Creating & Pitching Game Shows for Today’s TV
Fundamentals & Strategies for Creating the Next Hit Game Show…
By Scott Manville
Former Development Executive for Merv Griffin Entertainment
“I’ll take TV Trivia for one-thousand, Alex!”
In our industry that flies or dies by its turbulent nature, I’d be hard pressed to find any TV studio or producer who wouldn’t want a successful game show format in syndication. It’s what made my former boss, the late great Merv Griffin uber-wealthy and able to parlay that success into a multitude of other creative pursuits. Being in the middle of development at his company gave me an understanding of the core and creative fundamentals that makes game shows entertaining to watch. While today’s formats are filled with gimmicks to keep low attention span viewers engaged, to create a hit we must be rooted in the fundamentals that cause game shows to resonate with viewers.
Merv Griffin delivered two of the most successful game shows in history, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. The inspiration for each of those hits came from an organic experience… A real world proof of concept, if you will. Merv had four newspapers delivered to him every morning just so he could dive into four different crossword puzzles, completing them to perfection before breakfast. That was his inspiration for Wheel of Fortune. The Quiz Show scandals of the ‘50’s was the inspiration for Jeopardy. However, if you thought he created the concept for Jeopardy, you would be wrong (cue annoying buzzer, and big red X).
On a flight back from New York discussing the quiz scandals with his then wife Julann, she asked him “What if we just went ahead and gave them the answer, and they had to guess the question?”. Back and forth they played the simple yet stimulating game for the rest of the flight. Within days they sold the idea to CBS in the room. While you may think the simpler landscape of TV programming back then made it easy for that type of breakthrough, think again. It was a three-network universe, which meant limited space on the programming slate, and a highly insulated industry.
Today, there’s never been greater opportunity for game show formats on both the creative and business end of the process. With cable nets like Game Show Network, and the rest of our thousand network universe feeding niche demographic branded programming, the landscape of game shows today is like a giant playground of format experiments with something for everyone. When asked what makes a great game show format, Game Show Network’s EVP Current Programming, Amy Introcaso-Davis advised, “Play-along is key, and rooting value is also critical. You have to be able to root for someone to win. The contestant is the audience’s way into the game”. She also shared a bit of advice for the new format creator, “Be clear about the audience you think you can attract with your show, and make sure it’s right for the network you’re pitching.”
So what are we missing in game shows today? The tight, simple, and clever format that feeds a subtle obsession by viewers who want to play along. “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” did that with spectacular success, but the tide has gone out…and it’s been long enough that we should soon expect a tsunami of a format to come rolling in. The re-launch of classic game shows like Match Game, $100k Pyramid, and Celebrity Family Feud, proves how powerful traditional formats are with family demographics, and this is what the next hit game show producer needs to deliver; simple, yet clever, and often humorous fun for both the viewers and contestants. When the reality TV boom morphed with game show development, it forced us to rethink the fundamentals and “Break the fourth wall” to connect with viewers. That meant…break the three podiums.
Executive Producer, Phil Gurin (“Shark Tank,” “Weakest Link”) shared his take on the genre; “The best executives are the ones who take the initial risk on the style of a format, and then when it works, it seems to set the pace. Reality TV has influenced game shows, but it’s truly the other way around. Every reality competition show is a game show, and every one of them can be traced back to some original influence during the past 75 years“.
At the TV Writers Vault, the game show concepts being pitched that find the most activity from producers scouting have marketable titles, with a hook that makes the gameplay clever. But the ones that find deals typically have a bit of drama woven into the format. During a pitch meeting I had with Roy Bank (Executive Producer, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader“) he professed that “game shows are no longer just about the game…they’re about drama.”
It’s not just circle-takes-the-square…It’s about story, and moments- people experiencing choices and ultimatums that drive emotions on a personal level. It doesn’t mean they’re mean-spirited, it only means that the different facets in the format are derived from, or key on, a facet of the contestant’s life or persona. A contestant facing an ultimatum always creates drama. A prize that is personalized brings more emotion than cash. A question that hits on a personal subject or issue evokes more emotion than unrelated trivia. Contestants cast for irony may deliver more amusement than contestants cast for their knowledge. Creating a game show format woven with similar emotional-threads, along with the flexibility of today’s reality-based elements brought into play, the opportunity to create hit formats has never been greater…IF we don’t lose sight of the simplicity of play needed to hook an audience for the long haul.
