Syndicators Up the Ante on Game Shows
New-season tweaks devised to draw viewers into action early
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/28/2009 2:00:00 AM
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'A game within a game'
This season, almost every veteran syndicated game show is tweaking its format to draw viewers into the action as quickly as possible.
Debmar-Mercury's Family Feud, produced by FremantleMedia North America, has added a Bull's Eye round at the top of the show in which each of five family members answers a quick question: âWhat was the number-one answer to this survey question?â Families play for an ascending amount of money, starting with $1,000 for question one and ending with $5,000. If the family gets all five questions, it starts the game with an extra $15,000.
'A game within a game'
âI love it,â says host John O'Hurley. âIt creates a game within a game, and that starts the show right off with an energy you can't get any other way.â
âThe audience is so fragmented now,â says Feud Executive Producer Gaby Johnston. âYou have to catch their attention immediately. Back when Richard Dawson was host, we would sometimes go 10 minutes before we asked the first question.â
Likewise, Disney-ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has added a âcold openâ in which the game begins right when the show starts, according to Executive Producer Michael Davies. âWe tried cold opens on the network show with Regis [Philbin] this summer,â Davies says. âWe liked how they worked so much that we brought it into the syndicated show.â
Millionaire also has amped up its money tree, with the first question now worth $500, up from $100, and the first âsafety levelâ occurring at $5,000 instead of $1,000. âThis guarantees real money to everyone who comes on the show,â Davies says.
CBS' Wheel of Fortune also wants to speed up the pace of play, and to do that it has replaced the âfree spinâ with a âfree play.â A player who hits the free play must use it right then and can buy a vowel for free, or call a consonant and earn $500 each time it appears in the puzzle, or solve the puzzle with no fear of losing a turn.
âIt's really a form of immunity,â says Harry Friedman, executive producer of Wheel and Jeopardy!. âIt adds an element of strategy that we've never had before. I hope it will lead to more puzzles being solved.â
More puzzles being solved means more opportunity for audiences to play along, and that's what keeps them glued to the screen. âIt's just human nature,â Friedman says. âWe can practically hear viewers shouting at us from their living rooms, 'Stop talking and let's play the game!'â
âWe're constantly trying to change it up and bring new things to our audience without completely changing the principles of the game,â Davies says. âThe whole category is really good at this.â
Once they get viewers into the game, producers want them to stay there and return to watch as many days as possible.
Besides the new Bull's Eye round, Family Feud contestants now play for a Chrysler 300C sedan. If they win five games in a row-appearing on the show for five days-they take home the car.
"The chance to win the car creates another element of the game within the game," O'Hurley explains. On the choice of the Chrysler 300C, Hurley says: "You have to go with what America would go with, and everybody loves that car."
Millionaire has added the Tournament of Ten, in which the 10 contestants in September and October who earn the most money the fastest will come back to the show starting Nov. 9. The tournament runs through Nov. 20. By giving contestants something else to play for besides winning his round, viewers also will have a reason to watch the show every day. A tournament leader board is updated on the show each day, according to Davies.
During Millionaire's tournament in November, each contestant will appear at the end of the show with one shot at answering a $1 million question. If the contestant gets the question right, he gets the chance to win $1 million. If he gets it wrong, he loses everything he originally won exceeding $25,000. The highest seed will be the contestant who won his round the fastest, and the highest seed to answer the million-dollar question correctly will win the money.
"With everything going on with the economy, we really wanted to have someone win a million dollars, which hasn't happened since early in our syndicated history," Davies says.
This November, Millionaire also will be adding celebrity questions, in which a celebrity poses a question related to him or her via video. Davies thinks that incorporating more video into the show is a good idea because "this is TV, not radio. These questions will bring in people from other locations and surround the viewer with more video. Anything we can do in television to play on the ability of television is a good thing."
CBS' Jeopardy! already moves pretty fast, but this season it's introducing the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational, which will take place on the third Thursday of every month.
"We selected celebrities who had done well in their previous appearances," Friedman says. "They are guaranteed a minimum of $25,000 for their charity just for playing. If they win their first show, they are guaranteed another $50,000 for their charity and a shot at the million."
CNN's Wolf Blitzer, The Tonight Show's Andy Richter and Desperate Housewives' Dana Delany were the first three contestants on Thursday, Sept. 17. Blitzer bombed, finishing up with minus $4,600. Richter won $68,000 for his charity of choice, St. Jude Children's Hospital.
Other celebrities coming to play include NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actors Doug Savant and Christopher Meloni, actress Elizabeth Perkins and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak. In May, each winner of these nine episodes will come back and play for $1 million. Overall, Jeopardy! is committed to donating more than $2.5 million to charities this season.
Finally, NBC Universal's Deal or No Deal, now in its second season in syndication, is adding more theme weeks and guest bankers, starting with the WWE's Dolph Ziggler. The show will feature weeks honoring nurses, teachers and firefighters. It also will offer one week in which audience members will be randomly selected to play the game.
"The great advantage of game shows is that you can play along with them," says Millionaire's Davies. "The more game play you can cram into every show, the better."
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