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January 5, 2000


The War of Words

        The p.r. wars which television, or any other industries, fight are almost spectator sports in themselves. The biggest two-week war of quiz shows in more than 40 years is underway and every network executive with a stake in the game is talking to the major media trades. Watch how many of them are anonymous.
       One does not have to be a genius to spot those "unnamed" executives who are frustrated as a computer user getting an error message when they predict doom for the prime time quiz wars.
       I love the nameless "suit" who told Variety he would hate to see television become ruled by so-called "alternative programming." Ever since Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" speech of 1963, critics and network bosses alike have publicly proclaimed their desire for programming "out of the norm." When they developed the miniseries in the 1970s, that was a break with tradition. When the prime time soap hit big with Dallas in the late '70s, television had a departure from standard dramatic fare. Love them or hate them, when "reality" shows struck gold in the '80s with everything from COPS to Rescue 911 and America's Funniest Home Videos, viewers adopted something which was outside the broadcast norm.
       That's exactly what happened last summer and in November with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and whomever that exec is (I strongly smell a CBS or NBC suit here), the great suspicion is this may be a front office sort who found his dramatic programs or sitcoms murdered by WWTBAM. His fondest hope is for failure in this upcoming train wreck.
       One of the anonymous quotes gives me no cause for doubt. Some of these shows are being developed or rushed onto prime time simply in the hopes they will dilute interest in Millionaire. Networks have demonstrated since the 1950s how copycatting ultimately lessens the intensity of interest in fads. I have no doubts Fox bought a rush job in Greed from Dick Clark last November, just so the youngest of the Big Four could say it jumped on the bandwagon faster than any of the others. Yet, we learned this week Fox apparently has as many as six games in development.
       CBS, to be honest, stands to suffer more from another onslaught of WWTBAM success. The network had become the top-rated web last season and aside from Judging Amy has not developed any new breakaway hits this fall. Hence, why it is still hoping to add The $1,064,000 Question, in addition to Winning Lines, and next summer's Survivor. Note how the talk has quieted about What's My Line?.
       NBC, on the other hand, is apparently serious about giving Twenty-One every chance to succeed. You don't spend the kind of money the Peacock is on a set and on a live orchestra (Tom Scott does not come cheap) for a show you want to fail. Further, when NBC made its decision to move Twenty-One's second show out of that WWTBAM head-on collision, that was indicative enough to me Garth Ancier does not want this show to merely be a sacrificial lamb as Fox served up with Greed twice on Thursdays during the November sweeps.
       I'll give you my own predictions after I've seen all of the shows this weekend. However, gut feeling tells me two are going to make it and two won't. You know Millionaire is a lock. We will have a better idea after these next two weeks whether what we have is a WWTBAM phenomenon or a genuine quiz show renaissance. If Twenty-One or Winning Lines draw even modest ratings, expect them to survive, simply because they will be far more profitable than the average sitcom or hour-long drama drawing the same audiences.
       As I've said frequently in this space---sit back and enjoy these next two weeks, in particular. It may be a long time before we have the same kind of opportunity in prime time.

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