Merv lived with endless curiosity. His knowledge of obscure facts and anecdotes relating to pop culture, history and language would have won him more than a few Jeopardy Championships. Make that same curiosity a part of your daily routine, and you may tap into an organic inspiration for the next hit game show.
If you’re willing to face the jeopardy of pitching, you just might find yourself in a wheel of good fortune!
For writers pitching a game show with game elements as part of the format, it’s important to first consider the following:
Today and Yesterday– Game shows have been the staple of syndicated television for decades. “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” have taken the #1 and #2 ratings spots in all of syndication for almost as long. The reason? Simple yet clever and stimulating formats that viewers can play along with. In recent years we’ve seen “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and “Deal or No Deal” bring the game show back to prime time, and “Reality TV” break down format barriers, opening up viewer acceptance to hybrid (combined) formats of programming. Reality shows with game elements, game shows with reality-based elements, and so on. How does this benefit the creator/producer? It allows us to get away from the traditional in-studio “three podium” format and use an endless variety of elements to create what can be classified as a game show.
The difference between “game” and “reality”: With overlapping elements of both genres, the Creator can find it difficult to decide a definitive category of genre for a show created. The best approach is to consider the producer or development executive and network perspective. If the format of a show is episodic (resolves itself in one episode) and has contestants playing against each other with game elements, it is a Game show. If a format is episodic or takes place over an evolving story-arc involving real life elements it is best to categorize it as a reality show, even if it involves contestants competing within the show using game elements. “Survivor” has game elements, but it is a reality show. “Fear Factor” has reality-based elements, but it is truly a game show.
What makes a great Game Show? Today’s game shows are very different in format from their counterparts of early television, but one thing still holds true- Dramatic tension. A good producer know how to create decisive moments of tension and drama within the format of any show, and this is most important for today’s game shows, especially in a market that is keying on scouting for the next prime time hit. Those moments of drama always teeter on a CHOICE the contestant must make, and not always just on getting the right answer.
In “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, anticipation is created with a panel of contestants who square off in the “fastest finger” competition to see who will take the hot seat for a shot at a million dollars. This doesn’t just happen in the beginning of the show, but multiple times throughout. Each contestant who gets into the hot seat then faces a ladder of increasingly difficult questions, each worth an increased amount of cash winnings. He is given three “life lines” of help that he may use at any point during the game. So the choices that he faces during the increased difficulty of questions on way to the million are; what life-line does he or she use and when, and are they confident enough in their answer to risk almost all the money they’ve won in order to garner the even larger money that temps. So you can also see the “greed factor” at play within the game.
From a viewers perspective, there is nothing more fun than knowing the answer that could win you a half-million dollars while watching the contestant see-saw between the right answer and the wrong answer. Viewer involvement keeps the channel from being changed.
From a network programmers perspective, every beat of the show is filled with dramatic tension, and you may also notice that just about every other moment of dramatic tension is interrupted by a commercial break. For a prime time game show, that means big ad revenues for the Network. As a creator, write your format as a drama with critical moments of risk and ultimatums. We’re looking for emotional and dramatic content, and when the stakes are high, and personal, a great game format will deliver that.
Creating beyond barriers– It is impossible to deny that anything is not derivative of things we’ve experienced before, in life, or in watching the boob-tube. If you want to be a break-through creator of any television format it is important to make a conscious effort at letting go of pre-programmed instincts that have been engrained in us by having seen dozens and dozens of shows over so many years that tell us “this is what a game show is”. Stamp your own passport and say to yourself “no, THIS is what a game show is.” Let go of traditional ideas and invent new ways of bringing entertaining games to an audience. Study what is happening now, and look for patterns or breakthroughs in social appetite. And when is gets down to it, be able to simplify the idea so that it could be sold in a few sentence pitch, and if expanded have elements and a hook that make it unique.
Read our interview with CBS Studios International Executive, Paul Gilbert, as he touches on the current state and trends in game shows.
Learn how TV show ideas and scripts are sold here at the TV Writers Vault: