Networks' latest big gamble

Recycling: In the words of Maury Povich, `it's not that easy to host a game show.' But he and a handful of others are going to give it a whirl as television welcomes more new game shows to prime-time.

January 10, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- When is enough enough?

With last night's debut of NBC's "Twenty One" and the return of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" there are now four prime-time game shows on network television. And, while that might seem like more than enough considering last year at this time there were none, producers and network programmers say the end is nowhere in sight.

"It's like crack [cocaine]. Once you're on it, it's wonderful," said Garth Ancier, NBC's president of entertainment.

Ancier was trying to explain the explosion of game shows and how the phenomenal success of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" is changing the landscape of prime-time network TV. He made the remarks during a press conference here on the winter press tour for television critics yesterday.

"The fact is that `Millionaire' has changed everything," Ancier said. "It's the most significant piece of programming in modern television history. When you can replace all your lowly rated sitcoms and dramas during a `sweeps' ratings period with one hit program as ABC did in November, that's just amazing from a programming standpoint.

"Look, I watch `Millionaire.' It's a fun show to watch. Will I watch it forever? I don't know. When it comes to `Millionaire' and now all the other game shows, it's easy enough to say we're going to saturate the market and this is going to be a short-term trend, but look at `Jeopardy!' and `Wheel of Fortune,' which have been dominant for 10 years."

Fred Silverman, the executive producer of "Twenty One" and the only television executive to have run all three networks as he did CBS, ABC and NBC in the 1960s and '70s, agreed.

"I think you will probably see two or three more new shows yet before we reach the saturation point," Silverman said.

"Will all of them last? No. But, out of that group, you'll probably see two or three that will go on and have a good long run," he added, comparing game shows to network newsmagazines, the programming genre being replaced.

"With the game shows taking over time periods, there are fewer newsmagazines now, but they are still very much in vogue. The game show cycle will go the same way," Silverman concluded.

Bob Boden, the co-creator of Fox TV's "Greed," goes several steps further with his prediction that, "There could be 20 [game shows] and all of them could be successful."

For now, the lineup of game shows includes: "Greed," which airs Friday nights on Fox; "Winning Lines," which debuted Saturday night on CBS; "Twenty One," which started its four-night trial run on NBC last night; and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" which opened a run of eight straight nights last night before it settles into a regular three-times-a-week run (Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays) on ABC.

Each features male hosts of a certain age. For "Twenty One," it's Maury Povich, while Dick Clark does "Winning Lines," and Chuck Woolery handles "Greed." Regis Philbin, of "Millionaire," is, of course, the template.

Povich addressed that uniformity in hosts yesterday during a breakfast here to promote "Twenty One," saying, "Whether you want to call us craggy-faced veterans or whatever, the fact is that we're all pretty well-equipped to handle the job.

"And, contrary to how it might look or what some might think, it's not that easy to host a game show. You have contestants who are very nervous, incredibly anxious and who are competing for more money than they ever imagined. You have to help them in the kind of personal ways a talk show host has to help guests," he added, citing the long career he and Philbin have in talk shows.

Like wrestling, which also is making a comeback in prime time this year on UPN, game shows are a decidedly 1950s television programming format. Povich thinks there's a connection.

"With game shows, you're talking about shows that for the first time in a long time young people and parents can watch together. Mothers and fathers will stay and watch these shows with their kids. And that's the way it was in the 1950s," Povich said.

"Twenty One" is, in fact, a remake of a classic and infamous '50s game show of the same title, which brought down the quiz show genre in 1958 when it was revealed that the producers were fixing the results by giving answers to one of the contestants. Jack Barry was the host and Bob Enright the producer of the original, which inspired the 1994 feature film, "Quiz Show."

When asked to compare his version to the original, Silverman said, "From the beginning of discussions, we decided there would be at least one major difference: We weren't going to fix this show."

Silverman acknowledged that the questions have also been simplified to accommodate what he called "play-along" for viewers, though it still features the sound-proof isolation booths for the dueling contestants.

"The old show was a spectacle where we saw a couple of intellectuals answering extremely difficult questions. From the beginning, we said let's do a show that has enormous play-along so the average person can sit at home and participate in the game," he said.

Ted Harbert -- the former head of programming at ABC who now runs NBC's production company, which makes "Twenty One" with Silverman -- said the "positive" way to look at the explosion of game shows is, "Hey, let's put some different stuff on TV. Anything that mixes up the schedule has to be good news."

Harbert thinks one of the reasons viewers are embracing the game shows is that they felt there were too many sitcoms on the air and that many of them seemed the same.

"If `Winning Lines,' `Greed,' `Twenty One' `Millionaire' and a couple of others all continue -- which I doubt -- is there a chance that we reach saturation? Sure. But so what? that's the way television always works. We'll just move onto the next hot cycle then," he said.

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