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Don't Touch That Dial, or That TiVo

GSN uses games and interactivity to lock in viewers 5/08/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

When Rich Cronin took the top job at the Game Show Network four years
ago, he knew where the future was: in interactive-game playing. Quickly, he
found John Roberts, a true interactive visionary, and gave him his VP stripes.

“People have always been interacting with game shows, shouting out the
answers,” says Roberts, who previously worked on pioneering interactive
projects for Fox Family Worldwide and for Paul Allen's Vulcan Programming II.
“We felt that, with our content, if we couldn't make interactivity work,
you couldn't make interactivity work anywhere.”

Since then, things have changed at the network, which was once
programmed primarily with reruns of classic game shows.

Today, the network has a new name, GSN, and while it still beams classic
game shows, GSN now offers a slew of new original programming during prime
time, including a number of casino-themed shows with interactive hooks. This
year, GSN will be launch a dozen shows, including its first casino “awards
show.”

Interactive Elements in Advertising

That interactivity push meshes with GSN's two owners, Sony and Liberty
Media, which have been making many investments in interactive
entertainment.

Some of GSN's most interesting interactivity efforts aren't programs
at all. The network created about 50 spots for advertisers, including General
Motors and Burger King, that feature interactive elements designed to encourage
online users—and discourage viewers from tuning out. Online players who can
answer questions about the ad are given points that can eventually add up to
discounts on merchandise.

“That gives them an incentive to watch the spots and helps make us
about as TiVo-proof as possible,” Cronin says.

Getting viewers involved

Roberts estimates that 80%-85% of those who are playing along online as
they watch the show end up watching the whole commercial.

Advertisers have also been using the interactive elements to ask the
users questions about their product. This gives advertisers another advantage:
valuable marketing information.

GSN seems sincere about its interactive future. Just last month, at the
NCTA Show, the network announced that it is expanding the amount of programming
that has online interactive elements all the way—gradually expanding them
from 12 hours a day to 19 hours this month.

During the development process of new shows, interactive elements are
added early on so viewers of original fare like Celebrity Blackjack can play along online,
accumulating points that can be used for discounts on Sony merchandise and
other rewards. Online games have even been developed for the classic game shows
GSN has acquired from outside suppliers.

“It gives people a whole new reason to watch shows that have already
aired,” Roberts says.

Currently, GSN has about 2.7 million registered users at its Web site,
with 3%-5% of its viewers playing GSN games online while watching its
programming on TV, Roberts estimates.

Last year, the network also started GSNi, an iTV application on Time
Warner Cable's system in Hawaii. It allows viewers to play games using their
TV remote while watching the network, and that is clearly the broadband future
GSN awaits.

“Perfect Fit”

The experiment has dramatically increased both the number of viewers and
their involvement. Roberts notes that viewership has increased more than 300%
among cable homes in Hawaii since GSN began heavily promoting the feature
earlier this year and that 10%-15% of viewers watching there are using their TV
remotes to play along with GSN programming.

As operators deploy interactive-TV services more widely, Cronin argues,
the GSNi interactive application will be a valuable application, especially as
new-generation cable boxes make interactivity common. “It is a perfect fit
for our programming.”

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