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May 19, 2000

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It Was Fun While It Lasted

        A good friend who had just learned of the last of the Big Four fall schedules told me Thursday night: "It looks like what we had at the start of this year was not a game show renaissance but a Regis renaissance."
       No kidding. If you've read the page at all this week, you've seen a quicker retreat from network prime time quiz shows than Sherman took to make his march to the sea.
       No brain surgery is required to tell you exactly what's happened here. CBS, NBC and Fox are all waving their collective white flags, in one part because they don't feel they can successfully come up with a challenger to Millionaire after their hastily-developed efforts this season; and, for another reason, Les Moonves, Sandy Grushow and Garth Ancier are all playing rope-a-dope with ABC. They saw a one-week drop in the ratings of WWTBAM, plus they believe an expansion to a fourth night a week will erode the franchise.
       One other thing is at play here: I've told you all year long, aside from ABC---which had its megahit quiz developed by one of its own executives in Michael Davies (who quit the network to produce it), none of the network chiefs wanted this trend. Moonves was most vocal in saying so, even while he rushed a deal to bring on Winning Lines and signed the expensive contracts for his two summer "reality" games. They've all held their noses while being forced to acknowledge Millionaire as a phenomenon they didn't expect and don't yet know how to compete with, except with an occasional megaspecial.
       CBS is going to trot out Bette Midler for Wednesdays this fall to give a stab. A big name. We're told the advertisers howled with laughter at her pilot. That may or may not indicate success in the fall. Network television has been littered with bombs from meganame performers who did not have a property which struck paydirt with the audience. A few, such as Candice Bergen, have a well-written and literate piece of work that lasts. We'll only know the answer for Bette in October. I may well be wrong but, candidly, Bette borders on the overbearing for the small screen.
       Further in the mix here is the network's self-defined idea of prestige. As Michael Medved told an audience at my university recently: "If it was all just about ratings, they would not schedule at least a third of what they do." Network executives would rather curry favor with David E. Kelley, Steven Bochco, or Chris Carter, rather than with Phil Gurin or Sande Stewart. As the late television critic Don Freeman said once in an interview with Tom Snyder: "Network executives would rather run with the elite of the industry because they think that's who they're supposed to run with."
       Truth be told, if we judge squarely from ratings, Twenty-One should have been renewed but Greed deserved the ax, particularly from its ratings of the last month. I said in mid-February the game had become too predictable. Too many teams were either cashing in at $200,000 or losing. People want to see winners. The Super Greed tweaking was good, brought new excitement to the game and the producers seriously began to ease away from those awful survey questions which were pure guesses. Trouble is: it was all too late. By the time the adjustments were made, Greed had lost a rating point and a half and the audience didn't return.
       I did not want to see any of these shows fail, even though I have varying degrees of affinity for them. Prime reason: if and when Millionaire begins to fall, we'll have another long, long wait until we see another quiz hit network nighttime.
       Frankly, I believe Twenty-One and Greed could each be competitive in syndication as nightly half-hours, although the size of the jackpots would likely have to be deflated a bit. The numbers are up this year for Wheel and Jeopardy but it may be time for some producers to make a run at each of them.
       I read an amusing piece this past week from a columnist touting the impending funeral for WWTBAM because of the one week in which it slipped behind a late-season first-run of Frasier and was edged by the far more expensive Jesus miniseries. Bull.
       Let me tell you, in part, what happened that week. Sure, those shows gained a rare victory. However, what occurred was a parallel to what used to happen in the pro wrestling business when promoters worked the same arena every week in a city. The bookers would "hotshot" a big angle or a huge match to flood attendance. The next week, crowds would be off in a meltdown period from being so high for the big match. The post-celebrity week for audience for WWTBAM cooled off for a week. Across the board, the ratings are back up from 3 to 8 per cent this week. Next week, with the champions' matches, they'll inflate again and cool off the week after the sweeps (though the competition will be lighter).
       Next season, Millionaire will still be strong but will experience a slight erosion in the numbers. One reason will be going to four nights a week year-round. I am in agreement with those who see that as one show too many. This reminds me of the time ABC pressed the button too far in the second season of Peyton Place by adding a third weekly episode and the audience did not respond.
       As for the rest, Moonves appears to have won. He publicly decried game shows as a cancer in television which were eroding the rightful place for scripted dramatic shows. That smacks to me of the arrogance toward this genre which has always existed. Steve Allen once told me, "There's a built-in bias in the business which has always existed against games or the people who produce them or host them." Monty Hall told me in January: "When we did so well with Let's Make a Deal at night in the spring and summer 1967 (beating The Ed Sullivan Show and The FBI and the last network game to finish in the top ten Nielsens before WWTBAM), we went to NBC and told them we ought to be on during the regular season. They said, 'Oh, we don't do these shows at night in the fall.' They didn't say it in these words but what they were telling us is it was beneath them to put on a game show at night."
       We'll have a couple of stabs from Fox this summer and CBS will put us through these two "reality" efforts. What's My Line? may finally air (but in a killer time slot, to be sure). However, if I were a wagering man, I would venture The $64,000 Question doesn't even make the sked this summer. You haven't heard CBS rushing to the publicity mills for it, have you?
       I said in January, enjoy it while you can because the game show flurry could end very, very quickly on network television. It has. Perhaps the best perspective came on the WWTBAM Behind the Scenes special from my colleague Bob Thompson at Syracuse University. Thompson said: "I'm not so sure America has fallen in love with game shows again. But they've fallen in love with this show," meaning Millionaire.
       It was fun while it lasted. Just hope you all maintained a good tape library. It'll be a long time before you again see this kind of prime time activity on the networks.
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