What makes a good game show?


I am writing this in a waiting queue for the WB Tour. One of my favorite things to do in Los Angeles. So horray, for mobile blogging. I hope it takes off!

As many of you know, I have a podcast about game shows, I don't really shut up about it. I love recording episodes and looking into the ever expansive world of televised competition. 

I do often review game shows on there, and sometimes it comes across as mean (sorry potential employers) and other times it comes across as biased (sorry, people think I'm bribed) 

I believe game shows are a genre that has no bounds, that can be towards any audience towards anything. People who love music, have talent shows, people who love game theory, had the genius. There are shows for children, shows for adults, and shows for pep-pep. And I go through all of them, even "Show Us Your Wits"  (which is really adult!)

Some shows work because they aren't really changing, except cosmetically (Jeopardy, Countdown) others work because they are always evolving (The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune)

But what has to work is simply - engagement. 

If a show has audience participation, you screaming at the screen, odds are, it might be a good series. Rather it's answering questions or taking dilemmas. 

 But if it's impossible, if it's games of skill or social, that engagement MUST be in the form of storytelling. Survivor has been on the year for decades, because they know the game can be complex, and the psychology of voting to alliances elevate the game.

So, if you're going to make a NEW FORMAT... 

1. Make sure you know your "contestant" 

Is it a talent show? Are we going to get the story of dreams and how to make them come true? 

Is it a "party game" like America Says? Who do you know love to party? 

Most casting, unfortunately, fails in this regards. They are more in favor of "sirens" (wooooo! WOOOOOO!) to push "excitement" over people to get excited for. That's your buddy, Daniel. That's your co-worker Julie... instead, you get the person who was able to boldly pronounce their name effectively at an  audition.

"Battle of the Ages" on BYUtv did great casting, they didn't need screaming, nor sob stories to get you to engage with the contestants. But somewhere, you get the wrong kind of Double Dare contestants, and it's not just kids you can relate to, but just "people who love to dab and floss dance because it's silly and fun" 

Speaking from experience - it is good for the time capsule of game shows, similar to how American Idol had a Myspace Page or Big Brother had AOL Keywords.

You gotta think about who the contestants SHOULD be, and cast accordingly. 

2. Think about your audience.  

Perception is everything, a production can make a future president look rich and powerful, instead of a lying schmuck.  

If you are doing a game show, you can either go as broad as a network show (something for you, Grandma and awkward friend) or as niche as a cable channel (Top Shot springs to mind, yes, you won't get a big audience going TOO niche, but it is possible) 

Who do you want to watch these shows? Game Show Nerds? Newbies? People who are aware of a topic? 

Can you enjoy Bullseye without understanding darts? Is the show meant for prime time or afternoon? What's the tone you want? 

And mostly, this is where the shows fault the most. A "Shiny Black Floor" denotes night, it's prime time, late, not really screaming "put at 11am", where as something with, say, a wooden floor (Celebrity Name Game) or Carpet (Match Game) and White Floor screams "Daytime"

Time shifting is a thing, but tone MEANS everything.

Not everybody is going to TiVo a game show, unless you're somebody like me who NEEDS to see Mental Samurai.  (The show, btw, is best viewed at 4pm, with a lemoncetto, when you need to relax and do puzzles)

3. Hosting 

Steve Harvey is good because he's a comedian who's standup comedy is themed around family, romance, relationships and sex.

Drew is good at ad-libs, because of his improv  background, and has turned Price into his own, by making the contestants the forefront, even more than the prizes, and is willing to lose a sponsor if it meant cheering up a contestant.

Wayne Brady did the same thing, with a more explansive musical improv backing (and Jonathan Magnum, another top-tier improver as announcer and sidekick)

Howie's routine in comedy was getting audiences to react, so he is great at milking the drama on the contestants for the benefit of the audience.

 These are all comedians,  but that doesn't mean comedians should host.

Comedians are mostly characters offering a persona, and when they are booked for the show, you want that character. 

For a while, the idea was to get comedians as hosts, Cedric the Entertainer, DL Hughley, Jimmy Kimmel... and it doesn't work. 

If you're getting a host, you're getting the salesman to the game. Somebody who needs to be aware of all the  screws, is aware there are people on set not just the contestants, is aware there is somebody watching at home, and a contestant who is very nervous because they've never been on television before.

