Leave My Game Shows Alone
When networks reinvent tried-and-true formats, the results can be losers
By David Bianculli -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/3/2008 8:00:00 PM
I understand completely why networks, especially in desperate, post-strike scramble mode, would be eager to revive classic primetime game shows that are inexpensive to produce and, given their familiarity factor, easy to promote.
What I don't understand is why the networks and the producers of these shows seem so annoyingly insistent upon reinventing them. While the ratings for a couple of these remakes have been pretty good, the numbers could have been even better if there had been less fiddling with formats.
Take NBC's Celebrity Family Feud—please. Every previous incarnation of this game, whether or not the host has been kiss-crazy, has been the same. Two teams of players square off to try and guess how sample respondents replied to various poll questions. No matter how funny the questions, or how absurd the category, players took the game seriously, and tried to answer correctly.
Yet in Celebrity Family Feud, even though the players are representing, and trying to raise money for, their favorite charities, they aren't playing to the best of their abilities. Many times, they aren't even playing as themselves, but as the characters they play on television.
One recent episode featured, as one team, cast members from NBC's own My Name Is Earl. But the players were playing in character, so it wasn't Jason Lee who was answering. It was Earl. And the answers were appropriately stupid.
Appropriate for the characters, that is, but not for Family Feud, and especially not when you're playing for charity. To the category “Something you wear that hurts,” Jaime Pressly, as her trailer-trash alter ego Joy, responded, “Nipple clamps.” Survey said…zero matches. Big surprise there.
Similarly, the new CBS primetime incarnation of Million Dollar Password messes things up, though less egregiously. The central charm of the show—mixing and matching everyday people with celebrities in verbal battles to identify words using other one-word clues—remains intact. And the lightning round, presented as it is in the 2008 version, is even more dynamic and exciting.
Yet one central strategic element of the old, classic Password has been destroyed. It used to be that teams alternated clues and responses, so that if the team going first didn't nail the answer right out of the box, the second team had a great chance to build on that exchange and provide the correct answer instead.
In the new Million Dollar Password, each team plays its round uninterrupted, challenged only by the clock. That makes it much easier for someone to throw clues, and much, much easier to amass a higher total of correct answers. It also, I argue, makes for a much less interesting game.
But does it matter? In the Nielsen ratings, NBC's Celebrity Family Feud has leveled off just above the 7-million range of total viewers. That may not sound like much, but it was strong enough in mid-July to rank the program 12th for the week among all primetime shows, even though it was up against ABC's more potent (and, perhaps not coincidentally, more repugnant) Wipeout. Demographically, it scored 1.8 million viewers age 18-49 for a recent episode, about half as many as watched Wipeout.
Million Dollar Password has performed even better—up to 8.5 million overall viewers in mid-July, and, like Celebrity Family Feud, placing in the Top 20 among all primetime programs for the week. Who's to say, though, that these shows wouldn't be performing even better if the games themselves were more like the versions of old?
Better than both of them, in ratings and as a true representation of previous versions, is another CBS primetime game show, The Price Is Right Million Dollar Spectacular. Drew Carey, taking over for Bob Barker, has been fabulous, and neither he nor the show's producers, to this point, have messed with the simple, hokey, appealing and, yes, nostalgic nature of the game. It wasn't broke—and for once, TV didn't try to fix it.
The rumor is out there, though, that The Price Is Right will undergo a massive overhaul next season. Say it ain't true, Drew. Your show is one of the few that continue to get it right, no matter what date is on the calendar.
Celebrity Family Feud was an embarrassment. Hated it. The questions were not suitable for any show with the word "Family" in the title airing at 8:00. The fact that the first answer to the first question on the show had to be bleeped told you all you needed to know. Give me John O'Hurley's daytime show.
Million Dollar Password was a much better game, though it played more like a Million Dollar Pyramid...which as a lover of both games, kinda worked for me. But I think they need to reconsider the celebrity-civilian dynamic. Betty White, Rosie O'Donnell, Steven Weber and Neil Patrick Harris were the only celebs that played the game very well. The others, I barely recognized as celebrities. I think there'd be more emotional investment in all-civilian teams. We'd get to know the players better because Regis wouldn't have to spend so much time schmoozing the stars.
Hopefully, the main changes to The Price Is Right will be bigger prizes on the big wheel (I hear its up to $25K on the daytime show) and some other games, and maybe introduce a new pricing game or two. Some of the games, and the big wheel, could use a cosmetic makeover, too. (Can you even buy parts for some of those antiquainted scoring devices any more?) But leave the basic flow of the show alone.
Drew's had a season of doing Barker's show. Now it's time to make it HIS show. He was much more relaxed by the end of this season. He'll only improve.
Myke Perrey - 8/4/2008 11:02:00 AM EDT
I could not agree with you more about the 'My Name is Earl' folks on Celebrity Family Feud. Why even bother to pick a charity if they're not going to even try to win some cash?
The back-and-forth on Million Dollar Password does come into play if there's a tie after the qualifying rounds. It's only happened once so far though, when the amazing Betty White guessed "thermos" after only two clues.
The Price is Right will be fine. What we really need to be afraid of going forward is the rumored revival of What's My Line?, with the decidedly unsuitable David Hasselhoff as host or regular panel member.
Carrie Grosvenor - 8/2/2008 4:18:00 PM EDT
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