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The sneaky strategy behind the proliferation of game shows

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Regis Philbin
Bob D'Amico/ABC

Sick of the whole game-show phenomenon? Could care less what John Q. Public says after Regis Philbin utters that interminable line, ”Is that your final answer?” Some of the networks hope you say ”Yes!” In fact, several TV decision makers admit that one big reason for the recent game-show proliferation — ”Greed” (Fox), ”Twenty One” (NBC), and ”Winning Lines” (CBS) — is to saturate the market, thereby killing off viewer interest and preventing the long-term success of ABC’s ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

”Absolutely!” confirms a high-ranking exec at one of the Big Four networks. ”I’d rather have the genre disappear tomorrow.” Adds an NBC executive: ”It’s kinda like win-win for the other three networks. One of two things will happen. Either you develop a successful show or you kill off or dilute the genre. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

Understandably, ABC is putting on a game face. ”We’re not worried about [the competition],” says ABC Entertainment TV Group cochairman Lloyd Braun. ”There is something different about ‘Millionaire.’ I don’t think this show is a fad.”

But not everyone agrees. Media buyers like Paul Schulman see the game-show phenomenon as a short-term fix for prime-time’s problems. ”I think it’s a temporary replacement for the lack of successful comedies,” Schulman explains. ”A number of years ago, prior to the success of the original ‘Cosby’ show, no comedies were working on network TV, so what replaced them were ‘Real People’ on NBC and ‘That’s Incredible’ on ABC. I think we’re going to have quiz shows succeeding for a while. But as soon as comedies that are well written and well cast come on, the cycle will change again.”

And just in case the nets don’t come up with enough comedies, there’s another genre waiting in the wings: variety shows. NBC and ABC are looking for pitches, while Fox and CBS have projects in the works that blend variety into the sitcom format. ”I think variety shows are long overdue,” says Fred Silverman, a former NBC programming head who is now executive producer for ”Twenty One.” ”MTV has proved there’s an appetite out there for music. And look at the success of Leno and Letterman. With today’s production techniques, some new form [of variety show] could be the next big cycle.”

Until then, though, expect ”Millionaire,” ”Twenty One,” ”Greed,” and ”Winning Lines” to continue — and watch out for another unique game show that will air this summer on CBS: ”Survivor,” which has Robinson Crusoe types battling it out on a deserted island to win a cool $1 million.

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