With one roll of the dice, the TV game show "Monopoly" moved from jail to Boardwalk.
In late April, King World Entertainment and Merv Griffin Enterprises had withdrawn their proposed "Monopoly" game show from the syndication market for lack of sufficient interest.
"They had a little midget jumping around on the board," recalled one station program director who turned down the show. "They had a midget dressed up in a tuxedo and he'd jump around. That didn't fly, folks."
It was yet another setback for producer Griffin, who had been trying to sell various versions of the famous Atlantic City board game for nearly three years, and an embarrassment for King World, which distributes the three biggest hits in syndication, "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy!" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Then, just a few weeks later, ABC--which had rejected the show for its daytime schedule last fall--announced that it was putting "Monopoly" on the air.
In prime time.
"Monopoly" will debut June 16 at 8:30 p.m., following a prime-time version of "Jeopardy!" called "Super Jeopardy!"
And therein lies the reason that "Monopoly" made such a dramatic reincarnation. ABC wanted to punch up its summer schedule and thought first-run installments of the popular "Jeopardy!" would be a relatively inexpensive way of doing it; Griffin and King said fine--provided the network also took "Monopoly."
"We don't think one game show is as strong as two, and when you have a property that is as strong as 'Jeopardy!'--that is building as much as 'Jeopardy!' is now--it's risky to add another day to it, especially in prime time," said Michael King, president of King World. "Part of our investment was to have a brand-new game show on the air along with it."
Would he have sold "Jeopardy!" alone, had ABC refused to take "Monopoly"?
"Would we want to see it on, just 'Jeopardy!' all by itself? I don't think so," King said. "We definitely wanted to see 'Monopoly' get on the air."
Not that they had to do a lot of arm-twisting.
"They didn't get a big fight from us on 'Monopoly,' " said Ted Harbert, executive vice president of ABC Entertainment. He said that he and his boss, ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger, were persuaded to give the show a chance by watching a run-through of a revamped version of the game (without the midget) and by King's argument that game shows work better in pairs.
"There's very little downside in this for us," Harbert explained. "It would be hard to perform a lot worse (in that Saturday-night time period) than we already are." Indeed, ABC often ran fourth there last season with "Mission: Impossible" and, later, "Elvis," behind NBC, CBS and Fox.
The biggest problem with "Monopoly" heretofore has been streamlining a board game that takes hours to play into a 30-minute TV format. Harbert thinks Griffin has finally managed it with a version that has three players competing each week in three rounds of acquiring properties and trying to build hotels on them, with a bonus round for the winner. The program will be hosted by Michael Reilly, a former "Jeopardy!" contestant.
Some ABC affiliates say "Monopoly's" lackluster reception in the syndication market was due as much to an overcrowded game show market as to problems with the program.
"It needed some work. It had some flaws," said Don Lundy, program director for KGTV-TV, the ABC station in San Diego. "But it was a particularly tough market I think this year for game shows, with some fairly strong entries out there."
He cited two new games--"Challengers" and "Trump Card"--and revivals of "Tic Tac Dough" and "Joker's Wild" as examples.
If anything, some ABC affiliates are more concerned about the decision to put "Jeopardy!" in prime time--the stations already carry the syndicated version, which in many markets airs on Saturdays at either 7 or 7:30 p.m., right before ABC's "Super Jeopardy!," which will be seen at 8 p.m. They are worried that the network version either could overexpose the game or draw away viewers who want to see only one installment a night and opt for the network's.
"Anybody would be concerned, only because it's the unknown," said Larry Cazavan, program director at WTSP-TV, the ABC affiliate in Tampa, Fla. "We're trying to get viewers. So you're just concerned. I would be as much concerned, for instance, if ABC put 'I Love Lucy' in at 8 o'clock."
But A.R. Van Contfort, program manager of WSP-TV, the ABC affiliate in Atlanta, maintained that the benefits of bringing game shows back to prime time are likely to be more beneficial than harmful--even if it means showing two versions of "Jeopardy!" in one evening.
"Personally, I think it 's terrific," he said. "ABC wasn't doing so well on Saturday night, and there's no question that game shows on prime time have historically done very well."
Harbert said that the network didn't mean to upset its affiliates and expressed hope that they would understand ABC's efforts to improve the prime-time schedule.
And if "Jeopardy!" and "Monopoly" should prove to be prime-time hits?
"We're still planning to put 'Young Riders' on come fall (on Saturdays at 8 p.m.)," Harbert said, "but we're not swimming in so much luxury here that if these shows worked we wouldn't find a way to keep them going. We call those good problems."