David Burke is an entertainment writer who has enjoyed interviewing game show winners as an editor for the Quad Cities newspaper in Davenport, Iowa. He's also been a lifelong TV nut (a fond term for trivia buffs). However, never did Burke believe he would come within 10 seconds of becoming TV's Ultimate Fan.
The evening of Aug. 20, 2000, on TV Land, Burke fell two questions short of winning the Ultimate Fan Search in a thriller championship game against "Lonesome" Paul Goebel of Van Nuys, Cal. Burke talks about the Fan Search experience and the fun of the three-week tournament with Game Show Convention Center.
GSCC: David, to be one of television's top two Ultimate Fans has America's TV trivia experts envious. How grueling was the process?
DB: It was relatively painless. I was one of the people who qualified in the "mall tour," so part of the difficulty was convincing my wife we should take a day trip to Rockford, Ill. About 100 of us filled out a 10-question quiz, and those who had enough correct answers were given an interview of about two minutes. Eight of us made it on stage, in a three round Q-&-A tournament. I never thought I'd win that. My wife and I were looking at the rest, trying to predict who would win that.
GSCC: This is an upbeat, lighthearted game but I know TV trivia buffs are serious about their knowledge. How serious was the security, compared to what we know exists on the million-dollar shows?
DB: From people I've interviewed over the years who have been on Jeopardy, WWTBAM and Twenty-One, it wasn't as strict, but still strict enough. We could bring in reading material (some brought the Tim Brooks-Earle Marsh "Complete Guide...") to the green room, and Howard Leib (who I faced in the lightning round twice and made it to the finals as a wild card) did some business over the phone in the green room the last day of taping, to see if he got in as a wild card. But a lot of the restrictions were still there -- we couldn't talk about our games, had to be escorted to the
restroom, etc. The producers had headsets and could talk to each other. We knew a guest celebrity was in the building, but they couldn't say whom. The staff was really great. For being a freelance gig for a lot of them, they were fantastic.
GSCC: You've covered the entertainment industry in the Quad Cities. To what degree did you ever envision yourself winding up in the championship round of this kind of show?
DB: Midway through the first round, when Sharon Sabansteanski was racking up points, I was thinking "how and I going to save face when I get back home?" and this really cuts short my wife's first trip to New York. I just went in assuming everybody knew more than I did, and was bowled over by the results.
GSCC: Of these classic shows in the TV Land library, what were your favorites growing up? How do you feel about the changes in television today? Do you see audiences 15-20 years
from now having the same nostalgic and enduring feelings for shows in the '90s and '00s as we have for those in the '50s, '60s and '70s?
DB: When I was 6, 7 or 8 years old, I could never imagine going out on Saturday nights, because I would miss "MTM," "Bob Newhart" and "Carol Burnett." Nick/TV Land has those first two; I also have a fondness for the shows my local stations (just two of them growing up) showed in reruns during the afternoons through the years: "Brady Bunch," "Gilligan's Island," "Green Acres," "Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy," "Leave It to Beaver," "Dick Van Dyke," "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie." I've always been a sitcom guy.
Boy, changes in television could get you a separate book in response from me. One of the biggest changes I've noticed professionally is the way schedules are changed at the last minute -- sometimes 24 hours or less. I get calls from irate readers all the time that the paper's TV listings weren't right the night before. Sorry, it's the networks' fault. They cancel a show on Tuesday and something else is in its place Wednesday night.
Nostalgic? Only time will tell. I think in 10 years you'll still see a lot of the same shows on Nick at Nite and TV Land, while still mixing in newer stuff. It's the visual equivalent of comfort food to know that you can find Lucy, Beaver, Andy Taylor, Marcia Brady and whoever else there on TV. I like a lot of current shows, but I don't see myself getting the warm-n-fuzzies about them when their reruns play in 10-15 years.
