In a major repositioning effort, Game Show Network will downplay its traditional game-show fare for a more robust interactive gaming and reality-based content platform, including the planned debut of a new ITV-based digital channel in 2004.
The network will shed its name and logo next month for a new moniker, which it wouldn't disclose, and a look that reflects the new programming identity, according to GSN president Rich Cronin. He expects to detail the changes at next month's Television Critics Association gathering in Hollywood.
The first casualty of the new approach was Bob Boden, the network's senior vice president of programming and an avid fan of classic game shows. He left last week amid plans for the network to devote as much as 75% of its primetime lineup to casino gaming and video-game programming.
"This is a major push for us," said Cronin, who said the rebranding efforts have received the blessing of network owners Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media Corp. "Our goal isn't to shift entirely from the model that has certainly succeeded to date — we like it and it has a certain characteristic to it," said Liberty Media senior vice president Bill Fitzgerald. "At the same time we can add incremental programming that serves to broaden the programming that's brought to the channel and incorporate all the more the interactivity. I think it will play very well with the MSOs."
GSN had begun adding programs that reflect its new direction. It's developing the reality series Fake-A-Date and National Lampoon's Greek Games, a competition between rival fraternities and sororities.
Not Poker: Blackjack
On tap for next spring is a weekly series, GSN Presents the World Series of Blackjack, in which players vie for a grand-prize purse of $100,000.
Cronin wouldn't talk about shows that would be added to the revamped network, but did say the service would launch other casino-based programming, as well as video game content.
Overall, Cronin said such gaming and reality programming will makeup more than 75% of its primetime lineup, with the network's traditional game show programming relegated mostly to daytime hours.
"We're not just changing our name. We have a huge financial strategic commitment with our partners to expand to into all these areas, including casino gaming and video games, and to do it in 2004," Cronin said.
The move will pit GSN directly against Comcast-owned network G4, which offers video game-related programming, and networks such as Bravo, Travel Channel, Fox Sports Net and ESPN, which have successfully launched casino-gaming series and specials.
Cronin said the new GSN would offer interactive services that the other networks currently aren't providing, although he would not disclose specific details.
Along with content, the new GSN will continue to feature interactive elements. Currently the network, through its GSN Interactive online division, currently programs 84 hours of ITV programming per week and boasts 1.5 million players.
This past year the network launched interactive elements for its on-air game shows The Weakest Link, Match Game and Family Feud.
Cronin said the interactive component would allow consumers to play along with casino games such as blackjack. But instead of competing for cash — that would constitute illegal gambling — contestants would have the opportunity to gain points redeemable for future prizes.
"We've allowed people to play along with our game shows, but starting with blackjack, people will be able to play along with our casino games," Cronin said. "Gambling is not allowed, but there are ways for people to gain points in order to win prizes."
To further leverage its commitment to interactivity, the network is planning to launch a new, completely interactive digital channel sometime in 2004.
Cronin believes the new service — which will feature both on-air and broadband interactive elements — will help operators compete effectively with their direct-broadcast satellite competitors DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. That's a sales pitch that could resonate even more as ITV-aggressive News Corp. moves to take over DirecTV parent Hughes Electronics Corp. next year.
Cronin also said the network would include interactive revenue opportunities for operators.
"The service would not be the old standard linear spinoff," he said. "If Rupert does with DirecTV what he did with [News Corp.-owned] BSkyB [British Sky Broadcasting plc], then interactivity will be a much bigger priority for cable operators."
One MSO executive who wished to remain anonymous said he would take a wait-and-see attitude toward a new digital interactive service. "The devil will be in the details," said the executive.
Along with the new digital service, there are plans to expand the network internationally.
"The opportunity for us is really great, and the combination of the domestic and international assets that these companies have is perfect for doing this quickly," Cronin said.
Cronin said the network overhaul would not alter agreements GSN currently has with operators, and would enhance the value of the service to MSOs.
Cronin believes the new direction will help spur subscriber growth for the network: GSN is currently in 53 million homes.
He would not comment on whether the network would continue to offer MSO launch fees, which have ranged from $6 to $9 per subscriber.
"While HD is a major priority for [operators] now, we think that as they understand more about the benefits of interactivity and what News Corp. will be doing with interactivity [through DirecTV], that it will make us a network that's more important to have on expanded basic."
Millennium Digital Media senior vice president of programming and product development Peter Smith called GSN one of the few services that has provided value to operators through interactivity.
"If there's a network that could claim value, it's probably Game Show Network, because of the nature of their programming. People who watch are playing along mentally with the game anyway and are now increasingly playing along on their PC's while watching the show," he said.
Cronin would not comment on veteran network executive Boden's departure, but said the network is conducting a search for a new programming head.
Current vice president of programming Kevin Belinkoff will handle programming duties in the interim.
Boden joined the network in 2001 and oversaw acquisition of several top-rated off-network game shows, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The Weakest Link. Boden also presided over the development of such original programming as the Chuck Woolery reality series Naturally Stoned and game shows Cram and Lingo.
The network, though, has been moving away from classic game shows and more toward reality and other game-oriented programming.
In November, GSN averaged a 0.6 prime time rating, up 20% over the same period last year.