Jeff Probst wasn't a comedian, Julie Chen is a journalist, you can expand and go anywhere else, if the tone you're creating is one that is necessary with a host to match. Bring back the "Wink Martindale" and "Bill Cullen" of the world, who are broadcast icons, who know how to sell the formats and bring out the fun. 

Currently, that person is Ryan Seacrest, but you could always find Podcasters and, yes, even YouTubers... but only if it fits. 

Going for the A-List Celebrity, it's not worth it. These are actors playing the role of game show host, not being natural. Their agent gave them the job in a package deal with the company. And you get a LeBron James Created (he didn't) or a Rob Lowe, and something tells me, none of these people sketched out a format. None of these people thought about the gameplay, until it came time to sell the show to network, because it makes it an enticing sell on a "new format"

If it's not a hit in a foreign country,   And it's not a format people are familiar with, you NEED that celebrity to sell something today.

Congrats to Justin Timberlake for "Spin the Wheel", or Jamie Foxx for "Beat Shazam" 

Is it bad? Maybe? Maybe not.

It ultimately comes down to budget. Somebody is getting a cut of the royalties.

For a Jamie Foxx, it works, same with Ellen. But sometimes you get a clunker like "Child Support". 

4. The Format 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, but in game shows, that is something that is done weekly, sometimes daily. 

If you can create a game that is played with different people, is the outcome what you wanted? 

Is the repetition what you wanted, like a Mastermind or Countdown? Or so you think it needs to update?

Some shows, need that update. Double Dare always needs that new physical challenge. Wipeout needs new obstacles. Minute to Win It needs new games.

Without that variety, audiences feel it's a rerun and stop. 

Conversely, a show that stays the same, but has a constant flow, and is a well oiled machine, like Jeopardy, doesn't need it. 

The constant change on Jeopardy, is the categories.  Which is the main focus of the game.

The constant change on Price, is the prizes, but some of the games remained there since it's debut.

A format, that is new, needs to decide if their game is good enough to be replayed not just 10 times, but 20 times, 40 times, 800 times. 

If you can repeat the game for years, you got a winning format. And that's the biggest fault for most reality shows. You get, mostly, 2 seasons tops. Survivor had to adapt, so has The Amazing Race, so has Bachelor, but the core game remained.

Treat a great game show, like a great board game that you can play for about 20 minutes to an hour. If it's good enough to play again IMMEDIATELY, it's good. Otherwise, you might have to retool it and rework it.

5.  The Money 

Sometimes the game show IS about the money. Deal or No Deal is that, and that makes the game, that much more enjoyable. People are willing to take more gambles with smaller money than large amounts.  

Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader is about second guessing yourself on questions for huge sums of money. You're pretty sure Sacramento is the Capital City of California, but are you $300,000 sure? 

Not every game show, unless it's necessary, needs to be a big money game show.  

Sometimes, you get something cute like Idiotest that offers $10,000 and you make a charming game that stands on its own. 

$100,000 Pyramid kept that same big money, but the game is still the same. 

If the prize comes second to the game, think about more than just money.

If you're doing a video game game show, where you play video games, maybe you can give away... Video Games? 

If you're doing movie trivia... can you think of a few things that could make great prizes?  

This means, you could branch into online. If you're doing, say, a nerd debate game show, maybe all you need as a prize is a comic book or tickets to a premiere? 

Budget is everything, and I am a firm believer in break the prize budget, but NOT go overboard. 

You don't have to do Million Dollar Password, but you can do $25,000 password and rinse repeat the game.  

When I make formats, I centralize the prize budget at a maximum of $250,000. It's huge money, but that's ONLY if you do a perfect game. 

6. Online

Online is the future, but networks still treat it like a marketing vessel. Get YouTubers not because of personality, but because they gave 10,000,000 subscribers "so if we get at least 10%, we get 1,000,000 views"

They don't do that, and Hollywood screws it up all the time.  

You need to treat online like a platform equal to broadcast. Shows that can be recorded and uploaded weekly.

Or, because of things like Twitch, where it's live and INSTANT audience feedback, you can do some pretty groundbreaking shows!

But that involves risk taking, and it's something Hollywood is unfortunately not looking to do, given the slate of movies and television shows that aren't game shows will tell you. 

You want a successful show?    

Take that risk.