on cable, so we tried to find something that the audience
can easily wrap their head around.”

While viewers are familiar with the traditional game-show
format, the genre’s newest entries provide a more contemporary
and comedic feel, taking the game out of the studio to remote
locations and offering viewers opportunities to interact,
Dave Clark, executive vie president of integrated sales and
partnership at Fuse parent MSG Media, said.

Fuse’s Billy on the Street goes right to its viewers, as comedian
Billy Eichner quizzes everyday
people on music-trivia
topics. The show, co-produced by
Fuse and comedy-video website
Funny or Die, offers two traditional
rounds of trivia questions.
In the third round, contestants
must agree with the opinions of
Eichner, who hands out cash and
miscellaneous prizes.

Fuse recently green-lighted
the show for a second season after
its freshman run generated
a network-high 1.3 million total

“Game shows have all the basics
of good TV — you have real stakes, there’s drama, you
often have interesting characters, and the audiences want
to hang in to see what happens,” Clark said. “If you can have
fun along the way it’s great entertainment.”

OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network is using the format
to interact directly with viewers.

OWN’s Are You Normal, America? — an off shoot of a segment
from the syndicated Oprah Winfrey Show, in which
two total strangers compete for a $100,000 prize by answering
questions regarding what is normal and not normal for
people to do in their everyday lives, like
vacuuming the house naked, according
to network co-president Erik Logan. OWN
will poll people from around the country
via the Web and social-media sites to determine
if an action or habit is normal or
out of the ordinary.

Logan believes that viewer interaction
via social media and other platforms is
also driving the genre’s newfound popularity.
Unlike traditional game shows
of the 1970s and ’80s, social media allows
viewers to interact with the contestants
and the host, as well as influence the
game through the Internet.

“I think what’s great about today is that
through social media and the technology
that’s available, we can now interact and
connect with the audience in a deeper
way with shows like this, and I think that’s
one of the reasons why we’re excited that
the engagement we feel on the screen and off the screen is a
powerful source of growth for the show,” he said.

Fuse’s Clark said that the interactive nature of Billy on
the Street
has helped it become one of the network’s mostwatched
shows. It features a number of in-game social
media tie-ins, including a segment in which host Eichner
tweets one of his thousands of Twitter followers on
behalf of a contestant who’s having trouble answering
a question.

“[Game shows] tend to lend themselves to the use of social
media, which is of high interest from a lot of networks,”
Clark said.

GSN is hoping that viewer interaction will help breathe
new life into the 1970s and 80s standard The $100,000 Pyramid,
which the network will resurrect later this year. The
show will feature several as-yet-defi ned social media and interactive
features that weren’t available for previous versions,
according to GSN’s Introcaso-Davis.


The network also is gearing up to launch a new series, Jeff
Foxworthy-hosted The American Bible Challenge, that will
also feature social media tie-ins, she said. Contestants will
compete for cash directed to charities.

“Every [game show], we look at it as an online opportunity
as well, because that’s how people play games now,”
Introcaso-Davis said.

As with any genre, Syfy’s Stern cautions that interest could
burn out quickly if more networks decide to gamble with
more shows. But for now it represents a back to the future
scenario for networks.

“There’s always a danger of being derivative, especially
when you’re in a well-trodden genre such as game shows —
the challenge is to figure out how to do it differently, where
it’s not just people standing over their buzzers [and] playing
a lightning round at the end,” he said. “I think what you see
again and again is that as long as you fi nd a new way to slice
that pie, people will show up.”

Added GSN’s Introcaso-Davis: “It’s been with us for 50
years now, and I think it will always be with us — people like
to play games.”