Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wanna buy a cable net?

Ever heard of the Travel Channel? Well, you probably have heard of it because you probably have cable or satellite. And the Travel Channel is on almost all cable systems.

Which is why the network looks to fetch close to a billion-with-a-"b" dollars for its owner Cox Communications, now peddling the Travel Channel to the highest bidder. You might wonder why all this money is chasing something that doesn't look like purest gold. As the New York Times, not exactly a hyper-profitable enterprise itself, ungraciously notes:

"By the ratings and revenue metrics of cable channels, the Travel Channel is undistinguished. The channel, which counts Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Man v. Food as its most popular shows, is distributed in nearly 100 million homes, but it earns on average just 6 cents per subscriber. It draws a modest average of 485,000 viewers in prime time."

To give the Times credit, the paper does concede that widely distributed cable networks rarely come up for sale. Cable outlets possess that lovely, recession-resistant dual stream of income, advertising dollars and subscriber fees paid by cable/satellite system operators.

Which got me thinking - dangerous, indeed - about the price GSN might command on the open market. Not that Liberty-DirecTV and/or Sony look like they want to sell. Exactly the opposite, if you believe their execs. GSN may be a small niche operation, but it does have the niche all to itself. And its programming costs are dirt cheap compared to most cablers (Variety-speak alert).

TV by the Numbers says GSN gets eleven cents per subscriber, more than Travel Channel, but only on a smaller base of 70 million available households. Its prime time viewership averages somewhere in the low to mid-300K range, significantly lower than Travel Channel. GSN also skews very old, which would take a lot of sheen off the merchandise for any prospective buyer.

So you could probably knock Travel Channel's price down by half to get an estimate for GSN. If the talk about a billion-dollar tag is accurate for Travel Channel, GSN's price might land in the $450-500 million neighborhood. Sounds like a pricey neighborhood for the home of Match Game, no?

Variety reported that GSN generated about $50 million in 2007 cash flow. The number may be a little higher now, especially because Howie has rejuvenated the network's ratings. So the price tag I was talking about could represent a multiple of nine or ten times yearly cash flow. Maybe not unreasonable...if you just have to have a game show network.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Washington Post, heal thyself

An irritating Washington Post column takes GSN and other cable networks to task today. The newspaper's complaint is that GSN and other networks "abandon" their core programming to capture a bigger and more advertiser-friendly audience.

Well, nobody can accuse the Post of capturing a bigger and more advertiser-friendly audience itself. In the first nine months of 2009, the Post and its smaller sister newspapers bled a whopping $166.7 million in red ink. Almost unbelievably, it could have been worse. Last year the Post lost $178.3 million in the first nine months. They're really making the big bucks with their brilliant business model.

It never dawns on the holier-than-thou Post columnist that commercial media enterprises have to respond to the changing advertising market. Or else they'll end up...like the Washington Post. The columnist gets particularly incensed over GSN's plans for the reality show with Carnie Wilson.

I have serious doubts about the show myself. But I can't blame the network for trying a different approach to win younger and more advertiser-friendly viewers. The Post has long been slammed for bias, inaccuracy, and resting on very withered laurels - with some justification. Now the paper's own business performance makes its business advice look even sillier than it actually is.

Whatever else you might say about GSN, the network hasn't lost $166.7 million in 2009. In fact, the network remains profitable. That's why Liberty kept hold of GSN as part of its DirecTV reorganization. As DirecTV's chief said in May:

"I guess first on the assets, RSNs [regional sports networks] and you know GSN, certainly not planning to sell them. I think we are quite excited to own them...I think Game Show; we think it's a tremendous upside. It's still in its early stages of growth, clearly in a category in gaming when you have fun with it, it really brings a dimension that sort of makes it a not just a one-dimensional channel but really makes it a multimedia digital platform, that really the future is in front of it.

"I think they've made some changes there that have enhanced it. They bought the management team in the last couple of years [David Goldhill and others] that have really give it some energy and I think focus, and again I think we look for using our distribution platform as something that can provide another dimension to really developing GSN to what it can be."

If GSN was hemorrhaging red ink like the Washington Post, Liberty/DirecTV would have dumped it quick as part of the reorganization. Instead they've actually increased their stake in the network to 65%.

Tinkering with Millionaire

I've seen a few grumblings on the web about recent format changes to Millionaire. Over at BuzzerBlog Alex Davis fumed about the planned elimination of the phone-a-friend lifeline. Now at About.com Carrie Grosvenor is upset - at least as upset as Carrie gets about much of anything - over the addition of celebrity guest questioners on the show.

Sorry, but I can't get into high dudgeon, or even low-to-medium dudgeon, about either change. The celebs are just a gimmick to draw (the producers hope) a few of their fans to the show. It's no BFD to me because the gameplay remains virtually unchanged.

Eliminating phone-a-friend is clearly a more significant format tweak. But let's face it, Google and high speed net connections have made the lifeline problematic, to say the least. The original idea of the lifeline is still present with ask-the-expert, so I can't get too exercised about this change, either.

To me the clock is a far more important switch from the original. The countdown clearly makes an enormous difference in gameplay, as anybody can see by comparing Meredith's early seasons on GSN to the current syndie episodes. I'm on the fence about the change. I like the faster pace with the clock, but the drawn-out suspense of the clockless original was sometimes entertaining.

The money tree variations over the years, and the much tougher questions on the syndie vs. the original ABC version, are obviously economy moves. I actually like the tougher questions, and the newest money tree with the $5,000 first safety level makes more sense to me, too. Maybe I'm just in a too generous mood today, but I think the Millionaire format changes over the years have generally been improvements.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

GSN Radio finished?

The alleged ghostwriter for the alleged disgruntled GSN insider on AJ Benza's blog has posted that GSN Radio will be ending within two weeks:

"And GSN doesn't want anyone to know this, but the horrible experiment of GSN Radio is finished in 2 weeks. Staffers were told yesterday. This was a stupid idea from the start, and had anyone had GSN done one bit of research they would have realized that people don't interact with internet radio. Bob Goen may have done a good job, but millions of dollars later, it's another Goldhill failure."

