A few blocks south of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, a rented sound stage is abuzz with activity.
Inside, past racks of lights and other production equipment, behind steel roll-up doors at BenKitay Studios, GSN’s largest promotional campaign to date is being shot for the interactive games network jointly owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media.
On the stark, white set stands commercial actor Franklin Ruehl. Dressed in a three-piece brown plaid suit, rust shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, he could be the sibling of counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb. The director guides the man, hardly a modern model of female catnip, through a plethora of readings of the line “I have seven wives!”
(The irony, he says later, is he’s not married and never has been. But for scale of $900, he’s happy to say it.)
Take after take, the bullpen in the back rumbles with comments. Looking on are executives from GSN and Big Picture Group, the network’s advertising agency. Have Ruehl emphasize the word “seven,” they suggest. Now, say it questioningly. Now, really, really fast. How about hand gestures this time?
The June 7 shoot created the stills and video for the on-air portion of a campaign to promote what executives hope will be the network’s most watched show to date: Without Prejudice?, a game show that originated on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in 2003. It explores attitudes of players on hot-button issues such as racism, sexism, immigration, religion and gun control.
The show, debuting July 17 at 9 p.m. ET, challenges a panel of five strangers to decide (with little more than brief glimpses into the lives of five contestants) who deserves to win $25,000. Judgments are based on little more than their physical appearance and a few personal anecdotes from the contestants, so the prejudices and biases of the panel are revealed in the decision-making process.
BEATING BACK BROADCAST
While GSN brands itself as the network for games — with fare ranging from the classic Jeopardy! to the late-night texting, online and phone participation program PlayMania to competitive poker — of late, the broadcast networks have made themselves the place for high-profile game programming.
ABC turned around its primetime fortunes with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 1999, which, at its peak, pulled in nearly 30 million viewers an episode. Since then, broadcasters have plugged games in their primetime schedules with varying success: Deal or No Deal on NBC is hot, but 1 v. 100 on that network, another European format adapted for the U.S., is not so hot. This year, Fox has been drawing viewers with the quiz show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, which has pulled in as many as 26.5 million viewers. CBS is heavily promoting the Aug. 7 debut of the new game Power of 10, in which contestants try to predict the results of national polls. The show, hosted by Drew Carey, boasts a potential $10 million prize.
But to date, GSN’s most talked-about programming on cable was a stunt: its live California gubernatorial debates featuring real candidates (including a porn star and Gary Coleman) in the run-up to the 2003 recall election that swept Arnold Schwarzenegger into power.
Most of its programming day is still filled with decades-old classic game shows. The network has shown more creativity online, where it has developed topical games spoofing current events, such as the feud between then-talk show host Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump; and the recent in-jail, out-of-jail saga of Paris Hilton. The site also enables many play-along opportunities designed to keep viewers engaged longer.
GSN’s highest rated program is the three-year-old series High Stakes Poker. That show, part of the network’s Friday gambling block, averages a 0.4 household rating. The network’s average primetime household rating is 0.3, according to GSN officials. GSN reaches 64 million subscribers, according to the network.
That means 181,000 households or 223,000 viewers on average watched GSN during primetime, in the second quarter, according to an Disney ABC Cable Networks analysis of Nielsen Media Research data. That’s down from 215,000 homes and 291,000 viewers a year ago.
Executives hope to snag viewers bored with broadcast reruns this summer by blending the game-show format with topical debates. Network executives are conservatively projecting a 0.5 household rating for the new show. If it attains that, it would be the highest rated show in primetime on GSN.
Racial and social prejudice is part of the national discussion right now, executives said, triggered by such high-profile faux pas as Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant as he was arrested for drunken driving in Malibu to Don Imus’s description of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.”
“This show could do for reality shows what All in the Family did for sitcoms, in terms of initiating a dialog on prejudice,” said network CEO Rich Cronin at the taping of the promotional campaign. “It’s not like the show is trying to change the minds of panelists and viewers, but it opens their eyes that people can be evil but appear to be wonderful, or wonderful and appear to be evil.”
TAPPING THE ZEITGEIST
Prejudice is part of the zeitgeist, he added, noting much of the discussion about candidates for president in 2008 is about non-political issues, but whether we should elect a woman, an African-American or a Mormon.
GSN senior vice president of programming Jamie Roberts was familiar with the show, having viewed it in the U.K. during its run there. So he jumped at the opportunity to recreate it here when pitched by its producers, 12 Yard Productions, a company created by the minds behind The Weakest Link, which scathed the participant with the least amount of useful knowledge.
Broadcasters’ success with games is a driver behind the current original slate, he said.
“It validates our strategy in a way, reinforcing that what we do is relevant. We all grew up with [games], but recently reality became the big thing. Now games [are] back in a big way,” he said. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, now in syndication, remains popular in part because of the massive dollar amounts of the prizes, he said.
“We can’t compete in dollars but we can compete in drama,” he said of GSN’s decision to recreate the English reality/game show. “There are real emotional stakes here.”
For Without Prejudice?, panelists in the first round of play are guided in their discussion by host Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psycho therapist. They are given little more than the contestant’s name and hometown before the first elimination round begins.
