Finding an Escape in TV Fun and Games

Some entertainment-themed cable networks are betting on game shows to drive new audiences with escapist fun and comedic programming.

Game shows like BET’s Face Value, TBS’s Snoop Dogg Presents The Joker’s Wild and truTV’s Talk Show the Game Show offer a fun, less-expensive alternative to dark scripted dramas and often outlandish reality series that dominate cable network lineups, network executives said. Such shows also serve as comfort food for viewers weary of the constant drumbeat of the 24-hour news cycle.

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“I think that everyone right now is growing fatigued by current events and politics and are looking for an escape,” truTV senior vice president of development and original programming Lesley Goldman said. “Game shows in particular create an alternative universe — you’re really entering a world where there are really clear rules that you can play along with and temporarily get away from the real world.”

And Discovery Channel is reviving Cash Cab, the taxicab-based quiz show it aired from 2004 to 2012, with original host Ben Bailey once again picking up would-be contestants on the streets of New York. New episodes will begin airing Dec. 4.

Cable’s game-show fascination comes after a major push by the broadcast networks into the genre this past summer with new shows like CBS’s Candy Crush and Fox’s Beat Shazam, along with revivals of such classic shows from the 1970s and 1980s as ABC’s The Gong Show and Fox’s Love Connection.

A New Generation of Fans
While game shows have been a staple of television since the early days of the medium, the genre has found new life by appealing to a new generation of viewers looking for escapist programming that’s heavy on humor and celebrity stars.

“In the world that we live in, it’s just a fun way to decompress and escape and have some fun doing it,” Connie Orlando, executive vice president and head of programming for BET Networks, said. “In this climate, we’re striving to bring people from all backgrounds together to celebrate the things that unite us and not divide us, and I think game shows are a perfect reflection of that.”

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TBS senior vice president of unscripted series and special event programming Michael Bloom said the network recently looked to the game show genre to complement its lineup of comedy programming and came up with a revival of the 1970s staple The Joker’s Wild, hosted by hip hop superstar Snoop Dogg. He said the series — which retains the format of the 1972-86 original, adding some hip hop flourishes and Snoop-themed questions and categories — gives its audience an opportunity to laugh and be entertained through a different programming lens.

“Fun and funny were the first two filters we applied to every decision we made for the series,” Bloom said. “We approached it by asking how we could take the original, easy, exciting show and add as many comedy layers as we could to it, and we were able to do that.”

So far the show is winning with viewers: Snoop Dogg Presents The Joker’s Wild drew nearly 1.2 million viewers for its Oct. 24 premiere — on par with the network’s average primetime rating for that week.

Other cable networks are looking to put their own stamp on the game show with new genre concepts. TruTV’s sophomore series Talk Show Game Show is a mashup of the two television formats that pits comedians and celebrities against each other. Hosted by comedian Guy Branum (Chelsea Lately), it places celebrities in various talk show-inspired challenges judged by a panel of comedians who award points while roasting the celebrity’s performances, according to the network.

“The key for us was finding a show with an original hook and a unique point of view that at the center featured a great personality behind it,” Goldman said. “It’s highly relatable and so fun for audiences to play along.”

Talk Show the Game Show, produced by comedian Wanda Sykes’s Push It Productions, will return for its second season in early 2018, according to Goldman. “It combines two genres that our audience loves, and creates a competitive environment where we get to see comedians and celebrities really let their hair down and have a ball,” she said. “It just attracts an audience that’s looking for some fun and satisfying arc and ending that they can walk away from. There are no winners and no losers — it’s a very concrete experience for our viewer.”

‘Face’ Up to’ Prejudice
BET’s Face Value challenges people’s own prejudices and biases by allowing celebrity contestants to make snap judgments about people they see based on their looks and mannerisms.

Face Value is fun and engages people in lively debate, and over the course of the game the players and viewers realize that when they stop judging and start listening to others they find out each person is uniquely individual,” said BET’s Orlando. “It’s a unique mix of both the comedy and game show formats, and that mix makes for good television and appeals to audiences of all ages and all walks of life.”

The show is hosted by Black-ish’s Deon Cole and produced by Sykes, providing the series with name recognition that helps build viewer awareness. “It’s good to put a face that people can relate to and know to introduce these shows,” she said.

TBS also turned to a celebrity in Emmy-nominated hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg to host its remake of The Joker’s Wild. Bloom attributes the presence of Snoop Dogg to drawing in new viewers to the network — 30% of the show’s audience had never watched TBS, he said.

“Snoop is a prolific social media superstar, and he has stepped up and absolutely done a great job of promoting the show,” he said. “It’s unique to see a superstar like Snoop doing something like this. We’re glad he’s brought all of these new eyeballs to TBS.”

Executives said game show programming competes well in a very crowded television marketplace and will continue to find time slots on cable network programing lineups. TruTV’s next game show, slated for next year, will be a trivia-themed program that will help ordinary people pay off their student debt, according to Goldman. “Whether its celebrities or ordinary people, game shows are fun no matter who’s playing it,” she added.

BET has already green-lit a second game show, Black Card Revoked, based on the card game of the same name that tests players’ knowledge of the African-American experience from pop culture and entertainment to historical facts and politics. Comedian Tony Rock will host the series, which will debut in January, according to Orlando.

“We have found that our audience likes to laugh and decompress, and game shows are a great way to do that,” she said. “Our filters are always to be relevant, fun and radically bold, and game show programming checks off a lot of those boxes.”

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.