I have absolutely no confirmation for this. But the alleged who-know-who for the alleged you-know-who was right about the Carnie Wilson reality show several days before it was publicly announced. I've never listened to GSN Radio myself but reviews of Bob Goen's performance were generally positive. We'll see if this report proves correct. For now I'm taking the report with a cubic foot of salt.

UPDATE: I posted a note about this report on the GSN Internet board. A long thread with many replies from other posters rapidly developed. The board's moderators have now taken the thread down completely. I have no idea what this means, if anything. The moderators didn't post a denial of the report. They simply censored the thread. We'll just have to wait and see if the rumors of GSN Radio's death are greatly exaggerated.

Idle speculation on my part, but one of the posts on the thread from another poster wished for a speedy end to David Goldhill's tenure at GSN. I disagreed with this post and linked to comments from Goldhill's bosses showing satisfaction with his performance. I don't know if this exchange got the thread censored, or if the moderators just wanted to cut all discussion of the report about the alleged end of GSN Radio.

If the report is true, GSN was probably too far ahead of the curve. Internet radio remains the teensiest-weensiest niche market. It may eventually become a Big Thing, but GSN arrived at the party way too early.

Trying too hard

The best make it look easy in any endeavor. This clanking truism occurred to me as I watched Fred Travalena on Match Game today. Mr. Travalena, who died earlier this year, was a talented comic and impressionist. But jeez louise, he tried so hard every time he got the camera on Match Game. Sometimes he scored, but a lot of times he really didn't. I feel myself tensing whenever he appears on-camera on the show, hoping this one time he won't try to be funny but just play it straight...or at least a little straighter.

The regulars on the show knew when to ease up and when to try for the big laugh. Charles Nelson Reilly didn't feel compelled to go wild and zany every time the red light blinked at him. Especially on daily game shows, too much effort all the time wears on the audience. Nobody in an unscripted situation can launch the perfect zinger at every opportunity. There has to be some downtime or the audience wearies of the constant striving (and, too often, failing).

This is an underappreciated feature of Pat Sajak's superb performance on Wheel of Fortune. Sajak is happy to play straight man most of the time, just paying attention to the game and making the contestants feel relaxed. When a good opportunity arises, though, he's usually ready with a quip, most often delivered in an understated manner.

This laid-back approach has helped him build a long and very lucrative career on the show. And even if he must be bored silly with the game by now, as more than a few have suggested, he grinds out one professional effort after another.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hasbro nonsense

I've been seeing a few comments around the web that the new Hasbro channel, due to launch in late 2010, will become some sort of GSN-killer. Uh, what? Best as I can tell, the reformatted Discovery Kids channel will only be an outlet for luring children to Hasbro toys and games. For whatever reason, though, a few fans of old game shows somehow think this kids' venture will punish GSN for its criminal neglect of the classics.

Yeah, sure. I can just see Hasbro tossing 1970s Card Sharks out there for the preteen set. The tots will really groove to Jim Perry flipping oversized cards. Come on, this channel is just a retread of Nickelodeon GAS, with a jackhammer-heavy pitch for Hasbro products. Nick GAS went belly-up and was never any competition to GSN in game shows for adults. This new kiddie outlet won't provide any real competition, either.

The fateful year

It's not a particularly memorable year for most people. 1990 started a decade, and there was a book about a Great Depression that was supposed to happen in the year, but didn't. Iraq invaded Kuwait, which would set off a chain of events still unfolding. But 1990 has pretty much vanished down the memory hole as far as most folks are concerned...except for the small band of game show freaks, which includes me.

Believe it or not, 1990 resonates pretty loudly with this minority group. It sets the informal boundary between "classic" game shows and, well, all other game shows. The year is not a completely arbitrary marker. By 1990 daytime network gamers had pretty much expired, and prime time game shows had long ago bid farewell.

Cable TV was on the rise, and Game Show Network would debut in December, 1994. Almost by necessity, pre-1990 shows made up virtually all of the network's early schedules. This is the golden age of GSN for classics fans, the Garden of Eden from which the network has ejected itself in a shameful embrace of more recent shows.

Later in the decade Millionaire would arrive on these shores from the mother country, which would kick off the relative glut of game shows over the past ten years. GSN would eventually acquire Millionaire and a bunch of other more recent shows, not to mention the network's own originals. As a result, pre-1990 material, with its smaller and older audience, has now been pushed to the margins of GSN's schedule.

Which occasions many laments on GSN's Internet boards. The recent announcement of Carnie Wilson's upcoming reality show on the network has only roused the lamentation to new heights. Pointing out that GSN can't survive without the newer shows, which is perfectly true, does not help.

The odd result is that a number of posters take to GSN's boards to announce that they don't watch GSN any more, except for the dwindling supply of pre-1990 gamers. A typical sigh: "If Pyramids go, might be time to take a long GSN break for me.....guess I'll start Tivo-ing something like WGN America to fill void." The Pyramid episodes on GSN date from before the fateful year, of course.

Such complaints don't go unanswered. An emphatic poster responded: "This crap is getting really carried away. If you have a problem with GSN stop watching." Luckily for me, I like game shows from both sides of the 1990 divide. The fateful year just isn't that fateful, as far as I'm concerned.

UPDATE: Just visited the GSN board and saw a few more posters announcing that they don't watch the network:

"I hardly watch anymore since PYL bit the dust."

"I agree, I haven't been watching much on the network since most of the G/T shows went away."

"I don't miss GSN now at all. Unless GSN wins back at least Card Sharks and maybe even PYL (with new-to-GSN episodes), my days of watching GSN in the future are numbered."

