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Fantasy Land : ALMOST ANYTHING GOES IN TODAY’S GAME SHOWS FOR KIDS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I like it when they win trophies better than when they win other prizes like money!

--Donovan Dobbins, 9

What game-show fan would want a gold-toned loving cup rather than a fistful of dollars?

Only a kid. And so many kids want so many trophies so badly--and are so eager to watch other kids winning them--that kids’ shows now are bigger bucks than ever for networks and cable.

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Game shows, especially those with families in mind, are on the rise. Despite a market where the game show seems an endangered species about to be eaten up by the tabloid talk show, NBC will replace “Faith Daniels” with “Family Secrets” on March 22. Show host Bob Eubanks says it combines “Kids Say the Darndest Things” with “The Newlywed Game.” In most markets, including Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the show will run daily, revealing the troubled network’s hope that kids can help pull it out of the doldrums.

Every day, a million kids plop down in front of the tube to watch other kids in fantasy play that they can only dream about. The contestants win trophies, dictionaries, computers and scholarships on more networks than ever before.

“There are more kids’ game shows on now than there ever have been, thanks to Nickelodeon,” says David Schwartz, author of “The Encyclopedia of T.V. Game Shows.”

Nickelodeon, which has the most kids’ game shows on the air--six--may, in fact, owe its very existence to a kids’ game show.

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“ ‘Double Dare’ (now called ‘Family Double Dare’) put Nick on the map,” says Herb Scannell, senior vice president of programming for Nickelodeon. “It was like having a hit record your first time out.”

For other networks, the success of “Double Dare” suggested there was still-to-be-mined gold in kids’ game-show programming.

“Today’s kids’ game shows reflect what kids are interested in now--computer games and elements that appeal to younger kids,” Schwartz says. “They are definitely more challenging.”

Children’s game shows today are a far cry from the mid-1950s, when they were merely junior versions of their popular adult counterparts: 1954’s “Funny Boners” was a kid-size version of the popular “Truth or Consequences” and 1956’s “Choose the Sides” was nothing less than “Beat the Clock” for youngsters.

“The big difference between adult and kid game shows is about attitude,” says Bob Boden, programming consultant for Sony’s in-the-works 24-hour Game Show Channel. “Contestants and the hosts were allowed to have fun on a show like ‘Double Dare.’ It allowed kids to get dirty and have a good time in ways that really were not acceptable before that show.”

Contemporary kids’ game shows now are set in elaborate fantasy playgrounds with dream play elements. On “Nick Arcade,” for example, a life-size, interactive video game highlights the set as contestants, through television technology, overcome computer-generated obstacles.

Generally, kids’ game shows fall into three categories:

* Q & A

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* Stunts

* Relationships

Most combine Q & A and stunts. Relationship shows have fared less well recently. NBC’s “Double Up,” which pitted siblings against each other, and Fox Television’s “Busted,” which pitted best friends against each other, each lasted less than a season.

MTV tried a relationship show in 1991 with the pilot of"Dirty Laundry,” which had the same premise as “Busted.” It never aired.

In defense of the relationship game show, Eubanks says: “I’m not sure they (viewers) care about what’s behind Door No. 2 any more. They want to be entertained and relationship game shows do that. People are funny and are more sensitive and articulate these days.”

But for the younger of the young set, stunt shows reign supreme.

“I like all stunts, better than those shows with questions,” says Donovan, who lives in Ventura. “That’s why ‘Nickelodeon Guts’ is my favorite show. They get to hang from this giant elastic cord thingy and jump and set records.” (“Nickelodeon Guts” is Nick’s newest--and all-stunt--game show.)

“I like it when they go on slides and stuff, because those are things I like to do,” says Kimberly Weigel of Anaheim. “But they get to slide into pudding, which is even better.”

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Even television’s youngest viewers want a piece of the action.

Five-year-old Ryan Carreon of Temple City can’t tell time, but he always knows when the kiddie game shows are on.

“It’s my son’s absolute dream to be on one of those shows,” says Ryan’s mom, Torri McEntire. “He’s always asking, ‘Mama, when can I get inside Nickelodeon?’ ”

But as the kids get older, Q&A; becomes more interesting.

