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Networks get real to find a ‘Deal’

NBC's success inspires rivals to reopen the gameshow case

Cost-cutting webheads desperate for lower-budget programming have fallen back in love with an old flame: the gameshow.

Spurred by the smash success of “Deal or No Deal,” TV’s earliest genre is in the midst of a resurgence, with nearly a dozen quizzers either on the air or in the works. NBC’s “Identity,” premiering over five nights this week, is the latest contestant to enter the fray.

Nets love quizzers because they cost much less than scripted shows — as little as $600,000 per hour, vs. $2 million-plus for most dramas. They can also be ramped up quickly and — in an era of 500 channels and 5 million Web sites — easily stand out from the pack.

Gameshows also have a broad demo appeal, attracting older viewers and, when successful, also piquing the interest of coveted younger demos. They’re also family-friendly, perfect for nets trying to woo viewers back to the 8 o’clock hour.

But given how quickly “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and the last round of primetime quizzers fizzled, here’s the $64,000 question: What can the nets do to make the latest round of quiz mania last longer?

For one thing, execs say, don’t call ’em gameshows.

“I see them more as reality shows than games,” says Craig Plestis, the NBC reality chief who gave the go-ahead to “Deal” — the only breakout hit among the four gameshows launched this year.

“In the past, the people who played gameshows were just contestants. We didn’t get to know them as characters,” Plestis adds. “We’ve learned from reality shows that you have to spend a lot of time on the casting to make sure someone has a compelling story to tell.”

Of course, injecting personality into a game format is nothing new. Chuck Barris was doing that in the 1960s, making the private lives of players key to skeins such as “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” — and even he wasn’t the first.

But the new breed of quizzers often makes personalities and compelling storylines even more important than the game itself. It’s almost a new genre: quizality shows.

On “Deal,” for example, the actual game — guess what’s in the box! — is often secondary to everything else going on in the studio. Endemol USA prexy David Goldberg, whose company produces “Deal,” says the skein owes a debt to another one of his company’s shows.

“We learned something from ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,’ ” he says. “And that was that in addition to rich, colorful characters, (viewers) want to like the people and root for them. You need people who are compelling and appealing characters who deserve to win.”

“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” exec producer Michael Davies says that since “Millionaire,” most gameshows have become almost like one-hour dramas — building on a tradition that began with the isolation booths of “The 64,000 Question.”

“It’s not three people buzzing in from podiums, and I say that with the greatest respect for ‘Jeopardy!’ ” says Davies, who’s developing a slew of quizzers via Sony Pictures TV and his Embassy Row banner. “The modern gameshow is now shot in closeup and heightened by music. Every part of the production is about heightening the drama.”

Another industry wag said quizshow dramatics are a must in an age of movie-quality TV skeins.

“When you’re competing against ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘CSI’ and big reality shows with twists and turns, a gameshow has to offer just as much drama,” he says. “If it’s just a straight-ahead gameshow, it’s not going to be able to compete against shows that promise a more dramatic storyline.”

The post-“Millionaire” quizzer also needs to be highly interactive — the better to keep auds engaged in the era of Tivo.

Part of the equation is pretty old-fashioned. “You need to be able to watch and play along at home,” says Metcalf, who considers a quizzer a success if auds find themselves constantly yelling at their TV screens.

But Endemol has also been a leader at integrating hi-tech interactivity into its quizzers, launching phone-in games that let auds win $10,000 or more per episode, simply by watching the show.

The catch: You can only play when the game is on the air, not two hours or three days later when watching it back via a digital video recorder.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure it’s must-see TV when it’s actually on the air,” Goldberg says.

That includes pressuring NBC not to overschedule “Deal or No Deal.”

So far, the Peacock has shown some restraint, pulling the show over the summer and limiting its in-season broadcasts to about two times per week. “Deal” does get heavy exposure on CNBC, however.

Bob Boden, the programming chief at Fox Reality Channel who used to hold a similar gig at Game Show Network, says NBC is doing the right thing.

“The key is to make a show an event on a weekly or possible twice-a-week basis,” he says. “In primetime, it has to become a destination show on a particular night at a particular time.”

Davies says he thinks one reason “Millionaire” struck a nerve was because it became almost like a live sporting event. Shows were taped just hours in advance of airing, and average Joes and Janes at home could “call up and find themselves flying to New York to be on the show the next day.”

Davies admires the production values behind “Deal,” but still believes that, in the end, the game’s the thing.

“If you don’t have a superb game, you just don’t stand a chance,” Davies says.

Indeed, despite all the buzz about quizzers, there’s already evidence viewers won’t simply watch any show with big money and flashing lights.

Fox’s “The Rich List” bit the dust after a single airing. And ABC’s William Shatner-hosted “Show Me the Money” has struggled.

Webs are already scrambling to come up with shows that don’t feel like “Deal” rip-offs.

CBS and Fox both announced plans to launch gameshows in which kids will be the stars. And “The Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss is working on a competition in which people will vie to see who has the bigger sob story.

But Endemol’s Goldberg says he’s already losing interest in the genre.

“Our feeling is, we’re moving on to the next thing,” he says. “I think there will be a level of saturation, which is why it was so important for us to get out their first.”

Others, however, note that gameshows have had long lifespans in daytime (“The Price is Right”) and syndication (“Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!”). They say there’s no reason the genre can’t thrive for a while in primetime.

“When reality was first becoming established, it was a Band-aid, and now it’s a staple,” Boden says. “The gameshow can be one, too … if (the networks) play their cards right.”