It's hard not to smile at this. Let's see, I don't watch TLC much. I'll leave a message on their board about how much I enjoy not watching their network...except I just looked and TLC doesn't have an Internet board. Hm.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Benza being Benza again and again

AJ won't let it go. Benza hasn't gotten past his admittedly unfair firing from High Stakes Poker. He just put out a podcast with more rips of every GSN exec within ripping distance.

Maybe acting on the info from the alleged GSN insider on his blog, Benza fires his biggest shots directly at Kelly Goode. She's rapidly becoming the fall lady in this entire fiasco. Whether that's fair or not, I can't tell you. But she is the VP of GSN's original programming, and High Stakes Poker is definitely GSN original programming.

Syndie gamers prosper

Just when I mention that Cash Cab looks to enter the syndication fray, the already established syndie game shows decide to have a nice week. Four of the syndies bumped up noticeably in the week ending October 18, and the other two were flat with the previous week. Paige Albiniak, pictured with an almost painful grin, does the honors at Broadcasting & Cable:

Wheel of Fortune 7.2 - up big and best for the season
Jeopardy 5.9 - up and best like its soulmate WoF
Millionaire 2.5 - up a couple ticks to its season-best
5th Grader 1.6 - flat but very respectable for a rook
Deal or No Deal 1.3 - also best for the season
Family Feud 1.2 - flat but hanging in above the big one-oh

TV usage in general is starting to pick up as the days grow shorter and the temperatures get lower. But it's nice to see the syndies sharing in the bigger-audience wealth.

UPDATE: TV by the Numbers provides total viewer averages for the top three syndie game shows: Wheel of Fortune 11.6 million, Jeopardy 9.2 million and Millionaire 3.5 million. The twin towers led all of syndication in total viewers. That ESPN number at the top of the chart is bogus - almost all those viewers were on cable, not syndication.

If those game shows skewed young instead of old, they'd be some of the reddest-hot properties in television. As it is, they're still solid profitmakers.

Riding the cab into syndication

MGM is offering Cash Cab in syndication on an all-barter basis for the 2010 season, reports Broadcasting & Cable. This should appeal to local TV stations hungry for cheap shows in the endless recession. The show is a cult favorite, and a favorite of my personal cult, but I'm not sure how it will do in the brave new syndie world...especially if Discovery keeps running it a billion times a day. Still, it's nice to see Ben and passengers getting a little more exposure.

A lot of other cable fodder will head to the syndie market on all-barter next year, according to the story: Real Housewives, Dog Whisperer, True Hollywood Story. It sure is cheaper than producing a brand-new show for syndication, and there's an established track record to help sell the shows to stations.

I've always wondered why a tarted-up version of Lingo, with a live audience and more money, has never gone to syndieland. More than forty million households in this country have never caught a glimpse of the show on GSN. By the way, the picture shows the Lascivious Biddies (in the Amanda Monaco days) on Cash Cab. Even girl groups take a cab ride now and then.

Monday, October 26, 2009

BuzzerBlog meets High Stakes Poker


Took a while but Alex Davis at BuzzerBlog got around to commenting on the abrupt dismissal of host AJ Benza from GSN's High Stakes Poker. Alex doesn't offer anything new on the situation but he thinks the axing is a really dumb move. To call that conventional wisdom would be a more than conventional understatement.

Alex's entry seems a bit bowdlerized. He accurately notes that High Stakes Poker is one of the few shows on GSN to do well in younger demos, then delicately comments that the show fell out of favor at the network, anyway. But he doesn't cite the obvious reason:

"It [High Stakes Poker] seemed to be liked up through around December 2007 or January 2008. I can tell you from personal experience that the show looked like it was on its way out. The basic discussion I remember was High Stakes Poker and the channel’s other fantastic show World Series of Blackjack, both of which were ratings winners, just didn’t fit or just weren’t liked and it was felt they weren’t needed anymore."

Well, something happened in late 2007, didn't it, Alex? This new guy named David Goldhill took over and wanted to toss all of the originals he inherited from previous GSN chief Rich Cronin, especially the casino games Cronin had started at the network. For whatever reason Alex glides past this clunkingly obvious explanation, leaving his less well-informed readers wondering why ratings winners would be thrown aside by a network which desperately needs them.

The alleged GSN insider on AJ Benza's blog rants that advertiser pressure was the key reason High Stakes Poker survived the Goldhill purge:

"As sponsors have fled the network in the wake of their incompetence, the ad sales representatives came to Goldhill and [GSN Executive VP] Brunell with a simple message: The only thing anyone cares about any more on this network is High Stakes Poker. When faced with the amount of money GSN would lose if they cancelled the show, they reluctantly ordered another season, more than one year after the previous one."

I tend to believe this because there must have been some mighty powerful reason for Goldhill to renew this one original he inherited from Cronin, especially since it wasn't a traditional game show. Goldhill hasn't renewed anything else from the Cronin regime, not even the popular and successful Lingo. Though, ironically, Goldhill's own originals have crumpled so badly that GSN now reruns more Cronin originals than Goldhill's own shows. Goldhill's next original effort will be the reality epic with Carnie Wilson, and let's just say that show doesn't look enormously promising.

The alleged insider also says that GSN VP of original programming, Kelly Goode, has been gunning for Benza since her arrival at the network a little more than a year ago. I have no idea if that's true, but somebody important at GSN was obviously not an AJ fan.

Alex promises more comments on the situation. But as Paul Harvey said eighty-eight gazillion times, now you know the rest of the story.

LMAD ratings sort of okay

In an update on the first couple weeks of ratings for CBS's Let's Make a Deal, Josef Adalian at The Wrap says the show is pulling a few more total viewers than the venerable soap it replaced, Guiding Light. But the game show is skewing older, which should not amaze anybody. It's the curse of the genre.

Adalian notes that game shows are dirt cheap but cautions this may not be a saving grace for LMAD. After all, soaps get churned out on shoestring budgets nowadays, too. My guess is that low costs will save Let's Make a Deal from the Nielsen zonk, if only by an inexpensive whisker.

