The TV networks are in a game-show frenzy, rushing new versions of relics like Twenty-One, The $64,000 Question, and What's My Line? into production. CBS even plans a cutting edge show called Survivor. The concept, called game/adventure, is to strand 16 contestants on a desert island, with little more than the clothes on their backs, for a month. They compete in various feats of mental and athletic ability until only two are left. Then the 14 losers choose the winner. It sounds like Jeopardy meets American Gladiator on Gilligan's Island. Anything that stupid will probably be a hit.
What's fueling this frenetic activity? Ostensibly, it's the success this summer of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a retread from Great Britain, on ABC. This show, hosted by Regis Philbin (another retread), aired for 13 successive nights in August. By the end of the run, ABC more than doubled its ratings in key adult demographics so valuable to advertisers.
When ABC announced plans to bring back Millionaire during the November sweeps, producer Dick Clark decided to get back into the game show business. Clark came up with a concept on Monday and sold it to FOX on Tuesday. The show, aptly named Greed, doubles the big prize to $2 Million, with an interesting wrinkle. Contestants in the final round have already won a million. They can keep it or go double or nothing. In a nation captivated by day trading, Powerball, and casinos on every corner, Greed fits. So far, FOX has improved Thursday night ratings by 85%, to their highest level in five months. Meanwhile, Millionaire is the big hit of ABC's fall TV season.
Game shows are hot. There hasn't been this much interest in the genre for 30 years. A normal instinct of the TV business is to give the audience more and more of something until it tunes out, the ride-that-horse-'til-it-drops theory of programming. Compared to prime time dramas or sitcoms, game shows are also cheap to produce. That was probably the deciding factor for the big networks. Disney was willing to risk a minimal production budget to wring a few dollars out of ABC, a financial disappointment for the Mouse since the 1995 acquisition. Likewise FOX needed low-budget help on Thursday nights where its highly promoted new sitcoms were getting half the audience of big time wrestling on UPN.
Another normal instinct of the TV business is to revive programming ideas that worked in the past. Game show frenzy fits that pattern. After languishing for a generation in daytime and syndication, this inexpensive genre can be retooled with contemporary high-tech glitz and foisted on a new audience. Or that's what producers and network execs believe, but there are problems with that assumption.
In their heyday, the prime time game shows of the 1950's regularly captured half of all TV viewers. Today even a hit show like Millionaire gets about 1 out of 5. The 50 or more choices on cable have fragmented audiences and forced the big networks to make do with less. Game shows died out in prime time because they had limited potential. In the smaller ratings environment, however, they become viable concepts.
The peril of this strategy is that shows with smaller ratings to begin with cannot sustain much audience loss. My guess is that, when we have these programs on two or more channels every night, we'll remember why we stopped watching them 30 years ago. Millionaire and Greed will go the way of The Gong Show. After all, recycled garbage is still garbage.