Let the games begin

Question: Television gameshows are back because 1) People are tired of talk shows. 2) They are cheap to make. 3) They never really left.

Answer: All of the above.

Despite the fact that “The Price is Right,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” have had long lives, most new gameshows were difficult to get on the air in the 80’s and early 90’s. Recently, however, they have seen a revival.

This season’s new faces include “Pictionary” (Worldvision Enterprises, Inc, a subsidiary of Spelling Entertainment Group Inc.), “Make Me Laugh” and “Win Ben Stein’s Money” (Comedy Central), “Figure It Out!” (Nickleodeon), teen show “Click” (Merv Griffin Productions) and “Wheel 2000” (CBS). “Jep!” — Columbia TriStar’s “Jeopardy” for kids — goes into production this fall.

Meanwhile, All American Television is developing updated versions of “Password,” “Match Game” and “Family Feud.”

Pearson TV has three gameshows in development, including a remake of “Sale of the Century.” And Richard Kline, executive producer of “Pictionary,” has two more game shows in line if it doesn’t do well.

Updating is key. For instance, “Click” from Merv Griffin productions, taps into the terms and pace of the computer control generation to create an educational teen gameshow with three different gameboards: Motherboard, Word Wizard and Website.

“You’ve got to get to the point faster,” says Chambers. “If you want a younger audience, it has to be fast paced with a variety of different elements.”

“The whole category of games has had a great resurgence,” says Michael Fleming, president of the Game Show Network, which Columbia TriStar launched two years ago. “A new demographic of viewers is taking control of the TV set.”

Fleming credits the rise of electronic games like Nintendo and SEGA with creating a younger TV audience with a taste for games. Thus, the appeal of shows like “Double Dare” (Nickelodeon) and “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?” (PBS). Now in their late teens, these viewers are gaining voice in adult programming, overtaking what Fleming calls “the missing generation” — adults who came of age between the 1970s and the rise of Nintendo, and grew up without a taste for gameshows.

Gameshows have proved to be longterm bestsellers. “Price” continues as a leading show in daytime, clocking 25 years on CBS, and the two highest rated shows in first run syndication — “Wheel” and “Jeopardy” — are games.

There was a decline in the number and visibility of gameshows, as a category, following the late 70s, when the genre dominated the timeslot between the news and the soaps.

Games seemed to go out of fashion, and a sudden surge of talkshows jockeyed for airtime. In fact, until two or three years ago, a new gameshow proposal would have met much more resistance than it might now, when at least six new shows are on board for fall, and more in development.

Talkshow saturation — and the negative attention talk shows have received from Washington, D.C. experienced lately — may be another factor in the potential revival of games.

“Talk shows are a really inexpensive form of television,” says Ernest Chambers, senior vp of Merv Griffin Productions. “Reality shows are inexpensive. There are tons of reality shows and talk shows. People keep exploring games and, because they are so cost effective, they have to make them work.”

George Back, president of distribution for All American Television (which owns the Mark Goodson Library and produces “The Price Is Right”) agrees. “Gameshows are a good counter to talk shows.”

Gameshows attract a similar audience to talkshows, Back says, but with more excitement and onscreen activity. They are also advertiser-friendly and inexpensive to produce, key considerations in an industry that relies on the fact that talk is cheap.

“I think there is an appetite and a desire and some pent-up demand for good old fashioned, entertaining gameshows,” says Fleming, “but constructed in a fashion that is consistent with 1997, not 1977.”

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