America's love affair with the game show
Hype and glitter don't equal lasting success in the television game. For the longest-running shows, the audience is the thing.
The answer is: easy rules, everyday contestants, a charismatic host, and just enough twists to keep it fresh.
"What is the perfect formula for creating a long-running television game show?"
"Jeopardy!" fans have long been familiar with the venerable quiz show's counterintuitive - but catchy - answer-then-question format. Now that the erudite and unflappable Ken Jennings has captured the imagination of a whole new legion of viewers with his unprecedented million-dollar-plus winning streak, the war horse is creating a fresh pop-culture buzz.
In the fickle world of television where genres like westerns come and go and sitcoms are trumped by gross-out reality shows, game shows have managed to find perennial appeal. These shows have always been the cheapest game in town - a host, a set, and some prizes are the components shared by classic programs such as "Wheel of Fortune," "The Price Is Right," and, of course, "Jeopardy!"
"Other than the winners, you're not paying the talent," says Marc Berman, senior television writer at Mediaweek. "What's not to like from the producer's point of view?"
People line up in droves to be on the shows for the same reason audiences stick with the tried and true formats. "Everybody likes things they can relate to, and these shows give just enough of that to feed the dream," Mr. Berman says. "That could be me, I could win that money. And the truth is, it could be you. That's why these shows are so enduring."
But the most vital ingredient of a long-living game show may well be the audience.
So, what is it that keeps those faithful millions, with each new generation learning from their elders how to play, tuning in to 500-plus shows over the decades?
"They're fun, they're not too hard, and we've always watched them with my family," says Damon Burnley, a 30-something personal bodyguard. His family moved to Los Angeles from Nicaragua when he was 4, and he says the shows helped them bond while they learned English. "My sisters and my mom and I all watched them together, all the time," he says.
Now a father, this University of Southern California graduate doesn't miss a day of his favorite shows. "I still watch 'Jeopardy!' and 'Wheel [of Fortune]' every day," he laughs, falling silent as several men walk by with a curious look. He adds quietly, "If I can't get home in time, I have my wife tape the shows for me. We went out and got a DVR [digital video recorder] so she could get 'em all."
This kind of passion is not unusual in the typical game-show fan, say media mavens. "These shows are real people watching real people," says Ed Martin, programming editor for the Myers Report, an industry newsletter. "They're the original reality shows and they date from the earliest days of television," he says. Most of the first TV game shows - "What's My Line?," "Beat the Clock," "You Bet Your Life" - date from the radio era and launched on television with a fan base already in place.
"The difference these shows have from all the new so-called reality shows is that these game shows are reasonable people all doing reasonable things," he says. Most people can't relate to stunts on "Fear Factor" such as eating cockroaches or jumping from moving boats. While those shows do have a following, "I don't really hear people talking about those extreme challenge shows right now," Mr. Martin adds. "Whereas, I know there is still a big, regular audience that has always watched and still watches the old game shows."
"People love games," is the simplest answer, says Mr. Berman of Mediaweek. "They love to watch other people play games where they can play along," he adds. The interaction empowers people, says Berman, so they keep tuning in.
Loyal fans are key to these shows' longevity. Audiences hang in there, even if they never want to be on one. The burly Mr. Burnley takes a step backward, just at the thought. "I do not," he says, repeating himself for emphasis, "do not want to go on those shows. I couldn't possibly answer questions in front of all that live audience. I couldn't stand to be out in front like that.
"But," he adds, "that doesn't mean I don't think about it. Every time I watch, I say to myself, 'that could be me.' And I know I'm right."