Judging from the amount of red orange shag carpeting on the set of ABC’s “Match Game,” Alec Baldwin may have used a time machine to commute to work last week.
In front of an audience at a studio on Manhattan’s West Side, Baldwin was soliciting racy fill-in-the-blank answers from a panel of boozed-up celebrities who took advantage of a full bar backstage. With a long, skinny microphone made famous on the 1970s daytime hit, he breezily played his host role as if it was one long “Saturday Night Live” sketch. At one point, he introduced himself as “the love child of Charles Nelson Reilly” – a reference to the flamboyant panelist from “Match Game’s” past.
The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor is bringing some marquee value to a genre that doesn’t get much critical respect, especially in an era when quality scripted TV is abundant. But when “Match Game” premieres Sunday, ABC will have four game shows on the air, the most of any prime-time broadcast network lineup since “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” first became a white-hot hit 16 years ago.
This summer’s game show wave is driven by revivals of classic titles such as “To Tell the Truth,” “$100,000 Pyramid” and “Celebrity Family Feud” filling a network need for recognizable, low cost and easy-to-launch first-run programming at a time when it’s tougher to get viewers to notice new shows.
“The audience’s options are endless, and these game shows are known commodities,” said Rob Mills, head of alternative programming at ABC. “They are known and loved. They are comfort food.”
Networks were once able to draw summer audiences with reruns of their hit shows once the official TV season ended in May. Those days are long gone as viewers can catch up on their favorite programs through online streaming, video-on-demand services or their DVRs.
Although complex serial dramas draw buzz and accolades, there is still a large segment of the TV audience with an appetite for programming they can just turn on and enjoy without requiring any binge-watching to catch up on plot points. And classic game shows fit the bill.
“At the end of the day, people like to see other people win,” said Angelica McDaniel, Executive Vice President, Daytime Programs at CBS Entertainment. “When you turn on a game show, you have that inevitable opportunity to experience joy. It’s a great escape.”
Although game shows are cost-efficient to produce, as several episodes can be shot in one day on a single set, they are by no means cheap programming when a big name is attached. For “Match Game,” Baldwin’s talent fee is said to be more than $200,000 an episode.
But the license fee a network pays for a game show – typically $600,000 to $1 million for an hour – is well under the cost for a scripted series, making them an affordable option for the summer.
Three of ABC’s shows come from FremantleMedia North America, stewards of the classic game formats created by Goodson-Todman Productions during the first few decades of television. “To Tell the Truth” – hosted this summer by “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson, first showed up in 1956, while “Match Game” premiered in 1962. Both have been revived numerous times. “Celebrity Family Feud” with Steve Harvey as host, is a spinoff of the current syndicated “Family Feud,” which first appeared on ABC daytime in 1976.
“The fact that there is a lot of demand for original programming in the summer definitely helps,” said Jennifer Mullin, co-chief executive of FremantleMedia North America, the U.S. arm of European broadcaster RTL Group’s production unit.
In recent years, RTL has increased its global investment in programming to offset the decline of Fremantle’s long-running franchise “American Idol,” which ended in May. Fremantle now has 24 other shows in production for various broadcast and cable networks – up from 16 in 2014 – including NBC’s perennial hit “America’s Got Talent.”
Mullin has been feeding Fremantle’s U.S. pipeline with established game show properties since 2008, when the company sold an updated version of “Password” to CBS for a summer run. She also brought back crazy-costumed traders of “Let’s Make a Deal,” with Wayne Brady as host, for CBS’s daytime lineup in 2009.
The original versions of Goodson-Todman shows became mass-appeal hits when viewers had fewer channel choices. As a result, Fremantle has found that the games have strong brand recognition spanning several generations.
“The audience might not remember exactly how to play the game, but they certainly remember the title,” Mullin said. “And generally speaking, these titles evoke warm memories. ‘I watched it with my grandmother’ or ‘I watched it when I was home sick.’ That’s what we hear all the time.”
The enduring appeal of the programs has also led Fremantle to launch Buzzr, an over-the-air retro TV network that features vintage episodes of the Goodson-Todman games from the 1950s through the early ’80s. A viewer can watch Buzzr for hours, and Betty White will be the only living celebrity seen on the screen. But the network has been gaining fans and affiliate stations, reaching 67% of the U.S. after a year on the air.
Even stars have a soft spot for the Goodson-Todman formats. Baldwin seemed like a long shot to host “Match Game” when Mills first suggested the idea to his agents. It turned out he was among the viewers who loved it when it was a bawdy, innuendo-filled daily cocktail party on CBS from 1973 to 1979.
“Alec said ‘I’m not doing this without Gene Rayburn’s microphone,’” recalled Mills, referring to the telescoping mic that the show’s original host wielded on the set.
ABC’s new “Match Game” has the same logo and wah-wah guitar-infused theme song that longtime fans will fondly recall. But game shows can’t make it on nostalgic appeal alone, especially among younger viewers. Having strong personalities – such as Baldwin, Anderson and Harvey - as hosts who are “invested” in the show is must, Mullin said.
McDaniel believes comedians Carey and Brady have brought new energy – and a lift in ratings – to her network’s shows. “They are not just hosts standing up there with a microphone delivering a line – they’re performers who give the shows an added dimension,” McDaniel said.
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