'Crosswords,' 'Temptation' make syndie debut

That sound in the distance is the bells clanging and the whistles twittering as gameshows begin making their comeback in firstrun syndication.

Except for the 24-year-old “Wheel of Fortune” and the 23-year-old “Jeopardy,” syndie gameshows have languished in recent years, elbowed out by volumes of courtshows and talkshows that saturate the (mostly) daytime schedules of TV stations.

But in the September-to-June syndie season, none of the nine holdover talkshows added viewers (five of the gabfests actually plummeted by double digits in household Nielsens). And only one of the seven courtshow veterans found more eyeballs (“Judge Mathis”).

Audiences are clearly showing their dissatisfaction with talk and court, and syndicators and TV stations are paying attention. For the first time since the 2002-03 season, two new gameshows are making their syndie debut in the same year: Program Partners’ “Let’s Play Crosswords” and Twentieth TV’s “Temptation” (a reupholstering of the golden oldie “Sale of the Century”).

These rookies, which premiere in September, have swollen the number of syndie gameshows to six. And now that Howie Mandel has agreed to host the syndicated version of “Deal or No Deal” for a fall-’08 kickoff, the trend toward gameshows could pick up steam through the end of the decade.

“Deal or No Deal” is the key, says Garnett Losak, VP of programming for Petry TV, which represents hundreds of TV stations. “When gameshows are working on the broadcast networks’ primetime schedules,” she says, “they quickly move into syndication.”

In addition to “Deal,” the Fox net has a primetime quizshow hit in “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader,” hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, and NBC has renewed “1 vs. 100,” hosted by Bob Saget.

Another comedian, Drew Carey, is host of “Power of 10,” a gameshow premiering in August on CBS.

Unless they falter on the network, these shows are almost certain to spawn fresh editions in syndication.

Another reason the gameshow trend may have legs, says Bill Carroll, VP of programming for station-rep firm Katz TV, is their low cost compared with that of other syndie genres.

“Once you build the set and sign the host, you can keep costs down by producing five half-hour shows in one day,” says Carroll. “With a talkshow, you can’t do more than two hours in one day.”

Rich Cronin, president and CEO of GSN, says a new gameshow can cost in the range of $25,000-to-$50,000 a half-hour to produce, a pittance compared with the $200,000 that “Entertainment Tonight,” for example, doles out for each episode.

Another reason the time may be ripe for gameshows is that by scheduling three or four of them back to back, a station can counterprogram blocks of talkshows and courtshows on competing stations.

WNBC New York plans to double-run “Crosswords”at 4 p.m. in place of “Ellen” because the DeGeneres-hosted talkshow hasn’t made a dent in the audience for WABC’s “Oprah.”

And outside the NBC-owned stations, other outlets that carry “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and “Family Feud,” a pair of long-running syndie games, are buying “Crosswords.”

Ritch Colbert, a principal in Program Partners, which distributes “Crosswords,” calls such skedding “a vertical stack” of gameshows.

Bob Cook, president and chief operating officer of Twentieth TV, which handles “Temptation,” says the beauty of gameshows is that they’re “advertiser-friendly.”

“I had a meeting in Chicago with Starcom execs the other day,” says Colbert, referring to the giant media buyer, “and they said they’re having trouble placing their advertising because so many scripted shows are ramping up the sex and violence.”

Still another plus for gameshows is that producers can shoehorn products into the fabric of the content much more easily they can on scripted series, talkshows or courtshows.

Bob Thompson, the leading pop-culture professor at Syracuse U., points to the millions of people who buy digital videorecorders each year and fast-forward the 30-seond spots.

If gameshows “allow advertisers to slap their logo on every gameboard and isolation booth,” Thompson says, ad agencies will climb over one another to buy time.

In return, he adds, the agency will insist only that “the camera pick up my logo on every shot.”

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