Kimberly’s 13-year-old sister Minerva says: “I like it when they get to slime their parents and stuff. That’s funny. But I like to try and play along and answer questions, too. I watch ‘Jeopardy!’ because even if I can’t answer the questions, I at least learn something.”

One show that successfully combines Q&A; and stunts is PBS’ lively and engaging “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?,” a geography game that features a colorful set, a kid audience and kid-gumshoe contestants who try to track down crafty Carmen and her band of thieves as they roam throughout the world.

If Nickelodeon pioneered contemporary kids’ game shows, MTV blew the rules of teen-oriented game shows out of the water with its landmark “Remote Control” in December, 1987.

“ ‘Remote Control’ changed the face of what game shows looked like,” says Lauren Corrao, vice president of series development at MTV.

The show, which took place in the host’s “basement,” featured contestants in Barcalounger-style chairs answering questions on pop culture and music trivia.

One of MTV’s initial concerns was to create a game show that its audience would perceive as hip and cool. “I wouldn’t necessarily call ‘Remote Control’ that, but it tapped into what they wanted,” says Corrao. “They could watch, compete with contestants, have fun. There was a frivolousness and cleverness that appealed to them.”

Always wanting to stay on the proverbial cutting edge, MTV stopped production on “Remote Control” at the height of its popularity. The network also halted “Lip Service,” where contestants lip-synced to music videos, for more than a year. After the show came home with a CableACE Award in January, the network decided to resume production. In the meantime, “Lip Service” still airs sporadically.

“We do want to keep things fresh,” Corrao says. MTV aired ‘Remote Control’ three times a day for three years. “And on MTV,” Corrao says, “that’s an eternity. We wanted to try something else.”

That “something else” was the less successful music trivia-driven “Turn It Up.”

“We learned that there was less of an audience who knows music trivia than one that knows pop culture,” Corrao notes.

MTV currently has two other kids’ game shows in development, including one based on its “Daytona Beach Spring Break Special: Beauty and the Beach.” The other show is a pop-culture based show that will invoke the spirit of “Remote Control,” but will definitely not be the same show, Corrao says. “It’s not good to bring something back from the past.”

Big sets and high concept aren’t necessary for a successful kids’ game show, as a local effort demonstrates. KCBS’ “Kid Quiz” is arguably the most conventional and traditional kid-oriented game show. It pits Southern California sixth-graders against each other in a strictly Q&A; format. Yet, in its 12th year, it is also the longest-running show. Prizes range from T-shirts to dictionaries with stands to encyclopedias to VCRs with monitors; when the kids win, their schools get computers with printers.

“They love the competitiveness, and you can see by how they get involved,” says Barbara Lange, manager of production and administration at KCBS.

“I think game shows are their (kids’) favorite kind of television,’ Nickelodeon’s Scannell says. “It’s about play.” And that’s what most kids like to do best.

So don’t expect the kiddie game-show market to wane.

As MTV’s Corrao says, “Kids always need a good game.”

HOW TO GET ON

Family Secrets: Contestants are recruited from Disney/MGM Studios in Florida and through advertisements in Central Florida newspapers, hotels and schools.

Lip Service: Write to Contestant Information, MTV, 1515 Broadway, New York, N.Y., 10036.

Name Your Adventure: Write to “Name Your Adventure,” P.O. Box 7304-506, North Hollywood, Calif., 91603.

Nickelodeon shows: Participants in Nickelodeon’s game shows are generally selected from the audience at the Universal Studios tour in Florida; those who go on the Universal tour also go on the Nick tour. If you are going to be in Florida and would like to be a contestant, write to Nickelodeon Studios Florida, 1000 Universal Studios Plaza, Orlando, Fla., 32819.

That’s My Dog: Write to “That’s My Dog,” c/o Northstar Entertainment Group, 1000 Centerville Turnpike, Virginia Beach, Va., 23462.

Where is the World is Carmen Sandiego?: Contestants are from the New York area.


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