GSCC: Much of the television, particularly family comedies, are trashed by today's critics and producers as being irrelevant. However, how can these same writers fault the timelessness of "The Andy Griffith Show" or the values and lessons which are in every "Leave It to Beaver" episode (never mind June's pearls and heels while cleaning the house)?
DB: The word may be more irreverent than irrelevant. The reason Andy and Beaver stick is because it's still something kids and adults can sit down and watch together. A friend of mine a few weeks ago heard her five-year-old and some friends talking about this great "new" show, where these seven people were stuck on an island. There was Gilligan, the Professor...
GSCC: Thankfully, not Richard and Sue and Kelly and Rudy. A few questions about the game itself....we saw two patterns develop in the tournament: at least 12 of the 18 tournament preliminaries resulted in come-from-behind wins in the Lightning Round and, with the exception of Elaine Kotler, all of the female contestants grabbed early leads---sometimes big ones---and blew them. Why do you think that happened? Is it a concern, at all, of the producers, or are those just the breaks of the game?
DB: Remember there were two parts to every show. The first two rounds were with a signaling button, a la Jeopardy, and the finals were with a traditional, Family Feud-style buzzer. The signaling button, kind of like a slide projector advancer, was called a "pickle." "Women are better with the pickle," the stage manager told me. Women, he said, are also more patient. In those first-round games, those milliseconds can be an eternity. Did all the come-from-behind wins concern the producers? I don't think so. It made for good television.
GSCC: When you lost your quarterfinal game, how nerve-wracking was it to wait it out to see if your wild card score was going to hold?
DB: It wasn't. I stepped off the stage and found out I made it as a wild card. The games weren't shown in the order they were taped. It was pretty nervewracking for the people I saw waiting for other wildcard berths.
GSCC: In your opinion, what's the toughest part of Ultimate Fan Search as a game and if you
had to recommend any improvements, what would they be?
DB: For me, the toughest part of the TV game was the lockouts on the buzzers in round one, waiting for the
questions to end. Some of them I knew from the first three words, but it's all in the timing.
GSCC: Paul Goebel was double tough in those Lightning Rounds. But if you had hung on to become the Ultimate Fan, what would have been some of your selections for the weekly hour on Friday afternoons?
DB: I would have gone for the obscure stuff -- those shows that lasted a season or less that either had interesting casting or interesting premises (I love TV Land's "Box Set" on weekends). There's a lot of stuff I've read about that I'd just like to see for myself. Co-workers were recommending stuff that would be on anyway, like the Blue Boy episode of "Dragnet."
GSCC: How tough was that championship game?
DB: Really, not as tough as the rest. Watching the episodes again I could tell I was very nervous in that first game, and relaxed more through the other three. For some reason, I blanked out the semifinal game, even though that's where I did the best. I couldn't remember any questions from it after the fact. I had waited around all afternoon for that final game, and was just ready to get to it.
GSCC: A couple of other questions...as an entertainment writer, what's your take on Survivor and Big Brother? Do you see these kinds of shows and their meganumbers of coming clones will take hold as television's next great trend, or are we going to get fed up very quickly when we're saturated over the next season? What, if any, do you see as potentially negative about the messages these types of games send, as opposed to an upbeat show as Ultimate Fan Search?
DB: I'm not a big fan of either, although I've watched bits and pieces of Survivor (my wife's crazy for it). The summer launch certainly helped it -- remember how WWTBAM began in the summer and no one thought it would work during the season? The other reality shows will probably eventually go the way of Winning Lines, Twenty-One and Greed.
GSCC: When we look back five years from now, how will we view WWTBAM as having revived the interest in game shows----just for that one single question-and-answer show or paving the way for a return to the genre?
DB: I'm a big game show fan and would love to see them all survive. But look at the three prime-timers that bit the dust last season. I also follow the syndication mill for 2000-01 and '01-'02, and notice only one traditional game, To Tell the Truth, this year. I do read rumors about WWTBAM eventually going into syndication, as a 30-minute strip. That would be interesting.
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