For GSN, The Games Are Still Played ON The Screen

There’s a new TV series premiering tonight, and I highly doubt they’ll be too many places that will consider it big news.  It’s a basic cable network premiere, which is a world where in the pecking order of viewing and promotion priorities these days is a very distant third behind streaming and broadcast.  It’s a game show, which by definition immediately disqualifies it for any sort of recognition beyond only a handful of more inclusive reviewers.  It’s technically not airing in prime time, although on the network it is airing on they routinely sell ad inventory in that daypart at close to or sometimes even higher the rates that many of their actual prime time show do.  And it’s not even the first game show to premiere in a year that’s just eight days old.

But at Game Show Network, now in its 30th year and more than a decade since the management team at that time divorced themselves from yours truly, it’s a big day nonetheless, and unlike a whole lot of their competitors and, frankly, their predecessors, the current regime actually knows who they are, who their viewers are and, most of all, know what they want to watch.

The network came about amidst a sea of expansion by cable providers newly blessed with an expanded capacity to offer channels, some of which were filled by genre-specific offshoots from broader offerings from incumbents.  The team behind the USA network gave the world the Sci-Fi Channel.  The team behind MTV and Nickeoldeon gave the world what became Comedy Central.   The team behind the launch of GSN was well-versed in producing and airing the various shows they started out with; many of their better executives had been with the companies whose libraries were either acquired outright or proactively licensed.  One of the best had been with almost all of them.

Eventually, as the network matured, the market demanded it produce original content in order to justify its raison d’etre.  The most successful of these efforts were a mix of cost-effective originals, with a couple of revivals of familiar titles scattered in for recognizability.  Those strategies didn’t come out of thin air.  They were honed by people who knew the nuts and bolts, and especially the costs, of what was involved and who the more reliable and trustworthy people were to get the job done optimally.  I should know.  I was one of them, and I’m sure you’ve already guessed the identity of another.  There are others whose names and faces you probably don’t know but should.

What all of us had–er, HAVE–in common was a passion and a love for our jobs and the genre.  It’s difficult to explain to an industry filled with egos and what they think are better ideas.  This is more than ever commonplace among today’s media executives.  Not only do they rely more and more on artificial intelligence and feedback from algorithms and digital viewership to make their decisions, few of them actually even speak to the people they’re hoping will watch.  Those of us who created content actually were and regularly interacted with their fans, both directly and via consistent qualitative testing.  It’s a very simple formula.  Give your public what THEY want, and don’t spend too much doing it.

Game Show Network didn’t always live by that simple mantra, and, as a result, most of us who did contribute to their past aren’t part of their present.  But a few, led by its current president and one-time sales czar John Zaccario, are, and it is this team that is giving the world a show called BLANK SLATE, which will be hosted by Mario Lopez and premiere at 6 PM as a Monday-Friday strip tonight.  BROADWAY WORLD’s Michael Major, leaning heavily on the network’s press release, describes it as follows:

Based on the board game by USAopoly and in the comedic game show format, BLANK SLATE is a fun and funny game show where thinking alike, in the form of matching answers to clever fill-in-the blank questions, can win you big bucks. Each team of two friends will be paired with a comedian guest, and the teams accumulate points by matching their teammates, with a bonus if any player matches America’s top answer.

The celebrities switch teams in round two, and in round three the trailing team picks the comedian partner they believe will help them win. The winning team moves on to the bonus round where they can pick a comedian to match on each question. If the team gets three matches, they walk away with $10,000.

That sure sounds like a whole lot of other stuff you’ve probably already seen, and, again, that’s not by accident.   GSN’s most successful recent series was a near-copycat of its ubiquitously rerun FAMILY FEUD called AMERICA SAYS!, which tweaked FEUD’s format only slightly and toned down the current iteration’s overly suggestive material.  It ran five seasons and produced more than enough episodes to sister company Sony to syndicate and achieve national ratings on a par with newly produced episodes of other shows that have the FOX station group as its backbone.

BLANK SLATE is unquestionably reminiscent of MATCH GAME, but perhaps not the one most familiar to you.  Indeed, the brief clip that Lopez has been showing on various daytime talk shows he’s been making guest apperances on sure looks a LOT like the ORIGINAL format of the show from the 1960s, right down to the more subdued and less glitzy look that the show had long before the likes of Richard Dawson, Brett Somers and “boobs” entered the picture.  Most people don’t remember that version; indeed, its only exposure in this century was part of a 50th anniversary salute to the franchise that yours truly produced.  But those early, rare episodes, in glorious black and white, were as well-viewed as the more popular 70s-era shows.  And that earlier version ran on network TV practically as long as that 70s hit did.

And with Lopez, the network is echoing what has worked for them more recently by casting a 90s sitcom icon as host.  To a generation of target demo viewers, he will always be A.C. Slater from SAVED BY THE BELL.  Much like Leah Remini will always be Carrie Heffernan from KING OF QUEENS.   Remini, with no prior game show hosting experience, earned an Emmy nomination for her work on PEOPLE PUZZLER, a breezy branded half-hour of clue-solving that has followed AMERICA SAYS! into syndication,  Lopez actually does have some prior game show hosting experience, but admittedly it’s been a while.   Before GSN the Family Channel was a haven for game shows, and for a year he fronted a kids-targeted show on that network called MASTERS OF THE MAZE.  It aired in a block that also included a show called WILD ANIMAL GAMES, which was also fronted by an up-and-coming kid-friendly host with good looks and appeal of his own.  You may know the name Ryan Seacrest.

No, BLANK SLATE isn’t the biggest show that will premiere in 2024, though it’s one of the first.  And it definitely won’t attract anything remotely close to the 2.5 million viewers that tuned in to the FOX premiere of THE FLOOR last week.  A glitzy, tension-filled effort with a massive set that, instead of lava, features 81 contestants, heavily promoted in NFL games, that opened decently, to be sure, but the jury’s still out on how it holds up.  The game itself?  Not bad, IMO, but as many GSN viewers probably know it’s a very similar game format to one employed in an obscure 70s pilot called CAUGHT IN THE ACT.  Well, maybe not all that many.  But I know of at least three.  Personally.

But today’s GSN is in far, far better shape than it’s been at various points in its existence, certainly during the regimes that unceremoniously tossed out those of us who knew the ingredients to what would be well received by both viewers and financial analysts.  Zaccario leaves the making of shows to seasoned pros who follow a formulaic template.  And with his sales acumen, reach out to brands like People and Yahoo! to throw a few value-added bucks and promotional nods to other efforts.  And yes, even revive a few titles that its audience knows and remembers.  Last year, it was the 70s Q&A show SPLIT SECOND, now fronted by the host of AMERICA SAYS!  Before that, it was a new cycle of CHAIN REACTION, a show whose roots date back to 1980s NBC but wisely gave new employment to the host of the early 2000s version which had been rerun at least a couple of hundred times.

And in 2023, it was  among the Top 40 of 155 rated networks, and among those Top 40 its year/year audience retention was superior to all but 10 of them.  And it currently attracts more viewers on average than E!, MTV, Animal Planet, Adult Swim and BET.  Not to mention Comedy Central and Syfy (nee the Sci-Fi Channel, before “creative management” renamed it).

Tell me, please, how you think those networks’ executives are feeling these days.  Particularly the ones owned by Paramount Global and Warner Discovery.

I dare say, a lot less secure and confident than Zaccario and his current colleagues are.

I’m proud to have been a part of GSN’s past.  I’m confident their present is in great shape, and that there will be a future.  With a slate that’s anything but blank.

Until next time…


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