One of the interesting things in working for Merv Griffin was getting to see how his success in game shows was something he couldn’t have avoided if he tried. He was obsessed with games. He used to read five newspapers every morning just to get the five different crossword puzzles. Word play was a favorite of his, often riffing jokes about names, or twisting words into different meanings. In a meeting I set up between Merv and Endemol USA‘s then Chairman/CEO David Goldberg to see if we could find synergy between Merv’s brand and Edemol’s global reach, the first thing out of Merv’s mouth to Goldberg was, “Why do you want to end them all?” Goldberg didn’t answer. Merv continued, “End-them-all….End-’em-all…Your company name is…Endemol“. Meetings with Merv were never boring, and you always had to keep up with the wry wit.
“Why don’t we just give them the answers, and see if they can come up with the question?“
Life was a big game, and Merv loved to make others play. He told me about how he and family friends would go to Vegas, walk into a casino, he’d hand each of them a thousand dollars, then tell them they have an hour to see who can win the most or lose the least. He’d give the winner a larger wad of cash. But one of the most interesting stories he told was how the idea for Jeopardy was conceived. On a plane ride back from New York with his wife Julann, Merv was cooking up ideas for game shows when she took a cue from the recent quiz show scandals, and asked Merv, “Why don’t we just give them the answers, and see if they can come up with the question?” And the game play began… “5,280“…”How many feet in a mile“… “Trigger“…”Who is the Lone Ranger’s horse?“… and on and on during the cross-country flight. He went straight to NBC with the idea and it was bought in the room and ordered without any pilot produced. Not too long after, two ambitious young businessmen, Michael and Roger King, saw an opportunity in Jeopardy when regulations limiting Network monopolies on programming opened up opportunities for independent programming. Merv described Michael King as sweating with hand shaking when writing a check for $50,000 asking him for the rights to the new game show Jeopardy. Merv believed in their strategy, and put the future of Jeopardy in the hands of the soon to be legendary King brothers. Region by region, station group by station group, Jeopardy was sold in a structure that was the blueprint for what we now know as television syndication. And a King was born…KingWorld to be exact… and of course game show magnate Merv.
“Things aren’t as clear in today’s programming. But I say- that fog forms a blank canvas, against which a breakout hit will shine.“
I share these stories to show that even during what was a simpler time for entertainment, it was those simple yet brilliant twists, flipping an approach to something, that created groundbreaking and entertaining results. We’re now living in a thousand channel universe with hybrids of all genres for shows. Things aren’t as clear in today’s programming. But I say- that fog forms a blank canvas, against which a breakout hit will shine. When you’re inspired to create a new idea for a TV game show, don’t let the format become confused within itself. A game is simple at its core, and that core game will naturally allow other entertaining and fun wrinkles in the format that still serve its core concept. Maintain a playful perspective on life and the things around you. You may then find that diamond in the rough idea for a show that becomes the next big game changer.
KEYS TO CREATING GAME SHOW FORMATS:
- Some things are fun to play, and some things are fun to watch. For television you need both.
- Look at your game format not just as a structure, but as a story.
- Today in television, game shows need to key on human emotion, personal scenarios and experiences.
- Don’t think it has to be an in-studio show. Settings and challenges that cross-over into “reality” are fine, but keep the action in a self-contained locale for easy coverage in production.
- Each episode must have a unique structure of play that resolves itself in that one episode.
- Be as detailed and unique as possible with the various elements of your game so that your format is original.
A Network is only going to launch an original Game Show format to audiences if they know they have a truly original show with content viewers haven’t seen before. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements that we’re already familiar with, but it means that they’re looking for the overall experience and hook to be original. What I’ve always kept as my touchstone when developing any format is that anything and everything within that format serves the concept or hook that is the signature of the show. You’re creating a puzzle that requires all parts to fit and fuel one another, and when working together in unison it delivers your vision of the game we’re watching unfold. Challenge yourself to “see” the critical scenarios in the game, and then to know that it would be entertaining to watch.
Check out the TV Writers Vault “Creating Game Shows” page for some good insight. Here’s a blurb from the article:
“If you want to be a break-through creator of any television format it is important to make a conscious effort at letting go of pre-programmed instincts that have been ingrained in us by having seen dozens and dozens of shows over so many years that tell us “this is what a game show is”. Stamp your own passport and say to yourself “no, THIS is what a game show is.” Let go of traditional ideas and invent new ways of bringing entertaining games to an audience.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on game show programming today, and answer any questions you have about developing ideas in the comments section below. I’ll expand the discussion to help us all wrap our minds around what I believe to be one of the funnest genres to create and develop for television.