What Can Brown Do For You? If You Love Game Shows, Plenty

More than three decades ago, I at least got the chance to turn my childhood obsession into a business strategy.  Game shows were (and still are) the highest-rated and most profitable programs on TV, and while they were dominating late afternoon and early evening lineups, and still fairly prominent in the morning programming  of the three established broadcast networks, they were beginning to fade from the midday and early afternoon time slots which provided the soundtrack for many of my lunch hours at school and at my summer jobs.   Let the secretaries and housewives worry about what was going on in Salem, Pine Valley and Port Charles; I was much more concerned as to whether or not there would be a big winner on THE $20,000 PYRAMID.

With what I thought was a foolproof game plan to seek out producers and distributors who were struggling to get projects on the air that I thought had solid play-along elements but questionable business models behind them, I offered up an olive branch–my FOX Television Stations, which at the time were in seven of the Top 10 DMAs in the country, would provide a launching pad for shows to be clustered in a midday block to counter-program soap operas, just like they did years earlier.  I found four guinea pigs–a reboot of the 70s lunchtime Roman candle JACKPOT!, two addictive word games that were being produced for Canadian networks (TALK ABOUT and THE LAST WORD), and a reformatted version of a short-lived NBC morning show hosted and produced by the legendary Bob Eubanks.  I offered up half the show’s sales inventory and not a dime more because, frankly, that was my budget and my management, while intellectually supportive, thought so little of my idea they chose not to back it with anything resembling money.

Needless to say, my best efforts crumbled under the weight of the rest of the industry, including advertisers, not willing to step up initially and, once weak early ratings confirmed it, unimpressed by the ancient demographics of our “block”.  The Eubanks show, CELEBRITY SECRETS, never got produced.  The sales of JACKPOT! were mishandled by an overly ambitious distributor who wound up in an ugly lawsuit with its producers; the company went bankrupt midway through the first season.  The Canadian shows had far weaker time slots in the rest of the country than our stations provided and came to me hat in hand hoping we’d find a way to reinforce our commitment.  Fat chance.  They ultimately faded and, not long after that, I left FOX.

These days, there’s another Stephen who has the responsibility and opportunity I once did with FOX, an evolution of his own prolific history as a packager and developer,  and he has a far stronger commitment from his management and has wisely taken ownership and distribution stakes in the majority of his shows to ensure their production.  And, like myself, he’s spent a lifetime building his justification for this responsibility, as his biography from last spring’s NAB show appeareance confirmed:

Stephen Brown is currently the EVP of Programming and Development for Fox First Run and Fox Television Stations and oversees the syndicated programs Divorce Court, Dish Nation, 25 Words or Less, and You Bet Your Life with Jay Leno. He also co-manages strategy and programming operations at Fox Soul, a new streaming platform serving the African-American audience.

Prior to joining Fox as an executive in August 2005, Brown spent 17 years producing reality and game shows for network, cable, and syndication. Among them, the prime-time game show Winning Lines for CBS and Pyramid, starring Donny Osmond.

Brown also co-created Shop ‘til You Drop and the CableAce-winning Legends of the Hidden Temple, a kids’ game show on Nickelodeon, testing both brains and brawn and set in a fictional Mayan ruin.

Brown was also executive producer on Sony Pictures Television’s The Newlywed Game revival with Bob Eubanks.

And beginning tomorrow, Brown’s stamp on the FOX Television Stations and, for that matter, what is left of first-run syndication in general is growing even greater.  In addition to 25 WORDS OR LESS beginning its fifth original season and PICTIONARY, a successful reincarnation of a format tried several times previously in various iterations with minimal success, coming back for its second, a full season of PERSON, PLACE OR THING will launch as a third spoke.  Like the other two shows, it comes to fruition battle-tested, having delivered strong enough ratings in a short-order tryout last season to justify going forward with a larger order.  As DEADLINE’s Denise Petski wrote earlier this year:

Fox First Run is set to launch Person, Place or Thing game show, hosted by Melissa Peterman, this fall on Fox Television Stations following a successful four-week test run last summer. The half-hour weekday show has been sold across 89% of the U.S. in 161 markets from various station groups, including Sinclair, Nexstar, Scripps and Tegna, according to Fox First Run.

Person, Place, or Thing is a game where players ask “yes” or “no” questions to correctly determine the identity of a person, place, or thing. Created by Jeff Proctor and Paul Franklin, the game show intersperses comedy with common knowledge to hold audiences’ attention for a fast paced 30 minutes. 

