The American Bible Challenge

Network producers invent new ways to make gameshows relevent to modern auds

When it comes to programming gameshows on television today, what is the most important element?

A) Live viewing

B) A novel format

C) Celeb talent

D) App integration

The answer to that isn’t a simple one, as many producers and network execs have come to realize in recent years.

With the primetime heyday of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Deal or No Deal” now a syndicated memory on television lineups, broadcast and cable networks are facing new challenges when launching gameshows in today’s market, thanks to the proliferation of high-speed Internet hookups, social media platforms and DVR use.

Yet execs — including NBC’s alternative chief Paul Telegdy — see gameshows as an opportunity to tap into something more “retro” in order to capture ratings and the public’s attention.

“What’s working on broadcast today are big, live events: American football, baseball, the Grammys, the Academy Awards,” Telegdy says. “They’re very inclusive; you have to be a part of it. It’s the kind of TV where you have three generations of a family watching together.”

Telegdy is one of many to draw comparisons between gameshows and the seemingly DVR-proof quality of live sports: Numerous reality producers cite the genre as one of the last,  most durable pieces of televised content to consistently nab auds’ attention in real time. Fox’s hiring of former Fox Sports chairman David Hill — who has a decorated history in programming football, baseball and hockey — to reinvigorate competition shows “American Idol” and “The X Factor” is indicative of this emphasis in programming big gameshow formats.

Eli Holzman, one of the heads of All3Media and exec producer of the Peacock’s forthcoming mega-gameshow “Million Second Quiz,” hopes to capture the watercooler effect with his 12-day live strip set to bow in September.

“Stephen Lambert and I looked at the television landscape when conceiving ‘Million Second Quiz,’ and thought the quiz game is such a terrific staple,” Holzman explains. “What if you took a David Blaine-type spectacle and blended it with a quiz show?”

The show involves sending contestants to live in a specially built structure in the middle of Times Square, where the game will take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Holzman says they’re very excited to be making a show that’s essential to watch while it’s happening. Bob Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment chairman, said during the Peacock’s TCA executive session in July, “While (‘Million Second Quiz’) is being played in the center of New York City, you could be playing it at home on a special app that we’re building. You can actually join the game if you get pulled out of your home. … It just feels like an event. … It will feel like something, hopefully, big is happening for those two weeks.”

Quiz shows thrive overseas, especially in the U.K., where such series as “The Chase” received a whopping 300-episode order, and “The Million Pound Drop Live” forges through its 10th season on Channel 4. But British game producers are at a notable advantage with live formats when compared to their Stateside counterparts, since the U.K. is in a single time zone.

Therein lies the rub when trying to program U.S. gameshows like live sports: While American audiences may be willing to tune in past 11 p.m. to watch their home team battle for a championship title, they’re hard-pressed to watch a trivia show broadcast live simultaneously on both coasts. The stakes simply aren’t comparable.

Trapped between time zones, American producers have begun experimenting with apps and new polling technology to bring a more inclusive, live feel to delayed West Coast feeds of gameshows.

Chachi Senior, CEO of shingle Ardaban, cites Megaphone TV as an interactive television app that syncs live polling data on screen with each time zone’s broadcast, allowing West Coast viewers to experience a live element with what would otherwise be a delayed program. Bravo’s Andy Cohen utilizes the app on his talkshow “Watch What Happens Live.”

“For a show to do well on primetime, you need the whole country to be watching,” Senior says. “But because of time zones, it’s hard to watch a show live-live if you’re not on the East Coast. People are playing games on their iPhones and iPads, and want to engage in a more visceral way. Megaphone is an at-home play-along where the poll itself is live-live, so viewers feel they’re still engaged with the show.”

Game producer Jeff Apploff of Apploff Entertainment leverages “sound trigger technology” in a gameshow app that listens along with a TV show from a device and encourages live, second-screen engagement.

“When a home viewer is watching one of our interactive game shows, thousands of sound triggers — which are basically beeps that are inaudible to the human ear — are being broadcast through the television speakers. Our app essentially ‘hears’ those triggers and uses them as checkpoints to make sure the proper content is being shown on the second screen,” Apploff says. “It gives people the opportunity to play along in real time. … When the host reveals the answers to a given question, the at-home player will get instant feedback on their second screen letting them know if they were right or wrong. This technology allows us to take the excitement of a gameshow that we all know and love and place it in millions of living rooms around the country.”

