Where game shows were once a garnish to the summer TV lineup, this year, networks are playing hard for attention from lovers of lighthearted TV.
Fueling the race is a mix of nostalgia and pure economics.
NBC and ABC have both gone big on game shows, with the former’s “Hollywood Game Night” lineup going up against ABC’s revival of “The Gong Show” and singing competition series “Boy Band” last Thursday. (In keeping with the “everything old is new” theme, the latter network reintroduces “Battle of the Network Stars” on June 29.)
Fox has also mixed old and new with a “Love Connection” revival as well as “Beat Shazam,” hosted by Jamie Foxx.
CBS will bring the popular game “Candy Crush” to TV on July 9.
“I think when summer comes people want to just turn off and be entertained,” “Candy Crush” executive producer Matt Kunitz told CNN. “They want to relax and have a good time.”
Kunitz, also an alum of NBC’s “Fear Factor” and ABC’s “Wipe Out,” said forms of “popcorn entertainment” like game shows have the added benefit of being ideal for co-viewing, an invaluable quality for families when school is on summer break.
Bob Boden, an authority on game shows who will also serve as a producer on the upcoming syndicated game show “Funny You Should Ask” for Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, cited a number of factors that make these programs attractive besides their family-friendly profile, including a relatively recent breakthrough: scheduling flexibility, with some of the programs now playing at 10 p.m.
“Summer has traditionally been an experimental time and proving ground” for alternative shows, Boden said, adding that formats like “Match Game” or “Family Feud” “have stood the test of time and been ready to expose to a new generation.”
Kunitz believes the glut of nostalgia programming — and the audience’s appetite for it — might also have to do with the political climate.
“We’re in a sort of politically tumultuous time and the country’s a little divided,” he said. “I think when there’s a period like that… people look back and want something to remind them of a simpler time.”
Economics for $1000, Alex
Big-name talent has become one way to distinguish and help promote these programs, including ABC’s unusual stunt of having an unrecognizable Mike Myers host “Gong Show” under heavy makeup as a British comic named Tommy Maitland.
Even with hefty payouts to stars like Myers, Foxx or Alec Baldwin — some of whom earn big money hosting such programs, given that they can command six-figure salaries and shoot multiple episodes in one day’s work — the economics on game shows remain favorable.
For networks, such programs offer a way to help keep the lights on and maintain an original programming footprint in the stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day. While the likelihood of finding another breakout hit like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” has diminished, there’s always the possibility of stumbling across a success that can be used as a bench player in the fall.
Costs vary, but networks usually pay less than $1 million per hour of a game show. Even on a show like “Candy Crush,” for which CBS constructed two four-story interactive game boards that set them back about $2 million, according to Kunitz the cost still falls well under the license fee on a primetime drama.
Lower across-the-board ratings in primetime have also eased ratings expectations. “The Gong Show” premiere, for example, drew 3.8 million viewers, per Nielsen data, enough to edge NBC’s scripted drama “The Night Shift.”
Kunitz, like his contestants, still has his eyes on the prize, though.
“Success means, quite simply, big ratings,” he said. “I don’t have any specific number in my head, but I trust we’ll know it when we see it.”