Blogroll blather

It's not a long blogroll to the right, and I hope to add a few more sites as time goes on. But I might as well toss off some cheap and easy comments on the six sites already there...

BuzzerBlog is indispensible. Although I don't always agree with Alex Davis, the Master of the Buzz, his contacts in the business make him an important source of game show news and views. I just wish he would cut the Newlywed Game and Catch 21 cheerleading. Alex, the shows really aren't that good. He also tends to propagandize for the industry a little too much. The first-week ratings for CBS' Let's Make a Deal were so-so at best and pretty bad at worst, but Alex found them very encouraging for the future of game shows on daytime broadcast. I'm not nearly so hopeful, I'm afraid.

GSN Buzz and Game Show Forum are the main watering-holes for game show freaks on the Internet. We exchange pleasantries and sometimes not-so-pleasantries. Game Show Forum, operated by Matt Ottinger, is the edgier and more argumentative of the two. Brendy, the moderator of GSN Buzz, damps down flame wars a lot quicker. Both boards tend to be dominated by traditionalists who yearn for pre-1990 shows.

About.com Game Shows is notable mainly for Carrie Grosvenor's blog, which is cheerful and mostly nonjudgmental about game shows. I wish she would get a little down-and-dirtier sometimes - she actually reacted too calmly to the annoying news of Carnie Wilson's upcoming reality gig on GSN. But it's just not her nature. Game Show Kingdom is a good source for the nittiest and grittiest details about episodes of game shows and reality competitions. Brandon's TV Blog doesn't even talk about game shows in many of his entries. When he does get around to gamers, he's pretty much of a pre-1990 traditionalist.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Benza being Benza

AJ Benza, late of High Stakes Poker, continues his assault on GSN execs:

"Don't waste your time cursing the executives currently in charge because they'll be gone before you know it. I very much appreciate your care and concern about me. But, in terms of GSN, forget them. You have no idea how close they are to extinction. And I wish....ooooh I wish, you knew how many execs said they'd speak to me personally, but never had the balls. Pity them. Don't hate them. This is the way most sissies in Hollywood get shit done."

AJ, you've burned that bridge to a crispy crisp. Don't bother looking for another GSN gig as long as the current regime is in place. And as long as the network stays profitable, the current regime will probably hang around.

Cab ride

The daytime Emmys have shrunk to a few almost unwatched hours on the CW, an almost non-existent network. But the definitely low-rent awards have managed one thing well: they gave best game show honors to Cash Cab for the last two years. This inventive quizzer is always entertaining despite Discovery Channel's horrendous rerun abuse, which rivals even GSN's notorious practice. Zap2it tells me that Discovery will rerun the show fifty times this week. Yeeeeeeouch.

Luckily, host Ben Bailey will mug enough and the New York street scenery will charm enough to sustain the overload. The format is stripped-down further than a Chippendale: the simplest Q&A plus an optional double-or-nothing endgame. But this is one show where the "set" makes a difference, because the set is NYC's ever-changing street life. Not to mention Ben's goofiness, off-key singing and contorted facial features. Bailey does make sure not to tumble into obnoxiousness and looks genuinely regretful when the contestants wipe out.

But who knows what Ben is really thinking? In interviews he sounds a little impatient that his claim to fame is, gag, a piddly little game show. He's a standup comic by trade, after all, and I suspect that's where he really wants to shine. At least Cash Cab lets him get off a quip or three. Discovery loves Ben dearly and has even put him on the post-mortem sequel to their hit show, Deadliest Catch.

Cash Cab's contestants range from surprisingly smart to surprisingly dumb. It really is hard to guess who will wipe out fast and who will walk away with the money. I've seen some contestants who look like drunks, drifters and, well, me...and they do great. Others look reasonably intelligent and together, but they crash and burn in a few blocks. You don't have to feel very sorry for anybody, though, because the money is picayune at best, a few thousand maybe.

There are a bunch of disclaimers at the end of the show. That's because the contestants are sometimes pre-selected instead of just picked up at the curb, though they're never actually told they're getting into a game show. This was a teensy-weensy scandal when critics first noted it, but who cares? It's not like the game is rigged. That went out a while ago.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Da money

My wife walked in on me watching syndie Deal or No Deal yesterday. Not that there's anything wrong with watching the syndie. Lots of perfectly normal people do it in the privacy of their own homes.

"People only go on that show out of greed," my wife said. Which is true enough. I cleverly replied that people usually go on any game show out of greed. If I had been a little cleverer, I would have noted that Fox, the once and still sort of edgy network, proudly advertised the fact by naming their Millionaire knockoff, you guessed it, Greed. They even coined the tagline: "Feel the need for greed."

The money motive is so obvious that I really don't think about it much when I watch a game show. On Deal or No Deal, for instance, my actuarial self gets so caught up in mentally calculating expected values, probability distributions and projected next offers that those numbers in the suitcases might as well be grains of sand instead of dollars. But then some poor (greedy) contestant will wipe out spectacularly, and I'll be jolted back to a realization of literal dreams of new houses and cars suddenly dashed.

This particular episode of syndie DOND was Halloween-themed, with the contestants in various trick-or-treat costumes. They even had a Howie lookalike among the contestants, dressed exactly the same as Howie that day. He turned out to be a gravedigger - no lie - and Howie was so startled by the revelation that he pleaded: "I have no funny for that." All the silliness, of course, was designed to cover over a little decorously the greedy motives of everybody who plays the game. They want the money, they always want the money, but the show doesn't want to emphasize it too blatantly.

Greed isn't the only driver, of course. Contestants want to be on TV, they like the challenge of beating the odds or answering the questions or solving the puzzles, they just want to have some fun. But let's face it, the money is always there and everybody knows it. You can get prudish about this and scold the contestants, as my wife half-jokingly did. Or you can...feel the need, just as the contestants undoubtedly do.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The pie guy

Though I don't want this blog to become an obituary parade like Steve Beverly's web and e-mail ventures, I must take time to note Soupy Sales' death yesterday at age 83. Like many people of a certain age I can remember Soupy catching one pie after another on his kid shows. But what fewer people may remember is that Soupy was a terrific game show player.

