Around The World In 80 Games

Caught up with an old friend the other day at one of our longtime haunts, a TV studio.  Back in the day when we both young, dumb and broke, we used to frequent studio audiences of almost every TV show that would allow us into their studios that taped in New York City.  In that era, we were limited primarily to game shows.  Lots and lots of the original iteration of PYRAMID, where the mere sight of us seemingly shot fear into the eyes of the frustrated warm-up man and off-camera announcer, who we tortured with repetitive questions based upon the fact we had memorized almost every ounce of his “material”.   We were supposedly “banned for life” by legendary announcer Don Pardo after our over-the-top yelling directly into the overhead microphones all but drowned out what turned out to be his last consolation prize narrative on a broadcast network game show.  Well, he did OK for himself in his next gig, enough so that we all got to share drinks with him at a convention decades later, and he let bygones by bygones–for the most part.

These days, it’s a little more complicated to get into studio audience tapings, with security clearances aplenty and, heck, the pandemic all but banned them for well more than a year.   So, frankly, I don’t even go a lot these days even though I’ve had more than enough time and, frankly, similar economic status than I had back in the day.  But some other folks do, and I engaged with a few of these uberfans on line, regaling them with my experiences of an era they had only dreamed about.  And they were honestly surprised to learn, as you may be, that another and now more prevalent reason their options are limited are the fact that an awful lot of today’s game shows don’t produce their episodes in the United States.

Among the lengthy list of prime time shows that will produce on foreign soil include CBS; two new orders for fall series that will replace striking scripted shows, LOTERIA LOCA, which will shoot in Madrid with the help of co-producer and JANE THE VIRGIN alum Jaime Camilm and RAID THE CAGE, a successful international format for my old friends at Sony which will be produced on the Mexico City soundstage of one its most successful versions. A new season of NAME THAT TUNE, which produced episodes earlier in the pandemic in Australia, will shoot in a FOX-favorite location in Ireland, where yet another friend will oversee production, and he will be joined this week by yet another friend who will be involved in the production of yet another strike replacement series based on an existing international format called THE FLOOR.   An awful lot of people I know are at least getting frequent flyer miles, plus a rare chance to travel the world and get paid for it.

I used to be in their position, so I know first-hand this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon,  There was a time where I was fortunate enough to be involved in producing shows via Canadian content loopholes that effectively reduced the cost of making a show by nearly half of what it might have cost in Los Angeles.  I got to spend a large portion of a gorgeous long-ago summer shooting shows in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The show I was involved in was called TALKABOUT, which the genial Canadian host pronounced “tahk-a-BOOT”.  In an era where  those with similar accents such Alex Trebek and Peter Jennings were seen nightly by tens of millions of viewers back-to-back, that wasn’t such a big deal.  Dozens of contestants doing the same thing was more than my superiors would tolerate.  So as a compromise to my prickly bosses (many of whom had accents of their own), we’d host daily buses of prospective contestants being brought in from nearby Seattle, far from many of their friends and family.  When someone would somehow figure out that I was one of the “suits” that caused this, the dagger stares I got could have burned a hole right through my head.

But in a world where strikes now add to the still-lingering effects of pandemic production, non-U.S. production is continuing to grow,  And because of local law loopholes and the fact that talent that doesn’t belong to unions whose acronyms end in AMERICA, the show will go on for still others I know even in the scripted world.   Production on Hallmark TV movies will continue this summer in my beloved Vancouver, which yet another friend will direct (their guild didn’t strie).   LAW AND ORDER is shooting a new version of CRIMINAL INTENT in Toronto.  NCIS is in production with a version set in Sydney.  With necessity being the mother of invention, it is all but assured that U.S. audiences will see each of these versions replacing reruns of one of their American-set cousins should these strikes continue.  Some network executives I know are already on site in those venues where, if nothing else, they are avoiding the growing noise and vitriol of picket lines and strike rallies.

Those jobs and opportunities, hopefully, will eventually return to America.  I’m not so sure about the game shows.  They are too profitable and too strategically important to studios and networks.  And those dependent upon union writers, such as JEOPARDY!, are already putting up a flight.  Yesterday this story arose which, to their credit, Sony management quickly responded to, but if you read between the lines, they are still delivering an effective middle finger to their striking talent in a manner nearly as tone-deaf as comments from a chairman or the timing of tree trimmings.   As VARIETY’s Selome Hailu wrote:

Starting with a Reddit post made on Friday by 13-time “Jeopardy!” winner Ray Lalonde, several prominent contestants have pledged not to return to the series to compete in the Tournament of Champions in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America, as the series employs WGA members.

Lalonde, an IATSE member who works in scenic design, wrote that that there were “credible reports that the producers are making contingency plans to start filming the next season of the show with old and/or recycled material if the WGA strike remains unresolved.” Lalonde then went on to praise “Jeopardy!” writers for their work and their current efforts to secure a new deal with the studios, before making a promise to support them. “As a supporter of the trade union movement, a union member’s son and a proud union member myself I have informed the show’s producers that if the strike remains unresolved I will not cross a picket line to play in the tournament of champions,” he said. 

Troy Meyer, Suresh Krishnan and Cris Pannullo also seconded Lalonde’s sentiments on Reddit, and Dan Wohl made a proposition for a tournament of their own: “If the strike does end up torpedoing the postseason (including the Champions Wild Card which I was ecstatic to qualify for but will certainly never cross the picket line for), maybe we can organize some kind of alternative online trivia contest/event with as many Season 39 champs as possible and somehow make it a fundraiser for the WGA.”

Another player who was meant to appear in the Tournament of Champions is Ike Barinholtz, the actor and writer who recently won “Celebrity Jeopardy!,” though his involvement in both unions prevents his participation.

A “Jeopardy!” spokesperson shared a statement Tuesday evening, affirming that the series had no plans to produce a Tournament of Champions until the strike is resolved. The spokesperson also stated that no contestants had been contacted regarding availability for a postseason tournament. However, the show plans to continue producing episodes in the fall, using material written by WGA writers before the strike began.

“‘Jeopardy!’ has a long history with and tremendous respect for the WGA and our writers. We have always been careful to honor our WGA agreements and we would never air game material not created by WGA writers,” the statement reads. “However, just as we did, led by Alex Trebek, during the 2007-2008 strike, we will deliver first-run episodes again this fall to more than 200 affiliate stations nationwide. Our current plan is to go into a holding pattern of sorts, pushing back the S39 postseason to first produce original episodes featuring the best of our WGA written material.”

So yep, Sony sure seems determined to keep the train going.  We’ve yet to hear from co-host Mayim Bialik, who walked away from the week of tapings now airing in this season’s final original week in solidarity with her striking writers.  Ken Jennings filled in, though he somehow emerged as a target of angry union members who criticized him mercilessly for stepping in.  I see the picket lines at every Sony gate daily, and I know they know what he looks like.

It just so happens JEOPARDY! is starting up a new version in executive producer Michael Davies’ native England.  There’s plenty of ex-pats in the area to draw from, or even the potential to fly contestants in from across the pond.  And a shiny new set to produce on without the spectre of striking writers, with “classic” material that I’m fairly sure most contestants won’t remember, but you’d be surprised how many FANS might.  In fact, they may actually provide comparative statistics to how many were answered correctly this time versus their previous asking.  This is the LAST show where reusing material could be dusted under the rug.

But, hey, isn’t making money the ultimate goal of any game show participant?  Be they contestant or producer?  Regardless of where in the world they’re made?

Happy travels, friends.

Until next time…

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