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January 10, 2001

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I Liked The Mole...But Will America?

       I may be in the minority but, candidly, I liked The Mole. However, I can quickly point out why this series is not going to pull Survivor-like ratings and---though I hope not---may well decline, week to week.
       Because of my TV basketball game Tuesday night, I had to wait to see a midnight tape of the opener. Perhaps because my expectations were not so high, I was pleasantly surprised. The show did not feature loudmouthed, profane, belligerent, egotistical people (at least on the surface). This was a show which, in large part, the whole family could watch together (unlike Survivor and Big Brother and the soon-to-be-inflicted Temptation Island. The consistent mental challenges (as well as the skydiving, which would have eliminated me off the top) held my attention and I didn't come away feeling I needed to take a bath when it was all over. Here is my snapshot review of three key categories:

     The good: The constant changing of the locales made for interesting viewing and when these people ate, they ate classy----not rat sandwiches. The location shooting was well-done and, frankly, more active than its CBS counterpart.
     As the hour evolved, I felt I was watching a living version of the game Clue, only the object is ferreting out The Mole, rather than whodunit for a murder. The equation/ATM sequence had a sense of purpose and any number of possibilities opened up for a potential Mole.
     Whereas you again have a politically correct division of contestants, you had an upbeat feeling about these people. As opposed to the cutthroat, vote-em-out concept of Survivor, you have people competing to win as individuals; yet, not playing to eliminate someone else. In this game, you hold your own destiny based on how well or poorly you do in the final quiz about The Mole.
     Anderson Cooper has credibility. I'm biased toward newsmen (at least good ones, not Julie Chen) and Cooper had the wherewithal to resign from ABC News to do this show. I don't believe in crossovers from the news to the game show genre (even though Walter Cronkite, John Daly and Douglas Edwards all did it in the 1950s). The man is a good young communicator. This is a risk for him to do this show but even if it ultimately flops, he didn't compromise himself by attempting to be a newsman and a game show host simultaneously.

     The bad: The Mole, despite its massive ABC buildup, is debuting just at the time of CBS's carefully-targeted marketing plan for its new cast of Survivor castaways and the media is falling into lockstep to embrace them. While some outside attention is being paid to the Stone-Stanley series, the show needs a lot of help from Good Morning America and even the babbling babes at 11 a.m. to reinforce this offering. ABC needs to make the same committment as CBS did with its two summer shows.
     Morning-after street talk suggests confusion still exists with viewers who aren't sure "what happens if someone discovers who The Mole is before the last show?" That was not well-explained. For shows of this genre to work well, viewers need a clear understanding of what it takes to win the game and when that potentially happens.
     No last names for these people. There he goes harping on that subject again. I'm deadly serious. One of my close friends in the game show industry does not understand why that's an issue for me. Here's an example: if John Carpenter on WWTBAM or Dan Blonsky had just been "John" or "Dan," would we have been as emotionally invested in them, even if they won $1 million? We'd enjoy the excitement of winning a million but we would not have a full identity of who they are, what their family backgrounds are. What if To Tell the Truth had its imposters say, "My name is Joanne...?" I contend even shows like Supermarket Sweep and Street Smarts hurt themselves by having no-last-name policies because the contestants become assembly line spokes. You don't remember them tomorrow and that's the difference in creating lasting impressions. A couple of weeks ago when Dave Ruprecht singled out a player whose name was Loni Love, we had a real hook, for a change. Particularly for a show with only ten players over nine weeks, tell us who they are beyond just "Daniel," "Jim," or "Kate." Just try me on this and I'll assure you, the viewers will have a stronger emotional investment. Survivor doesn't hold that back.
     We need more time to see the questions on the final quiz as an audience. That ultimately is the deciding factor about who stays and who goes and we need to be clued into what they're being asked in a deeper fashion.

     The reality: The ratings were good but not great for the opener. I had no doubt it would underperform Millionaire but I honestly did not believe The Mole would lose to JAG. Another not-so-good sign: the second half-hour showed a slight dip in the Nielsens. Not a big one, mind you. However, the track record for success with these types of shows has been an audience pickup in the second half-hour.
     Remember my prediction of two to three weeks for this show to click? If the ratings are down to a 7 next week, we have trouble here. I hope that doesn't happen.
     This is a good mystery game, in fact---in overall construction---this may be the best of the game operas yet...but is that enough to pack 'em in? The show has no sex, no gutter language, no hate, no fat nude guys on a beach, no vitriolic truck drivers. The premiere had little, if any, conflict---other than contestant debate over who The Mole may be.
     Folks, we have a generation of young folks who have been raised on Jerry Springer, Vince McMahon wrestling, anger-based court shows, '90s sexcoms and Survivor. If that is the barometer (and a lot of our hardcores don't fit into that category but they are not the ones the advertisers covet), The Mole will not make it because (if the premiere is an example) the show does not have character tension or anger. No foul-mouthed trash talk. No sex. No putdown of older people. If last summer is the example, you have to have a percentage of mean people to make these kinds of shows succeed. I'm sad if we have come to that because what would be refreshing (just as was the case with WWTBAM) is to see a game opera make it that does not require putdowns, manipulations, sewer mouths or hate. Just a game which succeeds because it's a good game with good players. However, if America tuned in to see another Survivor by the criteria listed above, a lot of folks won't be back.

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