In fact, some sources say Soupy was the most frequent celeb player on all the many incarnations of Pyramid, the long-running and always challenging descendant of Password. When Pyramid's producers found celebs who were good at the difficult game, they tended to use them over and over because they didn't want to stiff civvie contestants with bonehead partners. The picture shows Soupy in action on Pyramid, and no civvie contestant ever had cause to complain that he didn't do a good job or give every effort.

Soupy appeared on many other game shows. His IMDb page lists credits dating back to the ancient black-and-white days: I've Got a Secret, What's My Line, Snap Judgment, Match Game, Hollywood Squares, To Tell the Truth, Body Language, many more. A good ad-libber and game player like Soupy was gold for game shows, and his rubbery and cheerful face added a touch of fun to even the dullest episode. R.I.P.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Syndie news and views

Gee, it was a boring week for syndie game shows, according to the grind-it-out story from Broadcasting & Cable. Every one of the six syndies was unchanged from the previous week, except Family Feud which ticked up an entire tenth of a point. The lineup:

Wheel of Fortune 6.6
Jeopardy 5.4
Millionaire 2.3
5th Grader 1.6
Family Feud 1.2
Deal or No Deal 1.1

A more ominous note is that all the shows were down from the previous year, except rookie 5th Grader, of course. But these numbers don't look life-threatening for any of the syndies, given the general erosion in over-the-air TV ratings of all kinds.

Brianne Leary and my trivial mind

I'm nowhere near Ken Jennings' class, but I don't mind ridiculous trivia. Not that I'll ever make $2,520,700 over a 74-episode run of Jeopardy. Still, bits and pieces of completely useless information are nice to come by.

Today I happened to see a vaguely familiar-looking actress in the bimbo seat - sorry for the non-p.c. term, but that's what they called it - on GSN's episode of Match Game PM. Her name was Brianne Leary, and she appeared on CHiPs and a few other ancient TV skiens, to use Variety-speak. Later she became an entertainment reporter and eventually wound up reporting on the war in Afghanistan in an attempt to break away from the fluffier stuff. Wikipedia tells me that she has invented a paw-cleaner for dogs, which we could use when our muddy canine comes through the back door. She's also a cousin of Timothy Leary, departed guru of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.

Which is all trivial enough, but not the golden bit of trivia that really sticks. That piece of truly useless but memorable information is that Brianne Leary is apparently the only person ever to appear as both a contestant and a panelist on the classic 1973-82 version of Match Game.

Sure enough, YouTube offers episodes with her in both roles. I cribbed shots from a couple of the videos just to clinch the case. I was a little surprised that nobody else seems to have made the jump from one side of the MG stage to the other. I remember Kirstie Alley was a contestant, but I guess she never wandered onto the panel. So Brianne deserves a small but honored place in the game show trivia hall of fame.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

High Stakes Poker and Lingo updates

The alleged ghostwriter for the alleged disgruntled GSN insider now makes it final about High Stakes Poker:

"My GSN friend says it's official. Kara Scott will be tableside and Gabe will handle the announcing duties by himself."

I tend to believe this because the ranter was right about the Carnie reality show. It's just a really stupid change. Kaplan did best when he was playing off Benza. Why is GSN trying to ruin one of their top 18-49 shows? Because they inherited it from Cronin? Stupid, stupid.

On a much brighter note, the afternoon double run of Lingo has been showing the third season tournament of champions. It's great to see the game played so well.

Carnie reality

Looks like that rant on AJ Benza's blog may have come from a genuine GSN insider, after all. The Carnie Wilson reality series mentioned in the rant will become an, er, reality on GSN, set to debut in January. The ranter says that the show, called Carnie Wilson: Unstapled, looks iffy because Carnie's personality is too rough-edged for GSN's audience.

Carnie has been neutered on Newlywed Game, but the reality series may let a little more of her persona through. GSN previously tried a reality series with Chuck Woolery, Naturally Stoned. Woolery came across as basically likeable and decent on the show, but Naturally Stoned foundered because of silly, snarky narration and the genuine reality of Chuck's marital problems.

It's a little hard to understand why GSN is promoting Carnie so much. Newlywed Game did get good initial ratings but quickly tapered off, indicating that GSN's audience doesn't enjoy prolonged exposure to her. The ranter insists that programming decisions at GSN are in incompetent hands and that's why the network misjudges its audience so consistently.

Although the rant was unfair because it gave no credit to GSN honcho David Goldhill for his very good acquisitions, it may be dead-on concering Goldhill's originals. He certainly hasn't enjoyed much success with original programming. Will the unstapled Carnie Wilson join the lengthening line of failed projects?

By the way, GSN's VP of original programming, Kelly Goode, is all over the entertainment media touting the new show. That will delight the ranter on Benza's blog, who reserved his hardest shots for Goode. Her comments about tarting up GSN's original programming should also make Goode a favorite punching bag for traditional game show fans on GSN's own Internet boards.

UPDATE: The punching has begun.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

GSN marathons not to die for

Just saw a note on the GSN Buzz forum that Catch 21 and Newlywed Game will get 1:00 PM - 6:00 PM marathons this weekend. On the forum I noted how GSN chief David Goldhill has a soft spot for these originals...unlike all of his other originals. GSN Live has been cut in half and every other Goldhill original - How Much is Enough, Bingo America, Money List, 20Q and Big Saturday Night - has joined My Mother the Car in the teevee afterlife.

It's a startling fact that GSN currently runs more originals from Goldhill's predecessor Rich Cronin - Lingo, Chain Reaction, Whammy, and High Stakes Poker - than from Goldhill's own regime. Which gives some credibility to the rant from the alleged GSN insider on AJ Benza's blog that Goldhill's originals have been expensive flops.

