Format focus: the state of play for game shows

Game shows have always served as “comfort food” for audiences, and fun distractions from tumultuous times. From tried and true favorite formats to shiny floor extravaganzas, realscreen takes a look at the ...
November 17, 2017

Game shows have always served as “comfort food” for audiences, and fun distractions from tumultuous times. From tried and true favorite formats to shiny floor extravaganzas, realscreen takes a look at the trends that are the “name of the game” in 2017

It’s a recurring theme in television. In times of uncertainty, TV can act as a tonic, and game shows can provide a much-needed brand of levity.

In 2017, the number of revivals of classic formats and familiar faces in the form of celebrity hosts makes for a hearty dose of television comfort food.

Take the Steve Harvey-hosted Celebrity Family Feud, which has been renewed for its fourth season on ABC. On the same broadcast net, Alec Baldwin’s Match Game is readying its third season. Indeed, as game infiltrates not only TV but viral video, apps and all the trappings of modern media, a healthy amount of hits in the current “golden age of game shows” comes from various golden ages gone by.


According to Amy Introcaso-Davis, former head of programming for GSN and now head of programming and development for E!, one of the main obstacles producers and networks face is the attention span of the average, media-saturated viewer. They’re unlikely to have the patience to learn a new game show format when stalwarts such as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune act as reliable snackable content —  familiar formats kept fresh with new categories and editions.

“I would say that networks have gravitated towards retro games more than new because explaining a game is often the hardest thing to do,” she says.

Jennifer Mullin, North American CEO of FremantleMedia, the company that produces modern versions of such classic game shows as Family Feud, Match Game, To Tell the Truth, Let’s Make a Deal and The Price is Right, says that the company didn’t feel inclined to change any element of the Match Game format, opting to keep the retro set design and original format, and using only Baldwin as an update. For his part, Baldwin was reportedly so fond of the original, he insisted on using the same skinny style of microphone as original host Gene Rayburn.

Elsewhere, To Tell the Truth, hosted by Anthony Anderson, saw its set modernized slightly in order to make it a better fit for the primetime slot.


To bring in the numbers needed in primetime, some producers and nets are betting on game shows that, while not based on old favorites, tap into pop culture phenomena.

Earlier this summer, CBS premiered a one-hour, live action competition show based on the mobile game Candy Crush, which requires players to complete levels by swapping colored pieces of “candy” on a game board to make a match of three or more. The original mobile game is one of the most popular of its kind, with over one trillion rounds played by users since it was first launched by King Digital Entertainment in 2012.

Candy Crush is such a worldwide sensation, and that really got us excited because we knew that we would have the IP that people know in the U.S., but around the world as well,” says Jennifer O’Connell, EVP of alternative programming at Lionsgate, one of the prodcos behind the live-action TV game version. “It’s also a property that appeals to a broad spectrum of people of different ages and backgrounds.”

Matt Kunitz, producer of the show and the creator and executive producer of other larger-than-life competitions series such as Fear Factor and Wipeout, believes the series could have legs similar to retro game show reboots as a sizeable audience is already familiar with the gameplay.

The series premiere averaged 4.05 million viewers and won its time period in adults 18-49 (1.1) and adults 25-54 (1.3, tie). While it wrapped its first season on CBS in September, it has been picked up by Dubai-based producer-distributor Eagle Films, with plans to adapt the game to an Arabic language version for the Middle East and North Africa region. That 13 x 60-minute version is expected to head into production later this year.


But betting big also means big risks. One of the calling cards for the Candy Crush series is a set of Guinness World Record-setting, touch-sensitive screens that required a year of research and development.

Endemol Shine’s Group and Universal Television Alternative Studio’s The Wall, which airs on NBC in the U.S. and boasts LeBron James as an EP, is another tech-heavy game show making a global impact, with versions airing in France, Germany and Spain, and adaptations set for Canada, Australia, Russia, Poland, Romania and Hungary.

“There are always going to be those big shows in primetime that everybody wants to do — the hot shows for the moment that are big, splashy and expensive,” says Arabelle Pouliot-Di Crescenzo, MD of French distributor Kabo International.

“But the producers that are really winning place emphasis on creativity and great ideas.”

Pouliot-Di Crescenzo points to Kabo’s Who’s Who, which has aired throughout Europe in various versions, and Tilt as examples of shows that have seen success without breaking the bank. Tilt, a revamped version of a Finnish game show format from 1997 that is entering its third season on Finland’s TV6, is a game show-meets- talk show format in which millennial celebs face off against each other in VR games.

“The aim for this show was to hype the VR and high-tech components of the game, but create something that was accessible, because right now I’m working on deals with territories that don’t necessarily have those big budgets to pull off tech-heavy game shows,” she explains. “The production company figured how to do it in a way that’s accessible in any market. A business decision was made early on so the cost of producing the show wouldn’t be prohibitive.”

Scott St. John, an exec producer behind such hits as Deal or No Deal, Celebrity Name Game and the recent Snap Decision, says ultimately, it’s the simple concepts that will outlast the high-tech game shows that come and go.

“It’s about connecting with the viewer,” he says. “A game show is at its best when you take entertaining people and put them in extraordinary situations and see how they react.”

“Extraordinary” can begin at home. Game shows such as the syndicated Celebrity Name Game or Spike’s Lip Sync Battle have taken a simple premise — something you might do in the living room with your friends — and have blown it up for TV, generating sleeper hits in the process.

Elsewhere, Apple recently launched Carpool Karaoke — another show that audiences were already familiar with thanks to James Corden’s CBS late-night show feature.

“You’re seeing game everywhere — in Corden’s karaoke hit, in the games Jimmy Fallon plays on his show, and the number of games being played online,” says Introcaso-Davis. “There’s a huge appetite for it, because of their simplicity.”

While the concepts are straightforward, their reach is increasing, with mobile play being more of a factor. Introcaso-Davis references Ellen Degeneres’ Heads Up! as an example of a game viewers have brought from the small screen into their homes and on their mobile devices.

Candy Crush leans heavily on the play-along factor present in most game shows — the notion that a viewer has an all-seeing eye, finding combinations and matches before the contestant is able to. This concept is amplified with Candy Crush, given audiences not only play along with contestants, but can also use the phone app.

Domination, a series being brought to market by Keshet International, sells itself as a TV event in which the entire country can play along (a nod to Who Wants to be a Millionaire?). While the series relies on a quiz show format audiences will be familiar with, viewers can play along at home by answering questions via the show’s app, with the best home players also eligible to win a cash prize.

Technology aside, some things never change. Playability, familiarity and positivity stand out as the key components of game show success, both historically and today.

“I think positive, fun programming is where the pendulum has swung right now,” says Lionsgate’s O’Connell. “There’s a lot of dark stuff out there to watch [...] and there’s definitely a place for more optimistic programming where you see regular people win and get to cheer them on.”

This article first appeared in the September/October of realscreen

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.