Game-Shows-MIPTV-Feature-417Kristin Brzoznowski explores how producers and distributors are offering up innovative spins on game shows.

Packed with nail-biting tension, high-stakes surprises and plenty of real-life drama, game shows have enthralled viewers for the better part of a century. There have been countless turns of the wheel, so to speak, on the traditional question-and-answer format, with producers trying out everything from obstacle courses to acerbic hosts in an attempt to innovate the genre. Much like the emotional rollercoaster of the contestants on them, game shows have seen their fair share of peaks and valleys when it comes to global demand, but few would argue that these formats have ever actually fallen out of favor.

“The demand for game shows always seems to be hot, though it does get hotter at certain times,” says Paul Gilbert, the senior VP of international formats at CBS Studios International (CBSSI), which is home to such long-running hits as Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. “There is always a place for a good game show, new or old.”

According to John Pollak, Electus’s president of worldwide television and Electus International, the market is once again heating up. “The momentum has shifted back to buyers wanting game shows, and prime-time game shows in particular,” he says. “Even as recently as six months ago, we had taken out big game-show formats and the response from some major territories had been, we just don’t do game in prime time anymore. With the success of shows like The Wall or a show that we have [in our catalog] called Canada’s Smartest Person, the tide has changed; game shows are working on networks and they’re bringing in ratings. Buyers are going back and looking at their schedules and thinking that game can fit in prime time again.”

Suzanne Kendrick, the head of global format sales at BBC Worldwide, has also seen solid interest for game shows in prime time (and with some major broadcasters) as of late. The company licensed You’re Back in the Room, which bets on physical comedy with a hypnotizing twist, into seven countries so far. The show is headed to FOX in the U.S. later this year with Taye Diggs as host.

You’re Back in the Room has got a lot of humor and a new twist with hypnotism,” she says. “It takes games that should be simple and makes them so much harder because of the hypnosis—that really turns up the comedy! It harkens back to the kind of big family shows that were popular in the past—it’s strong, comedic, family viewing.”

While high levels of comedy and a co-viewing draw can elevate a game show to a prime-time slot, more straightforward quiz elements remain the backbone of much of the daytime fare. But even the customary Q&A-style formats are upping the ante with their gameplay nowadays. Kendrick points to !mpossible, which is coming back for a second season on BBC One’s daytime schedule, as an example of this.

!mpossible takes quiz but sends it slightly on its head,” she says. “There are right answers and wrong answers, but then there’s a third dimension of having impossible answers. One of the great things about that show is that it has a very simple mechanic at the core, but it adds an extra level to the gameplay.”

Kendrick notes that there has been growing interest globally for high-volume, strippable game shows like !mpossible. “The nice thing about those shows is that you can get a lot of content on a cost-effective budget,” she adds.

“Broadcasters are increasingly looking for one of two types of game shows,” says Andrew Sime, the VP of formats at Banijay Rights. “They either want a prime-time, tentpole game show that would be at the very heart of their schedule, often live, with a big budget and big prizes, or they want a strippable, cost-effective, high-volume game show that they can play in early or later time slots and run those episodes for several months.”

Sime believes that the game shows working best in today’s marketplace are ones that offer up a fresh spin. “If you look at the heyday of game shows around 10 or 15 years ago, a lot of the formats were simply about cash,” he says. “They were mostly just mechanisms to win money.” Nowadays, it takes something extra to break through, and comedy has proven to be a powerful tool.

Banijay Rights’ Wild Things—in which contestants navigate a range of obstacle courses and challenges, while one of the partners is dressed as a woodland creature and unable to see—has many moments of slapstick comedy. The format has sold to such markets as China, Argentina, Russia and Denmark.

“In the same way that the comedy is the secret ingredient to Wild Things, with All Against 1 it’s about the interactivity at the heart of it,” says Sime. The studio-based entertainment show pits one contestant against the entire nation, a feat made possible by an interactive app.

“People have talked about real-time audience interactivity for at least ten years now, but as far as we’re concerned this is the first major game show to ever really solve that problem,” Sime says. “It has a foolproof interactivity at its core that allows studio contestants to go head to head with the nation as a whole and allows the viewers to play in real time for high stakes. It’s been phenomenal for us! It’s drawn whole families together for what is now a rare must-see television event.”

Interactivity and apps have come under much scrutiny in the format community. But as technology has evolved, and producers have gotten more clever with how best to integrate it, there are a handful of game shows in the marketplace today that are directly connecting to the at-home audience via apps and are doing so successfully.

KABO International recently signed a distribution deal with the Finnish outfit Reflect that covers the interactive game-show formats Tilt and High Score, which both make use of next-generation technologies that amp up the excitement for viewers. Tilt, for example, is billed as the first format to use VR and mixed-reality production techniques in broadcast TV. The series currently airs in Finland on TV6 and has a tech sponsor—HP—backing the broadcast. High Score, which features a futuristic eSports decathlon, is accompanied by a set of games for viewers to play at home on mobile devices, connected TVs and VR platforms.

Arabelle Pouliot-Di Crescenzo, the managing director at KABO International, says these formats “bring game shows to the next level.” She notes that “buyers are very curious” about how this technology can work for them. But does interactive also mean expensive?