To give the man his due, Newlywed Game and Catch 21 did very good numbers when new seasons debuted last April. The effect quickly wore off, though, and the shows' prime time reruns always stunk with the Nielsen beancounters. The other Goldhill originals have never done any kind of decent ratings.

Goldhill has rightly earned a bushel basket of credit for astute acquisitions like Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100 and syndie Millionaire and Family Feud. But my personal opinion of the current administration's originals is not favorable, to put it mildly. At best they're kind of passable, at worst they're annoying, overblown and most definitely over-promo-ed. I do give Goldhill a lot of brownie points for renewing High Stakes Poker. Though the alleged insider says that advertiser pressure forced his hand on the renewal, and there may be a taste of truth in that, too.

Now we hear that GSN wants to make Newlywed Game host Carnie Wilson "one of the faces of the network." Sadly, this is not a bad joke. While they're over-promoting the (at most) competent Carnie, they're firing AJ Benza, who actually did a good job.

Not just five letters

Now that I've regaled you about my favorite classic on GSN, I might as well splatter some phosphors about my favorite GSN original, the by now long-running Lingo. I call it an original, though it's actually a GSN remake of a format that dates back to the Reagan era...Michael Reagan, that is. He hosted the first version of the five-letter epic in 1987, as copyright-indifferent YouTube attests.

That original version ran into financial trouble and allegedly stiffed some of the contestants of their winnings. Despite this less than auspicious debut, the format survived and spread like swine flu to a number of countries, most notably Holland. The Dutch took to the show so much that in 2002 GSN decided to tape twenty episodes with Chuck Woolery on the Dutch version's set, using Americans living in Amsterdam as contestant guinea pigs.

To everybody's surprise Lingo was an immediate and sustained hit when it debuted on GSN in August, 2002. Six more seasons and a couple of co-hosts later, the show still runs three times daily on the Play Every Day network, including a prime time slot. Despite many years of savage rerun abuse the show continues to pull decent numbers, by GSN standards anyway, because nobody can remember all the puzzles used in the show.

Chuck Woolery does his usual half-serious, half-goofy job of hosting, and his later co-host Shandi Finnessey plucks a very acceptable second fiddle. The competition is often intense and always offers plenty of play-along value. In fact, except for Jeopardy no other game show gets me yelling at the screen so much as Lingo. If only those damn contestants could hear my guesses...except too often my guesses are laughably wrong.

My favorite Lingo ep featured all the hosts of what are now called the Boden originals, in honor of GSN's long-departed VP of programming, Bob Boden. YouTube offers that half-hour of hilarity, too. Mark Walberg, host of the late lamented Russian Roulette and the late unlamented Temptation Island, proved to be a superb Lingo-ist and obliterated his dazed and confused opposition.

GSN head honcho David Goldhill stubbornly refuses to make new episodes of Lingo, while wasting development money on immortal classics like How Much is Enough and Big Saturday Night. "I'm hoping that Lingo on GSN will have new shows soon," implored a recent writer to a Pittsburgh TV critic. I'm hoping, too, but the critic's reply was all too accurate: "Sorry, no new episodes are in production and there are no plans for new episodes."

Rats.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Losing it all

Steve Beverly, communications prof at Union University and guru of (especially old) game shows, once said that at some point in every great game show, a contestant can win it all or lose it all. This is not literally true. Wheel of Fortune, for instance, has to qualify as a great game show in longevity and viewer appeal, but its contestants can't lose what they've won in previous rounds.

Still, even on WoF the bankrupt slot can destroy a good round of winnings. And it's true that the voyeuristic appeal of a contestant wiping out, all the way or just some of the way, has always been a nasty - or nice, depending on your POV - feature of TV game shows. Ask poor Dan Avila, the hapless Greed contestant in the picture. Dan got almost all of that famous "smells" question right, but catastrophe sprung on his very last choice. His fifteen minutes were thus secure, but his wallet was a lot flatter.

Most game shows temper the pain at least a little. When the winning family crashes and burns in the fast money round on Family Feud, they do get five bucks a point, after all. Producers realize that constant crushing losses won't appeal to any except the most (metaphorically) bloodthirsty viewers. That's why Millionaire puts in the safety levels.

The oddest consolation gambits are the tournaments of losers that have cropped up on some shows. Millionaire has done them for hapless contestants who couldn't even make the first thousand. Everybody feels better about the wiped-out contestants getting a second chance...or that's the theory, anyway.

But wouldn't you know, Greed gave Dan Avila a second chance and he went away with nothing again. A truly painful add-on to the fifteen minutes. But Dan finally did make a nice hundred-grand score on syndie Millionaire. Life does offer a sort of happy ending now and then, even in game shows.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Matchless

After my screed about older shows on GSN, I'll come clean. My fave game show ever is one of the oldest efforts to grace GSN's daily schedule, the 1973-82 Match Game.

Everybody who waxes nostalgic about the show starts by acknowledging that the actual gameplay was dumber than dumb Dora. A guy named Jaime Weinman, who writes in a magazine called Macleans, which I understand is something Canadian, fesses up: "As a game show, Match Game was pretty bad; one of the reason celebrity panelist game shows died out is that audiences got more interested in shows that focused on the contestants and their attempts to win stuff, and having to match the crazy drunken answers of celebrities was a big barrier to winning anything."

Truth to tell, some of the celebs have denied they were drunk, at least some of the time. But they might as well have been permanently crocked because the game was not an intellectual strain. The 1973-82 incarnation was actually a remake of a much duller 1960s version that - would you believe? - took the game seriously.

The remake quickly got over the serious nonsense, or the nonsensical seriousness. Instead the writers would toss coyly suggestive lines at a panel of six supposedly not-drunk-all-the-time minor celebs, who would then riff into sometimes inspired looniness. Host Gene Rayburn, a veteran of the original version and a slew of other game shows, presided with a knowing grin for all the allegedly non-intoxicated giggles.

