A.J. Jacobs
May 24, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Carnie, Danny, Gabrielle — thanks for coming down! We have some lovely parting gifts for you!

No doubt you’ve heard: Talk shows, those high-decibel dysfunction-fests, have finally lost their grip on daytime TV, the victims of sinking ratings and puritanical outrage. Which prompts the $64,000 question: What is daytime’s Next Big Thing?

Um, game shows? Good answer!

”Two years ago, it was a joke to [pitch] a game show,” says Wink Martindale, 61, veteran host of Tic Tac Dough and other classics. ”All the talk was about talk shows, but now people are all talked out.”

Yes, indeed. Inspired, no doubt, by the success of MTV’s Singled Out (cohosted by Jenny McCarthy, 23, Generation X’s Vanna White), several networks are updating that celebration of sexual innuendo The Dating Game. ”The old version wouldn’t play in the ’90s,” says Alan Perris, a VP of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, which has revamped the show for syndication. ”But we’re not going to be so different that people won’t recognize us.” The new shows have MTV pacing, a lower smut factor, new hosts, and nary a ruffled shirt. Other cash-and-prize entries include:

The Big Date, the USA Network’s recycling of The Dating Game, with host Mark Walberg. (Debuts June 3.)

— Yet another date-themed show, called BZZZ! — so named because contestants nix potential mates with a buzzer. (Begins airing nationally Sept. 9.)

— Lifetime’s DEBT, in which players try to work off their debts under the watch of host Martindale. (Debuts June 3.)

— Producer Brandon Tartikoff’s Know It Alls, a quiz show with local questions for different cities (fall ’96). Tartikoff’s company also plans a new Let’s Make a Deal with fewer wacky outfits but more physical stunts. ”No singing radishes,” he promises.

— Recycled versions of The Match Game, Tattletales, and Card Sharks are getting prepped for this winter. All American Television spent $50 million for the rights to these and 43 other shows from the vaults of game guru Mark Goodson.

Planet Hollywood Squares, a new spin on the showcase for has-been celebs being developed by Roseanne and Sony Television.

For programmers, the appeal of game shows is twofold. They are relatively controversy-free, which should keep anti-trash TV crusader William Bennett happy. And they are cheap to produce, costing approximately the same as a talk show — less than $100,000 per hour.

Gambles exist, of course. Over the past five years, most stabs at the genre have flopped loudly. Remember Bill Cosby’s misguided 1992 attempt to bring back You Bet Your Life? Or the 1990 season, which saw no fewer than five new game shows fail? What’s more, even successes like Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, and The Price Is Right have a stigma with youth-hungry advertisers: The viewers are notoriously gray.

Which is why benignly titillating efforts such as Singled Out may be the perfect transition. ”The younger-skewing talk shows like Ricki Lake play these dating games anyway,” says Bill Carroll, a VP with Katz Television Group, which consults station managers. ”What we’re seeing is a return to the purer form.” And, hopefully, a renewed interest in Turtle Wax.

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