Game Show Network making strategic shift to broaden audience
Sunday, March 14, 2004
LOS ANGELES -- If the older women who make up the bulk of the Game Show Network's audience don't have an early bedtime, they may be in for a shock.
The network renames itself GSN on Monday, when it will begin to gradually phase in programs like "National Lampoon's Greek Games" and "Fake-a-Date" weeknights at 9 p.m.
GSN wants to broaden its audience beyond Chuck Woolery and Gene Rayburn fans to bring in people who like reality programming, video games and televised poker. The new name and identity is also an attempt to head off potential rivals.
"We'll still have game shows, but it will just be part of the mix," said Rich Cronin, the network's chief executive.
A new dating game with former "Joe Millionaire" Evan Marriott, a "World Series of Blackjack" competition, a comic competition with two Canadian buddies and reruns of "The Mole" are among GSN's new fare.
GSN will be known as "the network for games." Under those circumstances, Cronin said the Game Show Network name was too restrictive.
GSN is a blank slate, a name for which marketers can create an identity. There's plenty of precedent in the television industry for initials; many people who regularly watch ESPN or CBS couldn't tell you what those initials once stood for (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network and Columbia Broadcasting System, respectively).
"MTV started as a music channel and evolved to be a youth culture channel, still music-based," Cronin said. "That's a model for us."
GSN is currently in half of the nation's television homes. The median age of the network's viewer is 47, dangerous territory for the youth-obsessed television industry, so the changes are also an attempt to attract young people.
At the same time, a new network devoted to video games is just getting off the ground. Investors are trying to launch Reality Central, a network just for reality shows, and there are also casino networks in the works. GSN wants to head them off, Cronin said.
"The one thing that the Game Show Network has is distribution," said Larry Gerbrandt, a cable television analyst. "Everyone else is trying to catch up from a distribution standpoint. They have the buying power to get there first. I think it's a smart move."
The other networks might prove too narrow a niche, Gerbrandt said. By devoting itself to games, GSN gives itself some flexibility, he said.
With "The World Series of Blackjack," GSN is trying to jump on a bandwagon that's already rolling. The Travel Channel's coverage of the World Poker Tour has been an unexpected hit, and GSN and a handful of other networks are trying to duplicate the success.
GSN's blackjack series will be shot at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, with Melana Scantlin of "Average Joe" as co-host.
Marriott, another reality show refugee, is host of "Fake-a-Date." The game show sends a contestant on dates with two singles. One single is looking for love, the other is feigning interest in the hope of winning a vacation. The contestant's job is to find the faker.
"The Mole," a series that then-host and now-CNN anchor Anderson Cooper would probably like to forget, is another experiment.
Since the concept hasn't been tested much, TV executives are curious about whether audiences will want to revisit reality shows in the same way as classic comedies or dramas. GSN last week announced it had purchased rights to second airings of the NBC shows "Average Joe" and "Dog Eat Dog."
Cronin hopes that successful reality reruns might convince CBS to someday offer "Survivor" editions for sale.
The new series, "Kenny vs. Spenny," features competitive Canadians Kenny Hotz and Spencer Rice in a bunch of makeshift contests, like who can stay awake or sit on a cow the longest.
One hitch: Kenny is a notorious cheater.
The idea came from their feature film, "Pitch," a documentary about two Canadians who came to the United States to sell a film idea and competed to see who could first generate interest.
On March 21, GSN will premiere the documentary, "Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Invasion," with host Tony Hawk, the skateboard and video game entrepreneur. It represents GSN's first attempt to reach an audience of video game fanatics, a prized demographic of mostly young men that advertisers lust after.
Most efforts to blatantly appeal to them have failed because, well, video game fanatics are more interested in playing video games than watching TV shows about them.
This summer, GSN is launching "National Lampoon's Greek Games," an Olympic-style competition for college fraternities and sororities, and "Extreme Dodge Ball," a television recreation of the game you dreaded in elementary school. Cronin envisions meter maids, Sumo wrestlers and rap musicians in the circle.
"I would like to see mimes getting pummeled by dodge balls," he said.
Also in the works is a hidden-camera show from Las Vegas wedding chapels, although it's too late to spot Britney Spears.
If this all strikes GSN viewers accustomed to watching Richard Dawson kiss contestants on "Family Feud" reruns as alarming, Cronin said not to worry.
The daytime schedule stays the same. GSN's evolution will be gradual, he said, with the new programming confined to the 10 p.m. hour for now.
"Even five years from now the majority of the network will still be game shows," he said.
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