Richard Dawson was the star of the early years of the show, which were its highest-rated as a CBS daytime staple. Dawson's tendency towards boredom caught up with him after a few years of matching Old Man Periwinkle questions, and he started to grump his way into general obnoxiousness. He finally left in 1978 and CBS cancelled the show in 1979. Match Game lasted for three more seasons in syndication before the quietus in 1982.

Some of the show's charm is simple nostalgia for a period when naughtiness could still be...a little naughty. The orange shag carpet and cringe-inducing hairstyles and fashions of the earlier years also add to the lovable cheesiness. But the regular and semi-regular panelists could sometimes meld into a lean, mean ad-libbin' machine. When the show really cooked, it was genuinely very, very funny.

Attempted revivals have always failed. There's little real gameplay to revive and a new panel can't possible thrive in the huge shadow of Rayburn and company. GSN has rerun the 1973-82 version since the network's debut in 1994, with the exception of the 1997-98 "dark period" when GSN lost the Goodson-Todman rights. The parade of ads for scooters and arthritis drugs tells you all you need to know about Match Game's demos on GSN. But what the hey, old people like me can laugh, too.

More GSN grumblings

No, this doesn't have anything to do with firing AJ Benza from High Stakes Poker. Already hit that a lick. Instead - horrors! - GSN is getting rid of its 11:00 AM weekday double run of Super Password.

You might say this is less than earthshaking news. You'd be right. In the real world it's no news at all. Super Password was an inoffensive 1980s revival of Password Plus, which in turn was something of an improvement on the original, worthy but slow Password of the 1960s. Bert Convy did an amiable job hosting Super Password, which wandered through five rather low-rated seasons on NBC from 1984 to 1989.

Anything GSN puts at 11:00 AM has to face the TPiR monster, a.k.a. The Price is Right, the best established daytime game show in all teeveeland. So the network, even by its own less than stratospheric standards, hardly does any ratings for the hour. I've watched some Super Password on GSN myself, which makes me a member of a vanishingly small minority group.

So it's no big deal, in fact it's the tiniest of deals, that GSN is dumping SP at 11:00 AM. But on the GSN Classics board, where the removal of any older game show from the GSN schedule is a sign of the apocalypse at best and the apocalypse itself at worst, many are rending their garments and howling. "GSN....WTF IS THE DEAL?" [capitalization in the original] is one of the more eloquent reactions.

The board will no doubt add to its "This is the worst year yet for GSN" thread, which crops up every year. The problem is simple: the older shows usually get small, extremely old audiences. That's why GSN has steadily moved to newer shows over the last ten years. The newer shows still skew old in the ratings - virtually any traditional game show does that. But at least somebody watches them and they skew slightly less old.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A big deal?

Let me confess upfront: I've never been a huge fan of Let's Make a Deal. The old Monty Hall series offered a certain cheesy charm but never struck me as particularly entertaining. Some of the contestant outfits were so goofy that even grumpy moi smiled at them, and the Monty Hall Problem may be the most interesting mathematical conundrum ever generated by a game show. But otherwise...blah, blah.

CBS has revived the show with Wayne Brady, the first new daytime gamer on a broadcast network in a long, long time. Brady is competent and the format is reasonably faithful to the original, though at an hour length. It's certainly a much better revival than NBC's gag-me nighttime version a few years ago with Billy Bush.

But the game itself still doesn't do much for me. Of course, that doesn't matter. The real issue is what Brady LMAD does for CBS's daytime audience. So far, the show seems to be pulling about the same ratings as the ancient soap it replaced, Guiding Light. You might think this is not a good sign, drawing the same numbers as a show that was just unceremoniously axed.

Still, the great saving grace of game shows may rescue Brady and friends. LMAD may be so cheap to produce that it can survive on the same numbers that doomed the now extinguished Light. After all, Brady is no A-lister and the prize packages are not federal-budget-sized. If the show starts skewing extremely old, though, it may go the way of another recent and competent CBS revival, Million Dollar Password.

UPDATE: To give the pessimists their due, I'll quote this cheery note from a soap opera site. Of course, the site is hostile to LMAD because it replaced a time-honored if miniscule-rated soap. But we believe in equal time around here (yeah, sure). The site discusses the first-week averages for LMAD:

"In other ratings news, LET'S MAKE A DEAL averaged a 1.5 household rating for its first half hour (0.6 in W18-49) and 1.6 in the second (0.7 in W18-49) which was below all the daytime soaps. If historical trends hold this does not bode well for the game show. The profit margin may be better than a soap with a similar or slightly better ratings, but the loyalty of the audience is not the same and these shows tend to dive fast."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Old school

If there's one unvarying message from Nielsen Media Research about game shows, it's their old-skewing demographics. Those damn demos have been the bane of game shows since at least the 1960s, when TV execs first started looking at what kind of people were watching their shows.

And they found out that a lot of old people were and are watching game shows. Nothing wrong with that, as the endlessly recycled Seinfeld quote asserts. I'm older than most hills myself. But the old skew does tend to limit advertising dollars. You can only sell so many ads for diabetes meters and Medicare supplement policies.

CBS's recent revival of Password fell victim to the remorseless demos, for instance. The show did good total viewer numbers but too many of the eyeballs were elderly, so Regis went on permanent hiatus. GSN attracts a respectable if not gigantic number of total viewers. But the network has struggled to expand its household reach because the audience doesn't include enough of the young'uns prized by advertisers.

The old skew of traditional game shows has not so incidentally led to that mutation of traditional gamers, reality competitions like Survivor and American Idol. Folks compete on these shows every bit as much as they compete on Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. But shorn of the traditional trappings, the reality competitions turn out skads of 18-49ers in their audiences.

So why do traditional game shows skew so old, anyway? My guess is DA RULES...all those pesky regulations that tell contestants exactly what is, and what is not, done. Form of a question, Alex, and all the rest. The rules seem silly and artificial for too many younger viewers. Sure, reality competitions (supposedly) have rules, too. But the rules and regs are kept in the backgound compared to the human-interest - or, more cynically, the sob-sister and soap-opera - elements of the shows.

