Games And Talk Still Reign Supreme

Reality-based shows may be the rage this year, but they still have a long way to go before they supplant the long-reigning king and queen of syndication – the gameshow and the talkshow.

In fact, the origins of these two programming staples go all the way back to the birth of television itself, which, in the early days, was essentially radio with pictures.

The gameshow was an easy move because it could be done inexpensively, usually involved a single set, a paid emcee or host, an announcer and contestants out of the audience.

The early primetime skeds were sprinkled with gameshows. By the 1950-51 season, the first time full-season ratings were available, two games (“You Bet Your Life” and “Stop The Music”) appeared in the top 25. Gameshows made the top 25 regularly until the 1966-67 season, but then disappeared from primetime for good.

None but “The $64,000 Question” ever made the No. 1 spot in primetime, achieving that slot in its first year, 1955-56. The so-called giveaway show was a national sensation for a while, then became a different type of sensation in the fall of 1958, when it was disclosed that the show had been rigged at times.

That inevitably led to the decline of gameshows in primetime, although some providing more entertainment than prizes stayed in primetime for many years after that. The longest-lasting game was “What’s My Line,” which ran 18 seasons until 1975, but the genre has not been prominent in prime since then. “The Price Is Right” had a summer run on CBS-TV in 1986 and “Super Jeopardy” and “Monopoly” ran this past summer on ABC-TV, but regular-season utilization has not been tried in 15 years.

Daytime network use has been a different cup of tea, with gameshows enjoying an unbroken skein since tv’s formative years. The daytime programming needs were for a Monday-Friday strip and the daypart has been conspicuous for some exceedingly long runs, such as “The Price Is Right,” “Let’s Make A Deal,” “Password” and “Name That Tune.”

Gameshows in syndication were almost always off-network concepts and were also generally minor-league revenue producers until prime access opened the door to bigger opportunities. At first, daytime strips were fashioned into a once-weekly prime access version and checkerboarded on the sked. This changed when “Family Feud” became a strong-rated five-day strip in prime access, followed by the even-more successful “Wheel Of Fortune” strip. Suddenly, syndicated gameshows moved into a big-profit status.

Another aspect of gameshow activity has been the expansion of the gameshow sphere of influence to overseas markets, mostly spearheaded by Fremantle Intl. using Goodson-Todman product. Fremantle and G-T fashioned British versions using English hosts and have been continually successful with them in British primetime, leading to similar forays into French, German and Spanish tv.

What is a talkshow?

Talkshows, meanwhile, are harder to define. The word has become synonymous with NBC-TV’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” the definitive latenight talkshow. Yet “Tonight,” like all of the latenight talkshows in the past and present, is in reality a music-comedy-talk show, with a band on the premises and usually a sidekick for the host.

The latenight talkshow on NBC had evolved from Sylvester “Pat” Weaver’s blueprint for a tv sked, which created a “Today,” “Tonight” and “Home” foundations for latenight, early morning and morning daytime lineups. The latenight show evolved from “Broadway Open House” with Jerry Lester, to shows hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar and finally Carson – each version taking on characteristics that best fit the host’s special talents.

It wasn’t until Carson that “Tonight” became a very strong profit center – the dominant entry in the field. ABC countered with Les Crane, Joey Bishop and Dick Cavett to no avail, and CBS lost a more recent attempt to attract latenight gabfest viewers with Pat Sajak.

The 1980s saw a new twist on the talk format with the success of “Late Night With David Letterman” and its unique brand of cynically hip humor that attracted young, demographically desirable, upscale viewers.

In syndication, usually in afternoon fringe or primetime on indie stations, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and David Frost flourished for years. More recently, of course, Fox’ Arsenio Hall has emerged triumphantly as a proven favorite of younger viewers in the latenight slot, and appears to be well on his way to becoming the most powerful talkshow host since Carson.

Network early morning shows are not normally called talkshows, but that’s essentially what they are – no matter if the news or the entertainment department is in charge. The “Today” show set the guidelines, with host Dave Garroway giving it an entertainment spin. Over the years, “morning news” styles took over, but in recent years the network eye-openers have veered more toward entertainment.

Network daytime talkshows have tended more toward women’s themes, starting with Weaver’s “Home” (hosted by Arlene Francis in the mid-’50s, with Roone Arledge as part of the production staff). “Tonight Show”-style adaptations have been attempted during the day by Letterman and Cavett, but their more sophisticated style couldn’t attract enough daytime viewers to win ratings periods.

The talkshow without the band and the sidekick probably evolved on a national basis with “Donahue,” which started as a mid-morning show in Dayton, Ohio on an NBC affil. Phil Donahue worked alone on the daily hour, showing (for that period) an astonishingly deft ability to involve his studio audience from the floor. His show was one of four live hours per weekday aired over a regional Avco network in Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus and Indianapolis; all the others had a band and a sidekick.

Donahue took his time evolving into a national commodity, not really going into high gear until the show moved to Chicago under new Multimedia ownership. When it became a national syndicated success, it opened the doors for Group W’s “Hour” magazine, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Geraldo,” “Joan Rivers” (previously a flop in latenight) and “Sally Jessy Raphael” in early morning fringe, with late afternoon fringe soon to come.

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