Here's a clue: This TV programming format is being dusted off, spruced up, and heralded as a fix for declining network fortunes and even the first real bridge to the interactive world. If you guessed "What is the game show?" you would be correct.
And if you are a honcho at Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network, you are the first big winner in the game show comeback sweepstakes. In the mid-summer TV doldrums, ABC aired a 15-day run of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a show on which daytime chatmeister Regis Philbin challenged regular folks to skill-testing questions. The result: Millionaire was a giant hit, and by the end of its run had been seen by 115 million people--nearly half the U.S. population. "We had confidence in this show," says Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of ABC Television Entertainment Group. "But I have to admit we were over the moon with its results."
Now, Millionaire, a version of which originally aired in Britain, is slated for a second two-week run on ABC, starting on Nov. 21. But it won't be the only game in town for long, as rival networks gear up to flood the airwaves with a mix of brand new concepts and old classics. It's little wonder why. Even with their big-money prizes, most of the shows are much cheaper to produce than dramas or sitcoms. It's not as though game shows ever went away--Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are as popular as ever--but the networks are betting Millionaire's success could revive prime-time audiences maxed out on newsmagazines and reality-based shows.
With everything from big-money game shows to auction and sweepstakes Web sites, the networks are also feeding off some sort of widespread pre-millennial urge to win--or perhaps to not be left behind--spurred by the bull market and the Internet stock bubble. "There's no question there's something in the air," making game shows trendy, says Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS Television.
Tapping into the zeitgeist, CBS is running an updated Hollywood Squares and developing new versions of the classic shows $64,000 Question and What's My Line? And in early October, it began targeting its viewers' pecuniary urges online by acquiring control of iwon.com, a Web portal featuring a sweepstakes. In exchange for performing routine tasks like checking the weather, visitors vie for prizes of $10,000 a day, $1 million a month, and $10 million on tax day. CBS plans to air the monthly and annual draws.
The other networks aren't far behind. NBC has enlisted TV programming veteran Fred Silverman to revive Twenty-One, one of the original 1950s quiz shows. And Fox Broadcasting Co. has rushed into production with Greed, which features a $2 million-plus jackpot and will air during the November sweeps period.
Not surprisingly, the cable-only specialty channels that have been eating away at the big broadcast networks' viewers for years have already been getting in on the act. Sony Corp.'s five-year-old Game Show Network now reaches more than 25 million homes with reruns of old shows and new fare like Extreme Gong and a kid's version of Jeopardy called Jep! Music channel VH1 has a Rock n' Roll Jeopardy and is working on Rock n' Roll Pyramid. And one of Comedy Central's big hits is Win Ben Stein's Money, which pits real contestants against the pundit, who claims to be putting up $5,000 of his own cash each episode.
INTERACTIVE FORUM. Game shows are also miles ahead of other genres when it comes to true interactivity, often sporting Web versions, CD-ROMs, and now, interactive-TV editions. One of Game Show Network's more unusual offerings, Throut & Neck, is a hybrid cartoon/game show in which viewers call in for a chance to control the actions of its animated protagonists. "As technology progresses, game shows will be the foremost forum for interactivity," predicts Andrew J. Kaplan, executive vice-president of Sony's Columbia Tristar Television Group.
Indeed, for now, players of Throut & Neck use their touch-tone phones. But since Oct. 4, Microsoft's WebTV has been able to play along with Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, also produced by Columbia Tristar. And on Nov. 29, MTV is launching webRIOT, a music-video trivia show in which up to 25,000 viewers can play along with studio contestants, and the top scorers will win prizes and have their names aired. Unlike other interactive shows, webRIOT doesn't require a special set-top box--just software downloaded off MTV's Web site onto a PC. Brian Graden, MTV's executive vice-president for programming, says the software cost $500,000 and took 1 1/2 years to develop. "It's expensive to synchronize online and TV, but it can be done," he says.
And compared with other forms of programming on the big networks, even game shows featuring big prizes and fancy software seem downright cheap. It can cost as little as $150,000 to produce a five-day run of a basic game show. A prime-time game show featuring celebrities such as Hollywood Squares runs as high as $700,000, says one executive. But that's still much cheaper than sitcoms, let alone prime-time dramas, which can weigh in at more than $1.5 million per hour. Michael Davies, the independent producer who acquired the U.S. rights to Millionaire, says "per hour, it is the cheapest show on ABC's [prime-time] schedule."
One program that promises to push the format further in terms of cost and concept is CBS's Survivor. An import of a Swedish show being readied for next year, Survivor drops 16 contestants on a deserted Malaysian island with camera crews tailing them. Each third day the players vote to expel one of their group, until only two are left. Then, the ousted contestants vote on which of the two will walk away with the show's $1 million prize. An old concept may be coming back, but it's a long way from choosing between door No. 1 and door No. 2.