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They're Not Reality TV, They're Game Shows

With us for decades, and thought to be in decline, the fact is that game shows are still on-screen and come in more-diverse forms than ever. But now we call them reality shows.

Today, viewers who claim to hate game shows tune in weekly to The Apprentice, Amazing Race and Survivor. The qualities that helped The Price Is Right succeed are drawing eyeballs to “The Donald” today.

Creating a game show is a science that is replicated by reality shows. Successful shows lure viewers by creating competition, by appealing to their greed and by getting them to root for contestants they like.

The universal pull of those three game-show staples is demonstrated by the success of the game show in all cultures and by viewers who watch shows that are in languages they don't even understand.

We want to see winners and losers, and we enjoy watching others fight it out for prizes. Viewers derive pleasure from pitting themselves against contestants, an attraction similar to that of videogaming, an industry currently grossing ten times more than the movie business. Audiences indulge in fantasy, questioning whether they could answer better or endure more than the contestants. Game-show watching becomes an empowering process in which audiences have the opportunity to watch with a sense of exultation.

As in any game, having a favorite to root for is a significant part of the enjoyment. In most game shows, contestants are given the opportunity to catch up through quick-fire rounds or bonus questions. Like American sports, the sense of competition is preserved throughout. Watching the show with friends and selecting participants to back means the competition moves beyond the confines of the TV, becoming an interactive experience.

Greed is central to the appeal of game shows. What would we do? We all want to know what the contestant's price is and what ours would be. Would we gamble it all to double our money? Would we eat that extra bug for another $10,000?

As viewers, we are fascinated and repulsed by greed. On TV screens, the game show continues to evolve. On paper, the science remains the same.

The game show is entering an exciting new era in its development. The convergence of TV and the Web means interactivity is sure to increase. Already, we have seen game shows rolled out onto new formats: DVDs, computer games, interactive board games. And TV sets are now able to give audiences the chance to play. How far will the interactive experience go? To many, the game show's appeal is voyeuristic. When the barrier comes down, it will be interesting to see who still wants to play.

Sternberg is an Emmy Award- winning producer and founder of Scott Sternberg Productions.