Syndicators Up the Ante on Game Shows

This season, almost every veteran syndicated game show is tweaking its format to draw viewers into the action as quickly as possible.

Debmar-Mercury's Family Feud, produced by FremantleMedia North America, has added a Bull's Eye round at the top of the show in which each of five family members answers a quick question: “What was the number-one answer to this survey question?†Families play for an ascending amount of money, starting with $1,000 for question one and ending with $5,000. If the family gets all five questions, it starts the game with an extra $15,000.

'A game within a game'

“I love it,†says host John O'Hurley. “It creates a game within a game, and that starts the show right off with an energy you can't get any other way.â€

“The audience is so fragmented now,†says Feud Executive Producer Gaby Johnston. “You have to catch their attention immediately. Back when Richard Dawson was host, we would sometimes go 10 minutes before we asked the first question.â€

Likewise, Disney-ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has added a “cold open†in which the game begins right when the show starts, according to Executive Producer Michael Davies. “We tried cold opens on the network show with Regis [Philbin] this summer,†Davies says. “We liked how they worked so much that we brought it into the syndicated show.â€

Millionaire also has amped up its money tree, with the first question now worth $500, up from $100, and the first “safety level†occurring at $5,000 instead of $1,000. “This guarantees real money to everyone who comes on the show,†Davies says.

CBS' Wheel of Fortune also wants to speed up the pace of play, and to do that it has replaced the “free spin†with a “free play.†A player who hits the free play must use it right then and can buy a vowel for free, or call a consonant and earn $500 each time it appears in the puzzle, or solve the puzzle with no fear of losing a turn.

“It's really a form of immunity,†says Harry Friedman, executive producer of Wheel and Jeopardy!. “It adds an element of strategy that we've never had before. I hope it will lead to more puzzles being solved.â€

More puzzles being solved means more opportunity for audiences to play along, and that's what keeps them glued to the screen. “It's just human nature,†Friedman says. “We can practically hear viewers shouting at us from their living rooms, 'Stop talking and let's play the game!'â€

“We're constantly trying to change it up and bring new things to our audience without completely changing the principles of the game,†Davies says. “The whole category is really good at this.â€

they get viewers into the game, producers want them to stay there and return to
watch as many days as possible.

the new Bull's Eye round, Family Feud
contestants now play for a Chrysler 300C sedan. If they win five games in a row-appearing
on the show for five days-they take home the car.

chance to win the car creates another element of the game within the game," O'Hurley
explains. On the choice of the Chrysler 300C, Hurley says: "You have to go with
what America
would go with, and everybody loves that car."

Millionaire has added the Tournament
of Ten, in which the 10 contestants in September and October who earn the most
money the fastest will come back to the show starting Nov. 9. The tournament runs
through Nov. 20. By giving contestants something else to play for besides
winning his round, viewers also will have a reason to watch the show every day.
A tournament leader board is updated on the show each day, according to Davies.

Millionaire's tournament in November,
each contestant will appear at the end of the show with one shot at answering a
$1 million question. If the contestant gets the question right, he gets the
chance to win $1 million. If he gets it wrong, he loses everything he originally
won exceeding $25,000. The highest seed will be the contestant who won his
round the fastest, and the highest seed to answer the million-dollar question
correctly will win the money.

everything going on with the economy, we really wanted to have someone win a
million dollars, which hasn't happened since early in our syndicated history," Davies

November, Millionaire also will be
adding celebrity questions, in which a celebrity poses a question related to
him or her via video. Davies thinks that incorporating more video into the show
is a good idea because "this is TV, not radio. These questions will bring in
people from other locations and surround the viewer with more video. Anything
we can do in television to play on the ability of television is a good thing."

Jeopardy! already moves pretty fast,
but this season it's introducing the Million Dollar Celebrity Invitational,
which will take place on the third Thursday of every month.

selected celebrities who had done well in their previous appearances," Friedman
says. "They are guaranteed a minimum of $25,000 for their charity just for
playing. If they win their first show, they are guaranteed another $50,000 for
their charity and a shot at the million."

Wolf Blitzer, The Tonight Show's Andy
Richter and Desperate Housewives'
Dana Delany were the first three contestants on Thursday, Sept. 17. Blitzer
bombed, finishing up with minus $4,600. Richter won $68,000 for his charity of
choice, St. Jude Children's Hospital.

celebrities coming to play include NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,
actors Doug Savant and Christopher Meloni, actress Elizabeth Perkins and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak. In May,
each winner of these nine episodes will come back and play for $1 million.
Overall, Jeopardy! is committed to
donating more than $2.5 million to charities this season.

NBC Universal's Deal or No Deal, now
in its second season in syndication, is adding more theme weeks and guest
bankers, starting with the WWE's
Dolph Ziggler. The show will feature weeks honoring nurses, teachers and
firefighters. It also will offer one week in which audience members will be
randomly selected to play the game.

great advantage of game shows is that you can play along with them," says Millionaire's Davies. "The more game
play you can cram into every show, the better."

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Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.