Grab your card! Televised bingo is here

January 17, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Staff Writer

Put aside your stereotypes of matrons hunched over card tables in church basements: Bingo is now certifiably trendy. Not only that, it's headed to a television screen near you. Premiering on the Fox Network (Channel 45) today, "Bingo Break" is an inevitable development -- what show creators call the most popular game in the world meeting the world's most popular medium. The show will air at 10 a.m. weekdays.

"Bingo Break" is shot by Innovative Television Inc., in Owings Mills. The Baltimore area will be the show's first test market, but the program's creators plan to syndicate nationally after the first 13-week test run has aired.

"It's hard to find complaints with bingo," says Rebecca Reeves, the studio's vice president of marketing and sales. "As long as we play bingo . . ."

The bingo market is in fact an ideal demographic -- mostly upscale, educated Baby Boomers and twentysomethings, leaning only slightly toward the female, according to a recent national survey, "Gambling in America."

The idea of televised bingo was developed in Baltimore in 1987 by a group of techies who approached Ms. Reeves for help marketing their scheme. Westinghouse's Group W bought the idea and planned to run a few minutes of bingo as filler between programs, especially news shows. But before the paperwork was signed, the Westinghouse management turned over, and "the baby was thrown out with the bathwater," as Ms. Reeves puts it.

It's only now, she says, that the technology exists to make the game interactive, and to beat the curse that has haunted previous attempts to televise bingo.

Several large companies have tried to televise the game in recent years in Honolulu and Indianapolis. "And the audience clamored," Ms. Reeves says. "But they could not maintain the excitement of the bingo hall in the home. No one knew if anyone won. It became a contest to see who could dial fastest. Whoever called first won the money. They said 'we love bingo' -- they didn't say 'we love bingo and telephones'."

"Bingo Break" will alternate ball-popping and bingo playing with chatter and entertainment. Free cards can be picked up at any of the show's sponsors -- Metro Food Market, Neighbor Care Pharmacies and Basics Foods.

A computer in the studio plays along with the audience and shouts "Bingo!" when a winning card has been made. Viewers with winning cards have 10 days to go to American National Savings Bank, which has several branches in the Baltimore area, to pick up $25. A bonus round each day will allow each winner a chance to win at least $500.

Nelson Sweglar, the studio's Baltimore-bred president, had long wanted to launch a show of his own. The producer of "TNT" and "Prime Time Wrestling" for the USA Network, Mr. Sweglar heard about the idea from one of its developers years ago. When Mr. Sweglar came up with a way to mix interactive gaming with a variety show, he knew he had a great idea, and he promptly put down $250,000 in cash. He recently moved back to Baltimore from his company's office in Stamford, Conn.

"Nelson basically came back to town one day, last summer, and said, 'I'm here, I'm interested, here's my money, and I want to play bingo on this thing,' " Ms. Reeves says. The high number of retired people and retirement communities in Baltimore make it an ideal setting for a televised bingo game, Ms. Reeves says, adding that their research has shown that Baltimore is second only to Miami in per capita density of people over 50.

"It's a huge thing," says Mary Arvans, assistant director of recreation at Harmony Hall Retirement Community in Columbia, which houses 240 residents. "We play three nights a week, and if it was up to them [the residents] we'd play it every night.

"They line up at least 40 minutes in advance," Ms. Arvans continues.

Baltimore also serves as home to a number of full-time bingo parlors. Bingo Palace, in Gambrills, draws 300-700 players a night, five nights a week, while Bingo World's 2,000-seat hall in Brooklyn Park regularly attracts 700-800 players, seven nights a week.

Mr. Sweglar chose Baltimore, he says, because the city's low television production costs are matched by a large talent pool. The wealth of entertainers in and around the city, he says, is "one of the best-kept secrets of this area."

Ms. Reeves sees the show's appeal as broad. "There's a significant unsatisfied market out there that'll eat it up," she says. "At that time of day, 10 a.m. Monday to Friday, your options are mostly transvestites who duel with their doggies."

There's nothing wrong with shows like "Sally Jessy Raphael" and "Geraldo," she says, but the two largest TV watchers at that time -- mothers with small children and retirees -- rarely warm to these programs.

"This is a family show, something the family can do together without worrying about what is going to be said or done, and it doesn't teach anything besides good old-fashioned fun. It's more like Kathie Lee and Regis, and as far as tone, it's more like Art Linkletter."

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