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August 2, 2000

Family-Approved Site by The Dove Foundation

Goodson-Todman Classics: Sore Spots All Over

       I am told you are in the minority. I'm told most of you are too old to matter to advertisers. However, few issues are as chord-striking and emotion-stirring with game show cable/satellite viewers as the Goodson-Todman classic shows on Game Show Network.
       I may as well tell you right now: roll all the tape you can afford to buy, log and library the episodes as you go and enjoy them while you may. Not in September, as an online rumor has unsettled the G-T loyalists, but by 2002, when the current contract expires, those shows are gone from GSN.
       No one in GSN is going to go on the record and say that at this point, though I put in a request Monday to the network's information office to answer this mushrooming story that the classics were going into mothballs next month. So far, I have received no response, though I was promised the typical, "We'll get someone to talk to you." They have my phone number, my e-mail address, the whole works.
       I know this has been a sensitive subject for GSN since 1997, when the network let those episodes go for six months. In those days, Game Show Network was still predominantly a service for satellite dish owners. Cable operators were still in a transition period to digital service and many had no space for the channel. GSN also could not afford full-scale production of games with studio audiences.
       In late 1994, when GSN was hatched, an 18-month race had been on between Pat Robertson's Family Channel and a partnership of United Video, Mark Goodson Productions and Sony to get a game show network launched. Robertson, at the time, leased the Hatos-Hall and Sandy Frank libraries and was coveting most of the non-Goodson-Todman product. Sony, because of its ties with Merv Griffin, had access to Merv's shows and the original partnership with G-T assured availability of more than 30,000 episodes---some of which had not aired in more than 40 years.
       Robertson, who intended to call his network The Game Channel, also planned a highly-interactive series of original games---the prototypes of which were developed by Wink Martindale and Bill Hillier. Those Boggle and Trivial Pursuit shows which aired on Family Channel were intended as seed programming for The Game Channel.
       Yet, Sony had the crown jewels of both the contemporary and classic game shows in television history. That alone allowed Sony to freeze out Robertson. Ironically, Sony had never ventured into cable networking. Had a Viacom or a Time Warner launched Game Show Network, the network would likely have grown much faster because of those services' leverage with cable operators. Sony had almost none.
       Ultimately, Mark Goodson Productions pulled out of an equity stake in GSN, preferring what it felt was a better financial deal to license its library to the network. Those memorable formats were a hardcore game show junkie's delight. I'm one of them.
       Yet, the legendary shows----most of which were populating GSN's prime time----were in black-and-white and, unless you have a unique branding and promotion, such as TV Land and Nick at Nite, black and white does not sell with advertisers. The marketing whizzes Viacom employs for its classic networks have used an irreverent style to attract younger viewers to evergreens which tend to recycle audiences every few years, whether in color or not.
       GSN had a weak marketing effort in its first three years. Once it began a very, very slow penetration into some cable systems, the network's executives made a decision to scrap the Goodson-Todman classics and go with a combination of Bob Stewart, Barry-Enright and Merv Griffin shows, retaining The Price Is Right and Family Feud, which were negotiated as separate deals from the full G-T library.
       GSN's loyalists screamed and screamed loudly. Never did a week pass on my fledgling website that I did not hear of more mounds of e-mail flooding into GSN from angry viewers. GSN's p.r. director at the time tried to put a spin on the situation which was the equivalent to some of Bill Clinton's attack dogs. That angered the viewers even more.
       Sony ultimately gave in and negotiated to regain the G-T shows from their new owner, Pearson Television. Yet, something should have telegraphed that deal as fuzzy. The black-and-white classics were shoved off into Sunday night (not a bad move, considering the need for counterprogramming other cable networks) and many of the color shows were never seriously pushed at the level they originally were. Ironically, so many viewers had no access to GSN from 1994-97 (and plenty still don't have it today), they had never seen the classics in their original run.
       I was told plainly not to expect much from the library, that it would serve as a transition until GSN could afford more original programming. Truth be told, the G-T shows have not----other than Feud and Match and the Barker Price Is Rights----made the ratings move.
       Interestingly, GSN turned its first profit this year. However, the network is still on one of the slowest growth patterns for a cable web ever. When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire became a big hit, cable operators became more interested in considering GSN. Yet, in prime time this was largely a network of relationship games, trash updates of old shows and one of the biggest insults to the entire genre, Burt Luddin's Love Buffet. A sprinkling of Feud and Match Game would sneak in but with the exception of Sande Stewart's two well-done efforts, nothing this network does of an original nature now is terribly family-oriented. Even its promos for Match Game are more risque than the game ever was.
       I get frequent e-mail from viewers under 35 who are insulted at GSN believing edgy, risque, profane, bodily-function, relationship-style games is what they prefer. I'm in your category, folks, but I'm 45 and GSN isn't targeting me. I'm told by insider after insider how research indicates the type of programming I just described, rather than traditional game show formats, is what will make this network grow. That's painful for me to accept because it just casts another mark against family programming, which game shows largely have been. I have good friends who work on All New 3's a Crowd and I'm happy they make a living. However, I won't watch the show because I have a shade higher threshold of interest than to listen to 22-year-old women brag about belching and passing gas and hearing 25-year-olds in the audience howl like Ric Flair over every naughty comment.
       The Goodson-Todman library is not a cheap license. As much as I love those classics, the Nielsen reports indicate not enough people watch enough of them, particularly in the younger age brackets, to merit their continued expense after that contract expires. When you're owned by a multinational corporation, you're under pressure to turn a profit and in television, to do that, you are pressured to skew young demographically. The dilemma: game shows have never been a young skew after they're on the air a year or two. Not that The Price Is Right's CBS demo average the rule. Much of that, you can chalk up to the show's age and the fact that college students, who make up a huge portion of the contestants today, do not have Nielsen measurements in dorm rooms.
       A consistently young demo is not going to come to Game Show Network in even half of its 20 hours a day of programming but that's what the owners and, allegedly, the cable operators want. So, the people who are making GSN's decisions are slowly trying to emulate the Comedy Central model and the Goodson-Todman library does not fit that puzzle. I predict you'll see more things like Aliens Ate My Game Show or Kiss My Grits than Play Your Hunch because the belief is the more outrageous the show, the more younger viewers will watch.
       Personally, I believe if GSN does not find a way to strike a balance between its traditional viewers and those younger folks it so covets, the whole strategy will fail. Yet, that younger, hipper direction is what will be targeted.
       I love those Goodson-Todman gems. I know many of you do because you are vocal, vehement and vociferous about them. You've let me know it time after time. I only wish Game Show Network's executives could examine the passion you have for these shows. Their minds may not be changed----but at least they would know of the intensity of your feelings. As they see it, not enough of us exist to make a difference.

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