The Summer Games Have Already Begun! (Kinda)

Oh, you think that it’s Paris and the Olympics that’s hoping to command our  attention and viewershio on NBC and Peacock, do you?  I know my readership pretty darn well and I know for a fact that a great deal of you are already watching what you consider to be the real Summer Games.  On FOX, and soon, on Prime Video and ABC.

Yes, once Memorial Day comes and goes, FOX shifts into almost a pure reality mode, and that’s been their script for decades.  Ever since AMERICAN IDOL reshaped their destiny as what was supposed to be just an off-season adaptation of a successful European format where the talent of Brian Dunkelman was to be a game-changer, they’ve continued to mine that pipeline of shows that work on the other side of the pond.  There’s a prevailing mindset, starting with the Murdoch family and working its way down through to their lieutenants, that people who speak some sort of English have a common ground, and if that works in music and tabloid newspapers it can work in television.  I personally had that drummed into my head for the most part of the 15 years I spent in their employ.

But I dare say when it comes to quiz–er, game–shows, they’re more often that not missing the point that there are differences in what does appeal beyond initial curiosity.  Viewers not only want to be invested in contestants’ pursuits, they want to be able to play along, proving to whoever they may be watching with, or even to themselves, that the only reason they’re not reaping rewards themselves is this silly little casting thing.  And American producers, unlike their European counterparts, emphasize people they think you’d like to watch–attractive, effervescent, interesting back stories–far more than people who are the best at game play.  In small doses, that can work.  But when more emphasis is put on looks than ability, the game becomes secondary.  And in my experience, when that goes, interest wanes.  And FOX’s track record in particular has been notoriously lousy when it comes to shows that don’t involve skill competitions or Gordon Ramsey (and especially those that lack either).

The latest case in point is their adaptation of a Talpa format called THE QUIZ WITH BALLS, which debuted Tuesday night.  At its core, it’s a straight-forward multiple choice quiz, borrowing elements of FAMILY FEUD (the casting of its contestants and the choice of a comedic African-American emcee, in this case SNL alum Jay Pharoah) and the cult classic GREED (the concept of collectively ferreting out correct answers from a list that includes some viable misdirects), pitting overcaffienated multigenerational groups trying to guess which answers in a set of six are correct.  DECIDER’s Joel Keller explains more:

Two families of five face each other in this new game show, with Pharoah as host. Each family picks from one of ten question categories, and they’re presented with a question that has five right answers and one wrong one. Each family member stands on an answer they think is right.

Then Pharoah yells “Release the balls!” and the yellow balls go down a slide. If a person is standing on a right answer, the ball is blocked at the bottom of the slide. If a person is standing on a wrong answer, the ball bumps that person into a pool of water below, and that person is out for the rest of the episode. For each right answer, the family adds a certain amount of money to their banks.

In each round, the amount for each right answer increases. And for every family member that’s bumped into the drink, a wrong answer is added to the next question’s list of answers. So if three family members are left, there are three wrong answers, and so on. The last family standing, either with the most money, a dry family member, or both, gets to keep their accumulated pot and goes to the bonus round.

It’s that last sentence that ultimately leaves me perplexed, if not aghast.  The team with the highest score after multiple rounds doesn’t necessarily win the game.  Indeed, this premiere episode–which in this day and age is almost always chosen as the most exciting of a series–had one family having a statistically insurmountable lead going into the final question.  The only reason I kept watching was to see if there was any gimmick that might change that that was not previously introduced.   The idea that the winning team is the one contains the last person standing, coupled with the fact that the end game stakes are not impacted by the score–makes the entire concept of awarding money for correct answers along the way moot.  Pharaoh half-jokingly addressed this by qupping “it’s not just about money around here”.    Oh, really?  Then why award them anything?

And indeed that was appeared to be the philosophy of the end game, which offered the carrot of $100,000 but only for a perfect five-for-five performance by the team representative (think FEUD’s “Fast Money”) but not a single penny for anything less.  And because so many people watch on delay with a countdown clock, the fact that three correct answers remained with but a minute left in the program ultimately conveyed that this would not be a win–on the very first episode.  Which leads me to think–how bad is the rest of this series?

Slightly more dramatic is THE 1% CLUB, which FOX is actually sharing with Prime Video in a unique mutually beneficial relationship.  Initially designed where FOX would get a second window following Prime Video’s drop, instead somewhere along the way the script was flipped where Prime will follow a more typical streaming route and drop episodes within 24 hours of FOX’s Monday night airing.  The exception is the premiere episode which Prime dropped last week in advance of the June 3 linear premiere.

As COLLIDER’s Rachel Leishman detailed after Prime dropped the trailer earlier this month:

 “In each episode, 100 contestants from across the country compete for the chance to win up to $100,000. Throughout the game, host Patton Oswalt will ask a series of increasingly difficult, logic based questions. This game does not test intelligence; instead it inquires on the way your brain works through 15 entertaining questions, starting with the 90% question, and ending with the toughest test of the night, the 1% question. Who can answer the question that only 1% of America got right and win the grand prize”.

Oswalt is adequate if a bit formulaic.  Those familiar with the British version’s host Lee Mack, where the show has done well enough for a third season to commence, suggest that he could stand to learn from his counterpart.  But these are also the same people who are clever enough to play along with these questions, ones that involve powers of observation and thinking time, with each question involving a 30-second countdown timer.  Since the most enduring quiz format in the UK, COUNTDOWN, has utilized that for decades, that line of thinking may be relevant over there.  For American audiences who are addicted to a much more rapid-fire Q&A process, it plays as more of an obstacle to involvement.  And having used the type of “clever” material being employed here on a Game Show Network original I once held high hopes for, the all-but-forgotten IDIOTEST, I learned both quantitatively and qualitatively that an overwhelming percentage of that audience had no clue what the logic process for most of the questions involved.  I strongly suspect those involved with this either didn’t know that or didn’t care.  The execution of THE 1% CLUB is much more dramatic, a massive electronic set not seen in scope since the days of the original 1 VS. 100 (which coincidentally also cast a sitcom veteran, Bob Saget, as host).  But as I’ve already mused looks may draw someone in initially but it never holds you longterm.  No one has yet launched a successful series where the set is the primary reason for watching.  As a result, I’m in the camp that when the FOX ratings are released we’ll be calling this THE 0.3% CLUB. (Maybe that’s why Prime Video didn’t mind giving FOX first dibs?).

But for the real afficiandos among us, there’s never a time of day where a game show isn’t on, particularly those crafted during the glory days of the 60s, 70s and 80s that primarily air on Fremantle’s BUZZR channel.  And this weekend, in honor of National Game Show Day and the network’s anniversary, they will be hosting THE QUIZ SHOW EXPO that will likely bring together many of the Gold Card viewers that FOX hopes to still appeal to under one roof, in this case the Los Angeles Burbank Marriott hotel that sits directly across from an airport.  But unlike other cons and fests that abound, QUIZ SHOW EXPO will also feature a series of convention-like panels where one can actually learn from producers, casting agents, development executives and experienced talent what goes into the making of a successful game show.  From the well-known and fortunately still breathing legends like Jamie Farr, Bob Eubanks and Loretta Swit to the new breed of authors and staffers like Adam Nedeff and Aaron Solomon, they’ll offer their own informed opinions, experiences and observations to those who might be hoping to join them at some point, or simply just be a more informed individual.  Their website offers up the full array of what will be happening, and you’d better believe I’ll be there, too.

From the looks of what we’ve seen so far, some FOX and Prime Video executives would be well served by taking time out of their busy schedules to join.  What we’ve seen this week don’t exactly qualify as gold medal efforts.

Until next time…

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