Full disclosure:  Franklin is a veteran sales executive (and a one-time colleague of mine) who successfully sold many game shows (and a lot of other content) for FOX and CBS for more than three decades, and knows better than most that while a good format and a talented, affable host like Peterman is essential to being viewed, a solid track record and promotable title is what matters most to those who will afford you the chance to get that viewership.  And Brown knows a thing or two about what that formula for success is.  Both 25 WORDS and PICTIONARY are based on successful board games that serve as promotional platforms well beyond the reach of even the now 17-market FOX O and Os.

These three shows will make up the foundation for a solid block of afternoon programming on the primary FOX-owned stations, and will also enjoy encore runs at various time slots on FOX’s duopoly stations.  The potential for adequate ratings with these multiple runs is enhanced, particularly with the cost controls that Brown is mandated to enforce.  25 WORDS, for example, pivoted during the pandemic from a studio-centered celebrity-driven funfest to a de facto Zoom call, with host Meredith Vieira standing in front of a prop desk in her basement in New York while socially distanced teams of competitors (now featuring fewer guest stars and continuing, related teams of players to minimize the possibilties of COVID-19 related shutdowns) played the game.  And since the actual players were in fact being looped in from various parts of the country via technology, they expanded that to include “superfans” who would play along from THEIR homes rooting on teams that could win them a few hundred dollars or, short of that, a whole lot of Omaha Steaks.  That audience play-along element will now be incorporated into PICTIONARY and PERSON, PLACE OR THING and, judging by my Facebook feed, I will probably have a personal connection to a majority of those Superfans expected to get their 15 minutes of fame in the coming weeks.

Moreover, the success and template of FOX is now creating at last legitimate platforms for other producers and distributors to launch additional spokes in these growing lineups.  The demise of several veteran talk shows, including RACHAEL RAY and DR. PHIL, has opened up new opportunities for shows like TMZ’s WHO THE BLEEP IS THAT?, which, like PERSON, PLACE OR THING, had a successful test run on the FOX-owned stations last year (and FOX now has ownership of TMZ, which in itself has become a syndication staple) and Sony’s PEOPLE PUZZLERS, which produced more than 300 shows for Game Show Network with Leah Remini as emcee.  Both with pre-established brands, solid economic foundations, and strong play-along elements.

Brown’s track record isn’t perfect:  YOU BET YOUR LIFE isn’t coming back for new production, reportedly a victim of Jay Leno’s support for the striking SAG actors and the salary he was seeking for a show that, while it was the first iteration of the classic Groucho Marx format to return for a second season (and that includes an extremely anticipated and widely cleared version starring Bill Cosby when he was fresh off the success of his eponymous sitcom, yet was an unmitigated ratings disaster in 1992) was not cost-effective enough for the FOX model.  Still, Brown got it up and running, and actually got it–and himself–renewed.

I’m envious of that success and support. and Brown’s enduring track record and growing empire within FOX.  But I’m perhaps most impressed with the honesty and candor he expressed in a 2022 CABLEFAX profile where he was honored by inclusion in its DIVERSITY list:

Brown has carved out a home and made his mark across Fox’s broadcast stations, but his career in television hasn’t always felt like a dream. “It’s a far cry from my first job in Hollywood where I was fired for being gay,” he says. “My experiences as a gay man, although cis-gendered, hetero-normative and white, inform the way I look at the shows we develop, the way we produce, the need for broader inclusion in hiring, and the need to fight against the general, white, hetero-normative bias we usually bring to media.” That homophobic act inspired him to take a stand when others weren’t. In the early days of Fox TV-produced “Divorce Court,” he refused to bend when viewers sent in letters complaining when the show featured LGBTQ+ and interracial couples. 

The fact that Brown is able to still do that, and then some, for a company with the reputation that FOX has in other areas of the company speaks volumes for his ability to bring common sense and intelligence to the table, and his ability to convince his immediate superiors to back him both for his talents and his pride.

Boy, do I wish they had had my back the way they do his.  But, then again, I didn’t have the track record that he has to earn it.

So as we can lament how little there may be in terms of choice and diversity on broadcast TV in this splintered, youth-obsessed and strike-torn season that is about to start, it’s more than appropriate we give Stephen Brown his due as someone who is still giving some of us a reason to look forward to lunch hours, not to mention afternoon teas and late-night Doordash impulse buys.  The times may change, but the template doesn’t have to.

Nice playing, Mr. Brown.

Until next time…

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