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The Game Show Network: Gaming To Please

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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.

”The classic games weren’t being celebrated,” laments Cronin, who still has the Barcalounger he won on Face the Music in 1980. In addition to launching Let’s Make a Deal and upping Family Feud‘s daily profile, Cronin began digging through Sony’s vaults, which he says house the largest game-show library in the world. There the exec saw a bonanza of timeless gems, including famed producer Chuck Barris’ $1.98 Beauty Show, a campy ’70s pageant/freak show hosted by Rip Taylor. (If you’re wondering why that other Barris classic—The Gong Show—isn’t in permanent rotation, Cronin says it and another heavily requested favorite, Name That Tune, are mired in music rights clearance issues.)

The Golden Oldies strategy is working: After being added to GSN’s lineup in September, ’80s phenom Press Your Luck—famous for its mantra ”Big money! No whammies! Stop!”—is already one of the net’s top-rated shows, pulling in an average of 358,000 viewers. Press host Peter Tomarken practically lost his cue cards when he heard about its comeback: ”It’s taken 15 years for the awakening to occur.”

If Cronin has his way, it won’t be that long before GSN is a name brand like MTV, CNN, and ESPN—and he’s hoping to win over more than just the traditional (read: old) game-show fanatic. Besides stepping up development on original shows, he recently acquired Who Dares Wins, which he calls ”the Australian Fear Factor,” to profit from the NBC show’s successful summer run.

“Our passion for game shows has got to come across every minute we’re on the air,” adds Cronin. “The people at MTV just live and breathe rock & roll. That’s what you need at a network. That’s essential.” A thumbs-up from Angelina and Billy Bob can’t hurt either.

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