It’s not hard to figure out the appeal of kids game shows to producers and programmers. Inexpensive and quick to produce, game shows often bring in kids from a wide variety of audience sectors, and they’re powerful tools in network branding efforts. Still, producers in the genre are not immune to industrywide challenges such as a marked increase in competition for airtime and a closely monitored battle for kid ratings, both of which make buyers beware.
‘Buyers are getting much more specific in terms of the quality [they're looking for],’ says Thomas Frank, senior VP of programming and television production at Dick Clark Productions, and executive producer of Disney Channel’s Mad Libs program. ‘If we’re going to do an established genre, we have to do it in a way that’s unique or better than what’s out there.’ Disney Channel senior VP of programming and production Rich Ross, referring to Nickelodeon’s long-running game show, which aired from 1986 to 1990, adds, ‘In the days of Double Dare, kids had no [game show] options. It’s not true anymore.’
While networks are reportedly pickier across the board, the game show category is healthy at the moment, as evidenced by Nickelodeon’s recent launch of an entire digital channel featuring play-based programming, Nickelodeon Games & Sports. Today’s game show development seems to fall into two categories: the classic formula, in which kid contestants, live audiences, splashy prizes and charismatic hosts are standard fare; or the edgier, high-tech shows, which utilize current technology to redefine the ‘game show’ moniker.
On the cutting edge of kids game show development is HBO Family’s Crashbox, created by Los Angeles’ Planet Grande and Toronto’s hot commercial animation shop Cuppa Coffee Animation, to debut in February. The series forgoes contestants, live audiences and prizes in favor of a fully animated, riddle-based format. Crashbox will air at 4 p.m. on weekdays and at an undisclosed weekend time slot, to target the Internet-friendly eight to 13 demo. Twenty-six half-hours of the show have been produced for a total budget of roughly Cdn$3 million (US$1.94 million)-a figure that VP of HBO Family Dolores Morris describes as ‘high’ for the kids game show category, but still significantly lower than an animated series.
Morris says the cabler developed the show when seeking an update to Brain Games, HBO’s original kids game show that ran from 1984-89, then interstitially from `89-95. Like Crashbox, the series had no host or studio audience, but allowed kids to play directly with their televisions, she says.
‘Most kids in this age group come home from school and go right to the Internet,’ she says. The non-live-action approach of Crashbox simulates the Web, offering a series of eight or more games per episode, each with a different animation style. This modular format offers increased longevity for the series, Morris notes, as segments within each episode can be disassembled and recycled into new shows. A companion Web site (www.hbo4kids.com) accompanies the games, which have educational themes, such as Psychomath, hosted by a mad scientist, and Revolting Slob, a vocabulary game featuring disgusting people.
The show bolsters HBO Family’s branding of its afternoon block, says Morris. ‘We try to put the `edge’ in education. Kids like to be smart, and [watch] programs that are also smart.’ The show’s hook is a visual look that is very hip, combined with the ‘attitude’ kids associate with Nick, says Morris. It also allows kids to solve problems on their own with no assistance from a host.
Like Crashbox, White Tiger Productions’ Total Recall: The Virtual Word Game for Kids series-currently in production-also pushes the game show envelope, placing contestants in a virtual reality environment where a blue screen-backed digital sound stage enables famous people, places and things, such as the Washington Monument, to ‘emerge’ from the floor via CGI. Evidence of the market’s receptivity to the new concept can be seen in the fact that a dozen schools from California’s San Fernando Valley and other national sites will participate in the launch, and promotional partners such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, Florida Orange Growers and GameWorks, a division of DreamWorks, have been secured. Thirteen half-hour episodes of the series will debut on World Entertainment Network, reaching nearly all of the 30 top U.S. markets, and White Tiger will present the series at NATPE.
If there is one widely recognized downside to the game show format, it’s the rapid disintegration of viewership for repeat episodes. ‘Erosion in ratings happens faster because games don’t have the storytelling element,’ says Disney Channel’s Ross. This lack of repeatability reduces the long-term cost-effectiveness of game shows, and requires that the shows be produced in large orders, according to Ross. For example, Disney Channel ordered 65 initial, half-hour episodes of Off the Wall, the Japan-originated game concept that the channel debuted last summer, and Nickelodeon recently undertook a 40-episode order for the half-hour series Figure It Out.
Despite the genre’s reputation for limited longevity, some series are repeated successfully for years. Double Dare, one of Nickelodeon’s first original productions, ran for more than four years in three different incarnations, and will have renewed broadcast life on Nickelodeon Games & Sports. ‘Double Dare continues to connect to real kids,’ notes co-creator and co-executive producer Magda Liolis, a member of Nick’s game show development team, which is currently in production of a third season of Figure It Out. She stresses the importance game shows have always had in forging Nickelodeon’s brand: ‘Game shows offer a direct connection to the audience, and they’ve always been that way. We build each game around that.’
Shying away from new applications for the genre, Nickelodeon’s series hone in on classic elements that make game shows tick. Nick’s latest, Figure It Out, is a classic game show, according to Liolis, highlighting the talents of regular children, yet including a more glitzy panel of young celebrities from Nickelodeon and beyond. Elements such as contestants getting ‘slimed,’ and an emphasis on putting kids first and expressing the kid point of view lend a strong association with the Nick brand, says Liolis. Liolis estimates that Nick’s game shows cost one-tenth of its other half-hour genres.
A critical production challenge for kids game shows is keeping the format fresh. For each new season of Figure It Out, for instance, game elements are adjusted, added to or scrapped. According to Liolis, this freshening effort has paid off, as the show has consistently rated among Nick’s top 10.
Disney Channel’s Z Games series, in which producers travel across the country to highlight different kinds of games that kids make up, is also a classic kids game show, according to Ross. Thirteen initial, half-hour episodes of the series were ordered, to be produced by Florida’s Highland Productions. The series will premiere in early 1999. ‘Game shows for us are the essence of activity,’ Ross notes. ‘You use your brain, use your body and go out there and do it.’ Z Games reflects Disney Channel’s branding goal of being perceived as an active rather than a passive entertainment experience, says Ross.
According to Marjorie Kaplan, senior VP of children’s programming at Discovery Kids, which debuted 26 half-hour episodes of its Zap It! game show in October, branding is more of a necessity than a choice for Discovery’s kids block. ‘Discovery Kids is at a point where everything we do needs to support the brand, because we only have three hours every week [Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon].’ Zap It!, in which kids respond to quiz-type challenges using remote-control zappers, is brand definitional because it ‘puts kids front and center,’ and because the use of zappers gives it a ‘future-forward’ motif that harkens to the 500-channel universe of the millennium and beyond. ‘In my view, the show is helping us to transition [adult] Discovery into the Discovery Kids block fast, and in ways we can afford,’ says Kaplan.