Once on the wane and populated by third-rate celebs -- think Paul Lynde on "The Hollywood Squares" -- TV game shows are making a big comeback.
Inexpensive to produce and highly profitable for programmers, they're cropping up all over the tube, from the Food Network to MTV to network TV.
Game shows have always had a hold on audiences, especially in the 1960s and '70s, when they were a staple of network prime time. It seemed almost impossible for anyone to walk past a TV set when Alex Trebek wasn't reading out a "Jeopardy!" answer.
But with the surge in talk shows, from "Maury Povich" to "Oprah," game shows appeared to be going out of style. Not anymore. They're back -- with a vengeance.
Cable television networks have invented a slew of shows, and youth-oriented audiences are tuning in. At the same time, programmers are dusting off old shows for aging baby boomers who have fond memories of the games of yesteryear.
"Game shows for so many years have been a part of the fabric of American culture," says Jake Tauber, senior vice president of programming at the Game Show Network. "No matter how old you are, there's a game show you remember fondly."
"Hollywood Squares" is a prime example. It made its first appearance more than three decades ago, and was recently revived with an all-star lineup. Having snared Goldberg as executive producer and center square, the show has been become a megahit, with top-shelf comedians Roseanne, Williams and Billy Crystal gracing the hallowed cubes this season to joke around.
That's not all. Cindy Crawford and Garth Brooks made their game-show debut on "Squares" this season. So did the previously game-show-shy Salt-N-Pepa, Billy Baldwin and Danny Glover.
"Whoopi has given the show a recognition factor," said Susan Abramson, coordinating producer for "Squares." "It's certainly easier to attract high-profile guests to the show thanks to Whoopi. People come to her like bees to honey."
"Whoopi is like a magnet for this show," says "Squares" host Tom Bergeron, formerly on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Over at Comedy Central, "Win Ben Stein's Money," is one of the biggest hits. Stein's droll humor and deadpan delivery of tricky trivia questions won the cable show two Emmy Awards last year, for outstanding direction and outstanding writing in a game show. This year, it's up for three.
Hoping to capitalize on viewers' appetite for such programming, next month Comedy Central rolls out its second game show. "Versus" pits contestants from completely different backgrounds against each other in a battle of wits.
Game shows have even become prime-time hits on the Food Network, where it was once thought that all viewers wanted were cooking demonstrations. The network's "Ready ... Set ... Cook!" -- which stages a culinary showdown between teams made up of chefs and ordinary folks -- has attracted big-name chefs and a loyal viewership.
In the meantime, everything that's old is becoming new again. Music-video network VH1 has created "Rock & Roll Jeopardy," a variation on the legendary show, programmers are hoping to revive "Family Feud" and a new "Match Game" has made its way into syndication.
Pearson Television, which recently introduced a revamped version of "Match Game" to late nights, is shopping a new "Family Feud" with comedian Louie Anderson as host. "Given the success of other game shows today, we feel it's the right time for a new 'Feud,' " said Richard Mann, a Pearson spokesman.
Buena Vista Television is working on a reworked, one-hour version of "Let's Make a Deal" with talk show host Gordon Elliott in Monty Hall's old job.
Many industry observers agree that syndicators are working hard to conjure up hits by putting new twists on old formulas.
"If a game show works, it generally comes back," said Marc Berman, associate program director at Seltel, a company that advises TV stations on programming. "If a show is established, viewers will watch it again as opposed to trying something new they're not familiar with."
Maybe that's what Sony Pictures Entertainment is banking on. The company has sunk millions into cable's Game Show Network, which pumps reruns of classics like "Tic Tac Dough," "The Joker's Wild" and "The Gong Show" into about 20 million cable homes.
What's next? "Password '99"?
Top-Rated Game Shows
"Wheel of Fortune" (Monday-Friday show) 17 million viewers
"Jeopardy!" 13.5 million viewers
"Wheel of Fortune" (weekend show) 8 million viewers
"Hollywood Squares" 5.5 million viewers
"Match Game" 1.1 million viewers
Pub Date: 04/04/99