But what can anybody do about that? The rules make the formats, and the formats make the shows. If older people are more tolerant of the rules, that's just the way of the teevee world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Syndie numbers

Syndication seems a little quaint nowadays, a legacy of the old broadcast network triopoly days. But the syndie business survives, though it has little of the cachet of the broadcast networks or their increasingly powerful cable/satellite competitors. Every week the Broadcasting & Cable site runs a rather routine, swabbing-the-decks story with the latest national syndie numbers.

The twin towers of the access hour, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, always lead game shows. In fact, they often lead everything in syndication, at least in household ratings. The shows skew old, of course, but that's the common curse of the genre. Millionaire has taken up seemingly permanent residence as the number-three syndie gamer, followed by whatever else is on the circuit that year.

This week - well, actually the week ending October 4 - was no exception to the usual rule. The parade of household ratings:

Wheel of Fortune 6.6 - up from the previous week
Jeopardy 5.4 - if WoF is up, Jep will be up, too
Millionaire 2.3 - flat compared to the previous week
5th Grader 1.6 - the new kid is doing okay and up a tick from the previous week
Deal or No Deal 1.1 - down a tick and not so good compared to last year
Family Feud 1.1 - also down a tick but hanging on the right side of the big one-oh

All these numbers are shrivelled compared to even a few years ago. Like everything else on over-the-air teevee, syndies have seen their audience share whittled down by the cable/satellite monster. But all the game shows still land in plus-one territory, which is often enough to keep a show alive in today's syndie market.

UPDATE: The two cheery guys at TV by the Numbers have posted viewer totals for the top 25 syndies. Only the top three syndicated game shows made the list. Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy led all syndies with averages of 10.3 million and 8.2 million viewers, respectively. The shows skew older than...I do, but these are impressive numbers compared to many more ballyhooed shows on broadcast and cable.

As one of the TV by the Numbers guys comments about the syndie viewer totals: "Impressive, aren’t some of them? There’s real money in syndicated TV, but just not the Hollywood hoo-ha." Millionaire averaged 3.1 million viewers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

GSN grumblings

I mentioned GSN in my original post, and the former Game Show Network is always a favorite talkabout for game show freaks. The real hardcore types tend to dislike the network because it doesn't show enough obscure oldies beloved by the types. Reminding these folks that GSN is not a taxpayer-supported charity for the promotion of ancient game shows tends to get them very upset. I should know, I've often gotten them in a rumpus on the GSN Classics board.

The network was the brainchild of a few Sony executives who wanted to "monetize" - love that word, it just smells of money - the corporation's large game show library. Launched in 1994 the network was piloted by a guy named Michael Fleming through its first seven lean years (I'm in a biblical mood today).

By 2001 the leanness had gotten extreme, so Sony bid farewell to Fleming, offered a half-interest in GSN to Liberty Media, and brought in a no-nonsense exec named Rich Cronin to straighten out the mess. Cronin did the job he was hired to do, got the network into the black, and left with a very golden handshake in 2007. Liberty has since increased its share of GSN to 65%, and the new guy at the helm is David Goldhill.

Which brings us by a roundabout way to the subject of my post. Goldhill has kept the network profitable by making shrewd acquisitions like Deal or No Deal, 1 vs. 100, and the syndie versions of Millionaire and Family Feud. GSN is hardly a major cable outlet, but it has grown its household availability to over 70 million and usually draws a total-day average of more than a quarter-million viewers. But all may not be sweetness and light in the GSN family.

One of Rich Cronin's legacies is a show called High Stakes Poker, run and rerun and rerun again by GSN on Sunday night. I like the show, which offers a genuine high stakes cash game played by people who know what they're doing. The show has been very successful for the network in the holy-grail 18-49 demo, where the old-skewing GSN usually crashes and burns.

But the show (and poker in general) is apparently not a favorite of Mr. Goldhill. He has fired the show's long-time host, AJ Benza, from HSP's new season, which is taping next month. Benza reacted with his usual aplomb, posting an obscenity-encrusted screed on his blog about his firing.

Here's where things get curiouser and curiouser. An anonymous poster claiming to be a GSN insider replied to Benza's screed with a long rant of his (or her) own, which lambasted Goldhill and other GSN execs as incompetent Nazis - is that better than competent Nazis? - who are running the network into the ground and below. I have no idea if the rant is authentic, but I do know it's unfair. Goldhill has not enjoyed tremendous luck with his original shows, as the ranter notes at length, but he's done very well by acquiring successful shows from elsewhere.

Bottom line is, well, the bottom line. The network remains profitable, so the corporate parents are likely to remain happy, regardless of any internal wailing and gnashing of teeth. Liberty, in particular, needs all the cash flow GSN can muster for Liberty's endless corporate reorganizations.

Monday, October 12, 2009

I've Got a Blog!

Too many moons ago I watched a little black and white TV. It showed things like I've Got a Secret and What's My Line and Password and To Tell the Truth and some similar shows that might have been, oh, prearranged. After a while I learned that all these things were called game shows, and people liked to argue about them.

Well, the arguing came later. I can just remember the ruckus in the 1950s when it turned out that some of the game shows were prearranged. They had to get ratings, right? Throughout my five (going on six) decades, I've been watching game shows come and go and sometimes hang around for five (going on six) decades. GSN, the once honestly named Game Show Network, tried their own version of I've Got a Secret not long ago, continuing the show's history which almost perfectly overlaps my little old personal history.

The version was so-so at best and flopped pretty quick. I wrote about the show on the GSN Internet boards. I've written a lot of stuff there, and it gets certain other posters exercised. That's where the arguing comes in. So I decided to carve out my own little patch of the Internet to spout whatever nonsense I like about game shows. Welcome to the patch.