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2004: A Games Odyssey - March 29

For this second round of The Numbers Game, let's go back... WAY back. Back in time... to 2004.

It seems like only yesterday, we were watching Donald Trump fire his first Apprentice, getting down to Kelis' "Milkshake", and mourning the lamented US adaptation of "Coupling"... okay, so only I was doing that last one.

But something else was brewing. In a move that was, among fans, both the biggest news and the biggest non-news of 2004, Game Show Network decided to branch out from its traditionalist game show niche (actually, the move was decided a long time ago with the advent of "GSN Video Games", but was quickly phased out... temporarily, but quickly) and morph itself into GSN: The Network for Games. Here's a quick perspective:

Before: GSN had acquired the reruns of the primetime smash "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" from Buena Vista TV for its own primetime lineup. The originals of 2002 were riding into success for the most part. Whammy! was well into its second season, Lingo had earned an unprecedented-for-GSN third season, and GSN's first documentary, 2003's "Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal", was riding critical success.  

The transformation: GSN had announced that its primetime schedule was to undergo a radical transformation. Millionaire would stay at 8pm each night with Match Game following. Then came the 10pm hour, the hour that had most traditionalist game show fans crying foul. On Monday, GSN aired the pseudo-sport of "The World Series of Blackjack". Tuesday saw reruns of cult favorite "The Mole". Wednesday gave us the hosting debut of Evan Marriott on "Fake-a-Date". Thursday gave us the Canadian import "Kenny vs. Spenny". And Friday saw NBC series "SpyTV" and original series "Vegas Weddings Unveiled" with Darva Conger. We could go into a whole chapter of why the Friday lineup didn't belong, but that's another story for another day.

And the idea for "WinTuition?" It morphed into the "Get Schooled Tour".

After: The Tuesday show, which, admittedly, I had to look up to remember, "Kenny vs. Spenny", "Fake-a-Date", and "Vegas Weddings Unveiled" came and went without nary a whisper. In their place, NBC's take on the BBC's "Dog Eat Dog", "Celebrity Blackjack", "Extreme Dodgeball", "Poker Royale", and off-net reruns of "Next Action Star" and "Average Joe". And leading off the night? Reruns of CBS's take on "Star Search". New game show offerings, namely "Win Ben Stein's Money", "Street Smarts", and the third-season Lingo Tournament of Champions, were relegated out of prime time. And not surprisingly, only Ben Stein, the card games, and "Dog Eat Dog" really stuck around to do some justice to the lineup.

But why? Well, consider this: GSN, like all cable channels, is a company. The universal goal in any company at the end of the day: turn a profit. Also consider this: thanks to the success of shows like "Survivor", "The Amazing Race", "The Apprentice", and "American Idol", reality competition was being seen as a marketable medium (it would later prove as vulnerable as any other genre of television with a few series ending without a resolution). So if everyone else was getting a piece of the pie from this genre, why not GSN? After all, and this is a stretch, "Survivor" is nothing more than "Beat the Clock" on an island, "Average Joe" is nothing more than "The Dating Game" stretched to 20 eligibles and 9 shows, and "The World Series of Blackjack" is nothing more than every other blackjack game show in its rawest form.

And it worked for a bit. The first seasons of "Poker Royale" and "Celebrity Blackjack" garnered high ratings for the reinvented network. I say a bit, because, and this is where the number du jour comes on, in the latest report out of Mediaweek, it was reported that GSN's overall viewership was down by 33 percent. That's not down as in "fluctuating." That's down as in "for the count." That's down as in, "if this was a stand alone show, it would be on death watch." Hollywood Squares was down by less than that when it was cancelled in 2004.

Needless to say, a significant chunk of GSN's core audience didn't approve (hint: if one of your executives, namely Bob Boden, quit because of the move, then chances are it isn't a good one).

And it seems like just recently, almost a year on, after the failures of reality reruns and "American Dream Derby", Rich Cronin and company are beginning to realize the error of their ways and have since applied styptics to stop the bleeding. Saturday nights are big for fans of old school (Super Password anyone?), and most of GSN's post-transformation games have been either cancelled or shuffled out of the way where they can't do any damage (only the card games and "Dog Eat Dog" remain in primetime, with reruns of Super Millionaire on their way.

But will it work? Moreover, will Reality 24-7, a new channel devoted entirely to the niche, do what GSN couldn't, find an audience with reality hardcores that will stay around long after the dust has settled? Only time - and the numbers - will tell.

But for now, I'll give you until the next Numbers Game to point toward the general area of the GSN offices and say "I told you so."

Chico Alexander
wrote this way past his bedtime. He can be reached (assuming he's awake, of course) at chico@gameshownewsnet.com


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