Television game shows for kids are coming of age.
Not many people noticed when the Nickelodeon cable channel launched "Double Dare" in 1986--it was just a kids' show on a kids' cable channel. The only ones who seemed to care were kids, who started watching and telling friends, who told other friends.
This year, "Double Dare" became Nickelodeon's most watched offering and found itself among the top-rated program strips produced by basic cable.
That's when people--money people--started noticing. NBC added "I'm Telling" to its Saturday morning lineup last fall; Lorimar is developing "Fun House" for syndication next fall, and the Richard Kline & Friends production company is trying to line up stations for a syndicated series called "Scavenger Hunt."
Even Nickelodeon is trying to repeat its "Double Dare" success with its recently launched game show, "Finders Keepers."
But it was the folks at Fox Television and Viacom Enterprises who propelled the genre into the big time when they announced the purchase of "Double Dare" from Nickelodeon and a plan to move it into the greener (read: $$$) pastures of Fox-TV affiliation and syndication.
The agreement gives "Double Dare" broadcast rights to Fox's seven stations (including KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles), syndication rights to Viacom (which is a part owner of Nickelodeon) and cable rights to Nickelodeon. The show will be seen weekdays on Fox and most other broadcast outlets (Viacom reports brisk sales) in a late afternoon slot beginning in February.
Appropriately, Fox's purchase originated with Derk Zimmerman's three children.
"I would come home from work and hear my kids talking about this show, so I decided to take a look," said the president of Fox Television Stations Inc. "I thought, this is truly a game show for kids--an honest show. We decided to come up with our own show and started fooling around with ideas, but then we thought, why not see if we can't get 'Double Dare?' "
They did. It's one of the few times when a show that originated on cable has jumped to broadcast TV.
In retrospect, "Double Dare's" origins seem simple.
"We did some research and found that kids loved game shows, be it 'Wheel of Fortune' or 'The Newlywed Game,' and figured more kids would watch if it was a game show for kids and by kids," said Geoffrey Darby, Nickelodeon's executive in charge of production, who co-created "Double Dare."
The show, loosely based on the children's truth-or-dare game, comes complete with offbeat questions and stunts and features a prize-lined obstacle course of slime-filled bathtubs and French toast canals. It has paved the way for a new species of programming by presenting what observers consider to be the first game that plays to children rather than down to children.
"I treat kids like shorter adults," said host Marc Summers. "This is like 'Scrabble' or any other game show--our contestants just happen to be in the seventh grade."
As with "Truth or Consequences," the questions asked on the show are really just a prelude to the stunts that contestants are asked to perform, but Darby said the staff tries to be creative in preparing them.
"Kids like trends so we use them, but how many questions can you ask about Madonna? That's why we ask things like 'When was the closet hanger invented?' It's silly but educational."
Fox's Zimmerman agreed with the assessment and predicted "Double Dare" will result in widespread copycat programming.
"I think you're going to see six clones in the next six weeks," he said. "Everyone is going to have their version of this."
NBC already does, in the form of "I'm Telling" from Saban Productions, the show it picked when it went looking for an alternative to the Saturday morning animation overload.
"We decided to just sort of announce that we were looking," said Phyllis Tucker Vinson, vice president of children's and family programming for the network, "and almost a dozen were pitched to us."
"I'm Telling" plays like a cross between "The Newlywed Game" and "Family Feud." (In fact, "Newlywed" producer Chuck Barris sued over similarities but a judge threw the case out.)
In the Laurie Faso-hosted half-hour, siblings are asked about family secrets and encouraged to tell all.
"We were looking for creative ways to produce something different for children," said Haim Saban, whose company specializes in kids' shows. "There is such a glut in the animation market, and when you have steak every night sometimes you want a hamburger just because it's different."
More important, hamburger costs less than steak.
"It costs only about a third of what an animated show costs to produce," Saban said of "I'm Telling." "There's an easy prosperity here."
The producers brush aside suggestions that the shows promote anything other than fun.
"Are we promoting greed? No more than any other show," Darby said. "I could argue that the programs that promote greed are cartoons, 'cause it makes (children) want to buy the (related) product."
But Darby, who has been involved in children's programming for nearly a decade, cautions other TV programmers to look at the genre closely before leaping in.
"The thing you have to remember," he said, "is that we're adults, and what appeals to us doesn't necessarily appeal to children. It takes a while to learn how to work for kids on their level and to lose the arrogance of thinking you know what they want. People like me sometimes think we know, but I have been humbled by kids a lot in recent years."
That fear--and the fear of over-saturating the marketplace with TV game shows for kids--is keeping at least one syndicator away.
"The fallout is going to be so great that I don't want to get anywhere near it," he said.
"But don't use my name," he added, "in case I change my mind."