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Game On for FremantleMedia’s Mullin

Jennifer Mullin, CEO of FremantleMedia North America (FMNA), has overseen unscripted programming for the production/distribution outfit for the past decade. That includes a bevy of blue-chip game shows, including The Price Is Right, Family Feud and Let’s Make a Deal.

FMNA started inching into children’s game shows when it worked out a deal with Universal Kids to bring The Noise and Beat the Clock, the former a Japanese format and the latter an update of the vintage program, to the new NBCUniversal network.

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Mullin is constantly on the lookout for other classic gamers that can be updated and turned on to a new audience. “We talk about Password a lot. We talk about Card Sharks, Press Your Luck,” she said. “Those are some of the big, iconic ones that I think could live in 2017 or 2018.”

Mullin spoke with Multichannel News contributing editor Michael Malone about why it’s a good time for game shows, what the new American Idol might look like, and when the streaming giants will get more into unscripted. An edited transcript follows.

MCN: Why didn’t Fremantle get into children’s game shows sooner?
Jennifer Mullin:
We actually did a kids’ show five or six years ago — a kids’ version of Hole in the Wall, which was a Japanese format. We did a primetime version for Fox and a kids’ version for two seasons for Cartoon Network. Doing kids' versions of our game formats is something we’ve talked about, but you obviously need the network to buy in.

MCN: Why is this a good time for game shows in the U.S.?
Everything is cyclical. I don’t think games have ever really gone away. Look at some of our long-running franchises — The Price Is Right has been on the air for 46 years, the current version of Family Feud is in its 19th season without a break, Let’s Make a Deal is in its ninth year. Clearly our competitors, Wheel and Jeopardy!, have been on long-running.

It’s not that game shows had gone away. I think what you’re seeing in primetime is the pendulum swinging back the other way. People want to feel good. They want what I call low-impact viewing. There’s a lot of content out there, a lot of choices. Game shows are family viewing — they are easy to watch, you can tune in any time. They make people feel good, and I think we’re living in a time when people want to feel good.

MCN: What do you look for in a host?
Somebody who has a real passion for doing the show. I believe we have that with our hosts across all our shows — they genuinely love the game, love the format, love being the conduit to contestants winning money, making their day. That’s one, a real passion for doing the show. Additionally you need warmth. In some cases you want comedy and wit.

Game shows are not easy to host. The best hosts make it look easy. You need real intelligence. You need the ability to be in the middle of the action and not know what is going to happen. You may know how the game is played but you don’t know how it’s going to be played. There’s no script — you’ve got to really be able to go with the action and make moments.

MCN: The major streaming players like Netflix and Amazon don’t seem to be making their mark with unscripted.
I think they are. We’ve certainly had conversations with them, and I think we’ll see more unscripted with them in the next year or so. They’re figuring out what unscripted looks like for them and their subscribers. While there may not be an abundance of it right now, I think we’ll see more in the future.

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MCN: How will American Idol on ABC be different from the American Idol we know?
It won’t be dramatically different. We like to say it’s evolution, not revolution. Idol is a beloved format. It worked. It had millions and millions of viewers in our last season, so you don’t want change it so dramatically that it doesn’t look or feel like Idol. But certainly there will be some evolutionary changes.

MCN: Any you can mention?
We’re still working on them.

MCN: America’s Got Talent did major ratings this summer. Do what do you attribute the growth?
In my opinion, it’s one of the best-produced shows on television — our team just does a wonderful job producing the show. But the talent was just unbelievable this year. The winner and runner-up were kids under the age of 12. [Darci Lynne, the 2017 winner, was 12.] I think that’s interesting.

Back to my earlier point, when you asked me why game shows, why now, I think we are living in a time when people want to feel good. This is the ultimate family viewing and it makes people feel good. It gives you people to root for. The talent was amazing week in and week out, and it just got better. I think that accounts for the growth.

MCN: Do you envision changes to America’s Got Talent for next season?
No, just keep it going, keep the train moving and find more great talent out there. That’s the beauty of the show — every year we continue to find the most amazing talent.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.