GSN at 5
Happy birthday to you. Whoops! Better watch that. I think the royalties are still $17,000 per public performance of that song.
December 1, 1999. The fifth birthday of Game Show Network. I only wish I could answer one question about GSN at 5. What is it? Do its own executives know what it is?
This network, which began with enormous promise for a niche audience which had felt disenfranchised with the sharp decline in network and syndicated game shows, has more changes of direction and focus than hurricanes going up the Atlantic.
To begin with, GSN was the private property of C-band dish owners. Sony was in a match race with Pat Robertson's Family Channel to launch a full-scale game show network. Mark Goodson Productions and United Video had partnered with Sony. Robertson had purchased the Stefan Hatos-Monty Hall and Sandy Frank libraries but was heavily pushing interactive phone-in games, of the ilk Wink Martindale was developing in trial runs on The Family Channel. Sony's strategy was to buy every classic library available. Its Columbia Pictures subsidiary owned the Chuck Barris and Barry and Enright libraries and had a working agreement with King World for Merv Griffin's shows. The crown jewel, however, was the Goodson-Todman package----more than 30,000 classics, many of which had not aired in nearly 30 years.
The Family Channel was vulnerable in another area. Robertson's interactive games had a huge disadvantage----they required $4.95 phone calls. Game Show Network counted with a PIN number registration system and 800 number which allowed viewers to play its games free of charge. When Sony outgunned FAM for the most popular game packages and Robertson's combos of interactive shows failed to click, the Virginia Beach cable maven tossed in the towel on The Game Channel.
I liked the initial game plan of Game Show Network. GSN didn't rush into an expensive set of original games they weren't ready to develop. Russ Myerson and Bob Boden, the original overseers, hired a solid host in Peter Tomarken to anchor prime time and instituted a series of evening playbreaks to sandwich interactivity between the Goodson-Todman classics. Mornings offered Steve Day and Laura Chambers, two behind-the-scenes game show vets, in a coffee-and-chat format between games. The tone and texture of GSN was friendly and the shows were a period delight. The biggest weakness was on weekends, where----with the exception of the Wide World of Games compilations of theme blocks----GSN resembled the kind of throwaway you often experience with weekend talk radio.
After the first year, some cracks began to show. Boden left the network early. Myerson, an old friend of mine from his days with Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling, ankled for a spot with Time Warner. Then, Day was gone. Suddenly, the day after GSN's second anniversary and with no fanfare, Tomarken disappeared----a move which angered GSN's fledgling but loyal following because of his replacement Marianne Curan's explanation, "He's gone on to other things." Chambers would be the last of the original regulars to go.
GSN began to appear, to the snail-like growing corps of viewers, to be rudderless. Suddenly, two other younger, hipper personalities were added with Curan. Neither of them jelled. Curan, herself, though pleasant and humorous, was not strong enough to anchor the network.
Enter Phase III: the era of the half-hour computer interactive GSN with no live audiences. The network tried three of them in prime time. Larry Anderson of Truth or Consequences, Life with Lucy and The Big Spin was imported to do a thing called Trivia Track. I have to tell you: a half-hour of telephone contestants playing a horse racing game on television with no live audience is about as thrilling as watching bingo in a senior citizens' home. They are in the graveyard.
Just before its third birthday, GSN was given what should have been a major wakeup call. The network allowed its contract for the Goodson-Todman library to lapse. GSN, which was on its third corps of overseers, attempted to coast with a configuration of Bob Stewart, Barry and Enright and Merv Griffin shows and the interactives. Viewers loved having Pyramid. They were irritated beyond imagination at seeing Match Game and To Tell the Truth displaced by Go! and Ruckus. No one at the network will admit this publicly but insiders tell me the outpouring of mail and e-mail to GSN at this point was some of the most intense in cable history. The network's senior p.r. spokesperson at the time did not endear herself to viewers with her form responses, suggesting GSN was "attempting to appeal to the game show fan in all of us," with its restructuring. The sentence was one of the most mindless and least convincing pieces of spin in marketing history.
GSN ultimately listened. Six months later, with Pearson Television now in control of the Goodson-Todman library, the G-T shows were back. However, almost with an apology. The classics have been perpetually consigned to the weekend and if it isn't Match Game, Tattletales, or Family Feud, you don't see it in prime time.
Enter the Jake Tauber era. Jake's a game show vet. Worked Goodson-Todman shows, including Classic Concentration and Super Password. However, Sony---according to GSN executive Michael Fleming---has lost $100 million on the network. So, the pressure is on for Tauber to draw younger and younger demographics. Accordingly, the network drifts ever closer to the Comedy Central model. The catchword is "edgy." The reality is "tasteless." Instead of remakes of the network's classics, we get a diet of Throut and Neck, Extreme Gong, Burt Luddin's Love Buffet and All New 3's a Crowd. Only Sande Stewart's well-done Inquizition has any degree of respect for the genre----or the bulk of the audience. The irony of it all: the network GSN seems so intent on duplicating won the Emmy for Best Daytime Game Show in 1999.
Here's a further irony: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or a concept like it would never have a chance on today's Game Show Network. It isn't "edgy" enough.
The hottest show on network television is a hard quiz with two people sitting on bar stools and is rated TV-G. It's from a genre which is part of the name of GSN. Yet, the Sony people seem to be insistent the audience is hankering for a diet of TV-14 originals with young people expounding on their bodily functions and sex habits. Answer me this: if "relationship" games are a key to success, why is it that Dating/Newlywed never did above a 2 rating during their most recent three years in syndication and were consigned to late, late night in most of the country? Why did Love Connection fail in a revival? Why is Change of Heart struggling to maintain anything more than post-11 p.m. slots across the country and is declining from its 1998-99 numbers? Why is Blind Date bombing like Pearl Harbor? Why did Studs quickly fade? Name me one solid "relationship" game which has been a genuine hit in the 1990s (after Love Connection ended its original run). Just name one. Your witness, Mr. Mason.
I submit once again, after five years, the biggest frustration with Game Show Network is its inconsistency. What is it? What audience is it trying to reach? What is it supposed to be? It appears at the moment, daytime is the haven for fans of the '70s and '80s color classics. Sunday nights are for the hardcores. Prime time is for the World Wrestling Federation/South Park crowd. Go figure.
However, I further submit a cable channel with the name Game Show Network has a textbook example of what the entire country in the broadest possible demographics is saying it wants from the genre in huge numbers. If its executives can't take a gander at ABC and see what's going on, I don't know who will.
The biggest miracle of all is how this network has survived five years with its slow audience growth on cable and with its erratic management and philosophy. GSN is supposed to turn its first profit early next year. However, if the focus of this network is no better in the new millenium, one would hope Sony would have the foresight to sell GSN to a Pearson or a Viacom (which will own CBS and King World)----companies with much stronger track records in the game show/syndication business. I still want this network to "get me in the game," as it pledged in its first two years. Let's hope it finds a way to do that for "the game show fan in all of us."
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