What do bloodthirsty lovers Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton watch when they’re flipping channels late at night? Syndicated reruns of ”The Munsters”? Nah. Bela Lugosi movie marathons? Nope. ”Unsolved Mysteries”? Wrong again. Try ”Press Your Luck.”
The self-proclaimed Game Show Network addicts join a roster of celeb fans (Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris) who, along with over 40 million households, are helping turn the one-stop source for wordplay, whoopee, and whammies into cable’s hippest retro niche. ”People are flocking toward programming that’s familiar,” says Stacey Lynn Koerner, a senior VP of research with Initiative Media. ”It’s reminiscent of a happier, carefree time.”
The proof isn’t exactly hiding behind curtain number one. Prime-time ratings are up 25 percent this season, with the number of viewers jumping 29 percent since April. Established in 1994, GSN’s ratings are now nearing those of cable stalwarts The Weather Channel and VH1, and that’s without a ”Behind the Music”-style juggernaut. Not bad for a network that, five years ago, was rumored to be in serious need of a lifeline.
The turnaround began last May, when Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Digital (the network’s co-owners) invited Rich Cronin — a veteran of Nick at Nite and founder of TV Land in 1996 — to come on down as CEO and president. The exec — famed for his offbeat marketing strategies — soon installed new programming chief Bob Boden (a former production VP with Dick Clark Productions whom Cronin calls ”a walking game-show encyclopedia”), doubled on-air promotion time, and canceled four ratings losers (including original series ”Inquizition” and ”DJ Games”). The next step? Embracing game shows’ inherent — and nostalgic — kitsch factor.