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Betting on Game Shows to Strike It Rich

Television: With the demise of a spate of talk fests, programmers are tuning back into a familiar format.

June 11, 1996|PAULA SPANN | THE WASHINGTON POST

It had to happen eventually.

After several television seasons in which an astonishing variety of people decided to host syndicated talk shows for fun and profit--comedians and faded movie stars, a best-selling author, a former Planned Parenthood president, the onetime mayor of Cincinnati--the twilight of talk is descending.

All of the nine shows that debuted last fall, many of them "Ricki Lake" clones with precocious young hosts, have been yanked. Ratings for a number of established shows tumbled, too, as market saturation struck at last.

And what bold new idea will be introduced to enliven daytime and early-evening TV?

Syndicators and cable networks are reviving that old staple, the 30-minute, bells 'n' buzzers game show. Half a dozen will be competing for viewers this fall, with an even bigger wave of games poised to flood airwaves in fall 1997.

Programmers, says Dick Kurlander of Petry Television, which sells commercial time on behalf of local stations, are "intrigued with the possibility of striking gold with another 'Wheel of Fortune' or 'Jeopardy!' "

The first entry made its debut last week, hosted by the ever-beaming Wink Martindale: "Debt" is shown weekdays at 6:30 p.m. on the Lifetime channel.

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Full of time-tested elements--a game board with categories, alarmingly ebullient contestants, elimination rounds, shouted advisories from the audience--it offers a different kind of payoff. Winners get several thousand dollars with which to eradicate real-life loans or credit card balances, which allows the announcer to proclaim the venerable Martindale "the Crown Prince of Credit! The Duke of Debt!"

Next Monday, USA Network plans to unveil one of several relationship games, indicating perhaps that the boyfriend-girlfriend and your-cheatin'-heart themes so integral to talk shows aren't going away. "The Big Date," on which a contestant poses silly questions to three members of the opposite sex and chooses one--sound familiar?--will be hosted by Mark Walberg, one of the young hopefuls whose talk shows were canceled this season.

Cable's fx plans to debut its own daily game show, "No Relation," starting Aug. 12. It comes from Dick Clark's production company and will feature celebrity panelists trying to figure out which member of a family is actually an impostor.

By fall, there'll be no place to hide. Updated versions of "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game" will air back to back on 160 stations nationwide. Tribune Entertainment, which syndicates "Geraldo," is unveiling still another date show, called "BZZZ!" because of the buzzer with which a contestant can dismiss a candidate who's insufficiently datable. (Yes, it is the unholy offspring of "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show," Tribune President Dick Askin acknowledges. "A little more polite, but it's the same principle.")

Thirty stations have signed on to produce local versions of "Know It Alls," invented by former NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff, now in its third successful season in New Orleans (where it was called "N.O. It Alls").

The idea is to ask questions based on local lore, personalities and culture (cooking and restaurants are big categories in the Big Easy), thus drawing local audiences and, not coincidentally, local advertisers.

There's more. Tribune has acquired the right to revive and revamp the Mark Goodson hits of bygone decades: "The Match Game," "Tattletales," maybe even "Beat the Clock." Tartikoff is pitching "Big Deal," a younger and more preposterous updating of "Let's Make a Deal," to Fox as a prime-time show, possibly with a syndicated daytime version to follow.

"It's sort of the 'Indiana Jones' version," Tartikoff says. In the pilots shot for Fox, "we smashed cars. We had men dressing as women. We had a mechanical bucking bull, like in 'Urban Cowboy.' " And no one was in costume except for Little Richard, who was part of the show.

There's even talk of the ultimate cross-promotion, a game show that would simultaneously boost both washed-up celebrities and that proliferating theme restaurant: "Planet Hollywood Squares."

As with most TV trends, we've been here before. The game show, Kurlander says, "has as great a failure rate as talk shows--it's just that we have a short memory."

A raft of games crashed and burned in the late '80s and early '90s, including "Monopoly," two different attempts to syndicate "The Price Is Right" and "Trump Card" (a genuflection to that ultimate '80s guy, Donald Trump). The new crowd faces similar peril.

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