And of course, “Million Second Quiz” has one of the most ambitious at-home playalong apps, which quizzes viewers on pop culture news of the day and offers users a chance to join the actual gameshow production in Gotham.

These digital elements stand apart from social media integration, which Apploff describes as a “knee jerk” interactive element added to many gameshows.

“You can’t even go into a network now and say, ‘Oh, and people will use Twitter!’ because everyone is doing that already. Social media is icing on the cake, but it’s not the cake.”

(Amy Introcaso-Davis, exec veep of programming at GSN, echos Apploff when she asks, as a programmer, “What do you do when social media becomes so saturated that you can’t get your message out through there?”)

The accessibility of search engines like Google paired with today’s high-speed Internet, according to Telegdy, does not undercut the strength of trivia in today’s game space, even though the answers to quiz questions are literally at viewers’ fingertips in the form of laptops and smartphones.

“You can cheat at anything,” the NBC exec succinctly notes. “Why would you stay at home and Google ‘Jeopardy’? It removes the fun, and doesn’t benefit you.”

Event TV efforts like NBC’s “Million Second Quiz” mark a shift away from cheap game productions that networks have, in the past, ordered in bulk, and had often used to plug holes on their programming lineups. Yet smaller formats that can be cranked out en masse still hold profitable weight, especially in cable.

Introcaso-Davis notes that producing gameshows can be extremely cost-effective from a network standpoint, since with a single shiny-floor set and line of ready contestants, “you can shoot about four or five episodes of a gameshow a day.”

GSN saw record-breaking success with niche gameshow “The American Bible Challenge,” and offered a renewal to the Stateside version of “The Chase” before season one even launched on GSN. “Bible Challenge” is hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, and “Chase” by Brooke Burns, two stars whose name regonition and visibility beyond TV have helped boost the profiles of their respective gameshows; GSN’s “Minute to Win It” reboot will be led by Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno, who’s also a Subway spokesman and won “Dancing With the Stars” in 2007.

But Introcaso-Davis credits “Family Feud” host Steve Harvey with paving the way for these hosts.

“Harvey is a game-changer in the sense that he’s shown that hosting a gameshow doesn’t pigeonhole you,” Introcaso-Davis says, noting that Harvey maintains steady professional success with other properties, including his daytime talkshow, morning radio program and best-selling books.

“Shows are always bigger than the host, but it helps if you have someone who can help drive the marketing and the attention. But actually hosting a gameshow is very hard to do. It’s a short list of people who can do it,” says Telegdy, who has Ryan Seacrest lined up to host “Million Second Quiz.”

No matter who is hosting a program, however, the success of a gameshow comes down to the format.

“If you look at that game and the genre’s history,” Senior says, “shows that worked are ones with a very simple premise — ‘Jeopardy’ is quiz; ‘Wheel of Fortune’ is a word scramble; ‘Deal or No Deal’ is chance. The failures of game in present time occur because the games are more complicated than they need to be. If you can’t express what that game element is in less than a sentence, it’s not going to work.”

Senior says “comedy and celeb-driven gameshows” are selling right now on the market, but he, Apploff and Introcaso-Davis remark that gamifying current trends and basic human behavior are key in developing a fresh game format.

“Viral Web videos that people watch and engage with could be turned into a game,” Senior says, noting the success of “Ridiculousness” and “Tosh.0” as proof of the subject matter’s popularity. Apploff says he is exploring “top of mind topics” for formats, including “a divorce show, and a format around gay people — areas that others may be afraid to touch.”

Introcaso-Davis is hoping to expand GSN beyond the stereotypical idea of game, and more toward the reality waters.
“We have a category called ‘real-life game’ that are the games you play in everyday circumstances,” she says. “ ‘Pawn Stars,’ for example, could be looked at like a game. Real-life games tend to be transactional, where you are making a decision.”

Apploff, Senior and other producers in the unscripted sphere are eagerly awaiting the rollout of “Million Second Quiz,” knowing that if this Herculian effort sticks with auds, it will open more doors for games in the future.
“As TV evolves, and as people evolve,” Apploff says, “these games need to evolve as well.”

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