In the debut episode (GSN shot five hours to edit into the 90 minutes of the debut episode), one panelist, a Polynesian immigrant, votes to drop an African-American man, volunteering that he hates blacks. This prompts an incredulous reaction from a fellow panelist, an African-American with whom the prejudiced panelist traveled to the taping.
More information is provided in succeeding rounds, as contestants are featured in filmed interviews where they are asked questions about, for instance, their views on gun control, off-shore job outsourcing or abortion. They are even filmed by hidden camera as the contestants are placed in circumstances where their ethics are tested. In the debut, an actor posing as another contestant is given too much money as her per diem, to see whether the real contestant will inform producers of their mistake.
Cronin said his main concern about the show, once GSN gave it the green light, was that panelists drafted from throughout the country would be open and unfiltered in auditions but would freeze on camera. No problem: the show panelists, who are not compensated beyond their expenses to travel to California for taping, showed no reservations about stating their prejudices on camera, and explaining why they held their beliefs, executives said. The actual panelists are not featured in the promotional campaign because the network does not want to tip viewers to the issues and personalities that actually surface in the show.
$5 MILLION CAMPAIGN
Because of the provocative nature of content and the network’s high hopes for the show, Dena Kaplan, senior vice president, marketing, said the network is spending $5 million to promote Without Prejudice? — 30% more than for any previous campaign. An on-channel effort, created in-house, began appearing June 30. Tune-in ads, filling the lower third of the screen during currently scheduled programming, feature a photo of a person with the queries like “Wife beater or scout leader?” (Many of the people featured in these spots are GSN workers. Watch for “President or polygamist?” That’s Cronin.)
For the televised campaign to be placed on other networks July 13, executives decided they wanted to create intimate, close-up images of people that both reinforce and debunk stereotypes. GSN and its agency wanted portraits reminiscent of the work of the late fashion photographer Richard Avedon.
So, they hired a director with a similar aesthetic: Matthew Rolston, whose past work includes helming videos for Beck and Christina Aguilera, among others. To keep with the portraiture aesthetic and the show content (issues come in black and white with gray areas, Kaplan noted), the advertisements are not shot in color.
“We wanted it very simple, in your face, honest and arresting, hitting on a range of assumptions,” Kaplan said.
At the promotional shoot, print stills and digital video scenes are shot one after the other. Ruehl was followed to the set by Sandy Gunn, a retired flight attendant dressed in tweed and pearls as big as dimes.
“Do you think I’m rich?” she asks viewers. (Cronin wanted the line to be “rich bitch,” but was advised Southern stations wouldn’t air the spot with that word.) Gunn’s assigned true identity? She’s a gay-basher in the campaign.
Actress Jackie Mah, an Asian, asks whether people assume she’s a bad driver. Try it with an accent, suggest the execs in the bullpen. Bad idea; most observers can’t understand the line now. Stick with Midwestern pronunciation.
Then, for the sake of the campaign, Mah confesses she’s really a pothead, miming a smoke between index finger and thumb and dissolving into manic giggles. So does the bullpen on-set. Print that take!
Comic Sheldon Anderson follows, giving a fey, then an empowered reading of the line “I am a woman!” before asking the key question, “Would you give me $25,000?”
THE OPRAH TACK
In an effort to get press coverage along with these paid ads, GSN is pursuing some unusual tacks.
The network contracted with polling firm Zogby International, which handles political surveys for news agency Reuters. Three weeks ago, Zogby surveyed 20,000 people across the U.S. to create a national prejudice report card. The results of that survey will be divvied into weekly releases. GSN is pursuing news outlets, such as USA Today or Sunday newspaper magazines, in hopes of placing the reports as a weekly feature during the initial run of the game show. The network is in talks to get the poll results posted to such Web sites as Yahoo!, MSN and AOL.
GSN is also using the provocative nature of the topics raised in Without Prejudice? to attract partnerships with advocacy groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The network aspires to get the endorsement of those groups for their show and sharing materials with the groups, such as the polling data, to be used in counseling.
Though the show should have cross-gender appeal, GSN generally skews female in its viewership, attracting viewers between 25 and 54. Only the network’s Friday-night gaming-related programming draws more men than women to the network, Kaplan said. Ad placements will target that core female audience, Kaplan said. Spot TV will include buys in shows such a The Oprah Winfrey Show and syndicated court programs, she said.
Though GSN normally creates play-along opportunities to extend viewing time, such a strategy doesn’t feel organic to this program, executives said. Instead, Without Prejudice? will be accompanied by polling opportunities. Viewers will be asked to log onto GSN’s Web site and, at different times during the show, state whether they agree with the panel’s conclusions.
When asked how important this game show is to the network, Roberts responded: “It’s important to make shows that people want to watch, that’s why we’re putting a lot of money behind this show. This is a watershed moment for us, a movement into fresh territory.”
GSN has had success with word games and acquisitions such as The Amazing Race, a reality competition from executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, which first appeared on CBS. But to be really noticed, it must “wave the flag” with shows such as Without Prejudice?, Roberts said.
“It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; it may infuriate some people, but it begs to be noticed,” he said.