'Feud', 'Password' set for summer

The TV industry’s wheel of fortune has just completed its spin and stopped on … gameshows.

In part due to the writers strike, there are quizzers and other games of chance all over the broadcast networks’ primetime schedules these days, led by such ongoing hits as NBC’s “Deal or No Deal,” CBS’ “The Price Is Right” and Fox’s “Don’t Forget the Lyrics” and “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader.”

Two newcomers are headed for the primetime schedule this summer, NBC’s “Celebrity Family Feud,” hosted by Al Roker, and CBS’ “Million Dollar Password,” featuring Regis Philbin as host.

Although gameshows are ubiquitous in primetime, it doesn’t mean they’ll work: Cable’s Game Show Network is struggling to find an aud, and only a small fraction of any gamer to launch on the broadcasters will succeed.

Still, that doesn’t keep networks from spinning the wheel.

“The gameshow cycle is back,” says Harry Friedman, executive producer of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” both of which are still dominating TV syndication after more than 24 years. “Gameshows are easy to understand and family friendly, and they engage the viewers.”

Gameshows are also cheaper to produce than scripted shows, and the primetime network games are ramping up the level of high-stakes competition, according to Garnett Losak, head of programming for Petry Media, which represents hundreds of TV stations around the country. “When you give away a million dollars, the viewers take notice.”

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, another rep firm, says a further reason for the newfound popularity of gameshows is the celebrity element. “People are obsessed with celebrity,” he said, “and when you throw celebrities into a competition with known formats like ‘Password’ and ‘Family Feud,’ you’re going to draw an audience.”

And don’t rule out gameshows as a refuge from a gloomy economy racked by soaring oil prices and record numbers of mortgage foreclosures, says Friedman. In bad times, he says, “people turn to gameshows as a safe haven, an escape.”

Gameshows have also become employment centers for comedians. Drew Carey fronts both “Price Is Right” and another CBS game “Power of 10.” Howie Mandel traffic-cops “Deal or No Deal,” Bob Saget hosts NBC’s “1 vs. 100,” Jeff Foxworthy does the honors on “Fifth Grader,” Dennis Miller emcees “Amnesia” and Penn Jilette takes charge of “Identity.”

“Comics know how to think on their feet,” Friedman says. “They can keep the festivities going.”

Of course, this year’s trend toward primetime gameshows could be as short-lived as the boom early in the decade that began and ended with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a phenomenon that burst on the scene as a regular series in January 2000.

Talk about monster hits: The three separate weekly episodes of “Millionaire” wound up as the top three shows on broadcast TV in the 1999-2000 season. Overexposure caused the ratings to slip in 2000-01, and by 2002, ABC had to cancel the series because of subpar Nielsens, one of the most precipitous flameouts in broadcast history.

Gameshows may be filling the gap in the broadcast networks’ current primetime schedules, says Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory to Primetime Network & Cable TV Shows,” but the genre is not exactly thriving in cable TV. And, except for the bellwether “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy,” gameshows operate only on the margins in TV syndication.

GSN: The Game Show Network, the 13-year-old cable channel co-owned by Sony and Liberty Media, has failed to make much of a dent in the ratings. For calendar 2007, for example, GSN ended up in 43rd place among all ad-supported cable networks, averaging only 256,000 total viewers in primetime, 13% below its 2006 average.

Carroll says one of GSN’s problems is that “it’s a standalone network.” By not being part of a media conglomerate that owns multiple cable networks, GSN doesn’t have the clout to get better license fees from cable operators and better positions on the dial. It also has failed to come up with a signature show that breaks out of the pack and makes the network a destination for viewers — perhaps because fresh gameshows are so readily available on broadcast television.

Cable ops and satellite distribs paid GSN only a modest $79.9 million in license fees for 2007, according to SNL Kagan. But the network chalked up $49.5 million in cash flow last year because its programming expenses were held in check, to $51.1 million. (Its gross ad revenues clocked in at $89 million in 2007.)

“Wheel” and “Jeopardy” are the phenomena of TV syndication. No other gameshow comes close. A half-hour version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” hosted by Meredith Vieira, has proven to be a steady performer since it kicked off in 2002, and “Family Feud,” in its latest incarnation, has continued to get renewals for the last nine years.

Two syndicated gameshows will premiere in September, a scaled-down half-hour version of the hourlong “Deal or No Deal” from NBC Universal, and “Trivial Pursuit,” from Debmar-Mercury.

The success gameshows are having these days is unusual, says Brooks, because, “except for an occasional supernova like ‘Millionaire,’ they’re basically a niche product.”

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