“Finland is not doing Tilt on a very big budget,” Pouliot-Di Crescenzo says. “A lot of the technology featured in the format is already available in the market. It’s just a question of which to use and how to combine them to achieve the best results. My clients are excited that it’s accessible and workable in most markets. Of course, there may be regions that are not wired enough, but I’ve been getting requests from small countries and big markets—they all say it’s totally doable.”

Even with the advancements in making digital bells and whistles more viable, there’s still a long way to go before interactive technology becomes a make-or-break, must-have proposition for the majority of broadcasters. When it comes to game shows, there continues to be plenty of instances where simple equals successful.

Nippon TV, for example, touts the “overall simplicity” of the format Train of Thought as one of the reasons it has sold so widely, according to Taro Ozawa, the company’s senior director of international business development. The show quickly became a hit in Japan and went on to be licensed in markets such as the U.S., U.K., Italy, Thailand and Indonesia.

“If Train of Thought were the quintessential game show, Silent Library would be the refreshingly innovative and hilarious counterpart that all format buyers find irresistible,” Ozawa says, reinforcing the point about the power of comedy in game shows today. He adds that the relatively low budget needed to produce the format plays a significant role in its sales.

A somewhat costlier proposition, Pharaoh! (which was originally titled EXIT!) has also been a strong seller for Nippon TV. The show garners high ratings in Japan and has sold in the U.S., Russia, Egypt, China and Thailand. The format watches as players are trapped in a room and must use their smarts and athletic skills to figure out a way to escape. “The set is loaded with spectacular features that require the competitors to dig deep in their bag of tools in order to succeed in the many physical challenges,” Ozawa explains. “Its movie-like sets also help boost sales. Relatively high budgetary requirements, however, tend to make the format sensitive to changes in the economy. Nonetheless, it continues to be a much-sought-after program that attracts inquiries from all over the world.”

CBSSI’s Gilbert is of the opinion that “big, bigger and biggest seem to be the new thing” when it comes to game-show formats. He adds, “The biggest difference over the past few years is the higher stakes; the ability to win more money keeps growing. Game shows with gimmicks seem to work for one or two seasons, but ‘gimmick-less’ shows sustain year after year.” Gilbert says that is perhaps why Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! are perennially popular.

Both of these series have been in the marketplace for quite some time, but even classics may need to be refreshed now and again. “Because our classics are still on the air in the U.S., we leave that up to the U.S. producers, who incorporate new ideas into the shows, and then we share those ideas with our licensees,” Gilbert says. “On the reverse side, quite often when we approve changes our licensees request, and if those changes have a positive impact, we share those ideas with the U.S. producers.”

Making tweaks to sets, lighting and hosts can not only help to keep a format fresh; adjusting these elements can also be a major factor in scaling budgets. BBC Worldwide’s Kendrick says that by making a few modifications, producers can even maximize the number of episodes filmed at a time.

Another approach to making a format more cost-effective is through the use of shared production hubs. The adventure game show Fort Boyard was an early pioneer with this model, and Banijay Rights is hoping to incorporate some of the lessons learned from the experience with that format into the rollout of The Bravest. The show debuts in Denmark and Sweden, which did separate productions, just before the market. Both versions were filmed at a hub in Malta. “There is going to be a real turnkey solution so that wherever we’ve got interest from, we can take the clients to Malta and they’ll be able to produce their own version of the show that is easily ready for local rollout,” says Sime.

He also points out that the costs for game shows can often be balanced by the high volume of episodes a broadcaster can get out of them. “The efficiencies and the expertise mean that they can be done very affordably after several years in production,” Sime says.

“From a production standpoint, amortizing the costs is great,” agrees Electus’s Pollak, who oversees sales for such game-show formats as Winsanity and Separation Anxiety. “You’re able to do two, three, four or even five episodes in a day, depending on what the show is. That makes a huge difference! If you’re doing a show like Idols or Dancing with the Stars, you’re doing one and that’s it.”

And yet a game show can still create a lot of noise for a network, he says. “With game, you have the ability not only to define your channel, but you’re also able to set up what the country is going to watch and be talking about. Game shows are one of the very few genres that can galvanize the nation.”

With regard to sales trends, Pollak says that Asia and Latin America have remained solid markets for game shows. “Throughout Europe, the appetite for game has always been there, but mostly for daily versions. We’re now optimistic that we’ll see a nice change in the thinking from buyers there that game is worth the consideration for a prime-time slot.”

KABO’s Pouliot-Di Crescenzo emphasizes that there must be a strong entertainment factor in a game show in order for it to succeed in prime time, be it comedy, interactivity, the inclusion of celebrities or any combination thereof. “The audience is getting more demanding and sophisticated; they want a lot happening in their shows!” she says, which is why layering up genres on top of games has become so prevalent.

Nippon TV’s Ozawa says that there has always been, and likely always will be, changing tastes and trends within the game-show genre, which keeps things exciting for distributors, producers, audiences and buyers. “Constant transformation is what makes game shows ever so entertaining, and is the reason this genre, in particular, remains in demand regardless of the times.”

Pictured: CBSSI’s Wheel of Fortune.