Creating Game Show Formats for TV Today

For writers wanting to pitch a game show or TV show with predominantly game elements as part of the format, its important to first consider the following:

Today and Yesterday- Game shows have been the staple of syndicated television for decades. "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" have taken the #1 and #2 ratings spots in all of syndication for almost as long. The reason? Simple yet clever and stimulating formats that viewers can play along with. In recent years we've seen "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "Deal or No Deal" bring the game show back to prime time, and "Reality TV" break down format barriers, opening up viewer acceptance to hybrid (combined) formats of programming. Reality shows with game elements, game shows with reality-based elements, and so on. How does this benefit the creator/producer? It allows us to get away from the traditional in-studio "three podium" format and use an endless variety of elements to create what can be classified as a game show.

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The difference between "game" and "reality": With overlapping elements of both genres, the Creator can find it difficult to decide a definitive category of genre for a show created. The best approach is to consider the producer or development executive and network perspective. If the format of a show is episodic (resolves itself in one episode) and has contestants playing against each other with game elements, it is a Game show. If a format is episodic or takes place over an evolving story-arc involving real life elements it is best to categorize it as a reality show, even if it involves contestants competing within the show using game elements. "Survivor" has game elements, but it is a reality show. "Fear Factor" has reality-based elements, but it is truly a game show.

What makes a great Game Show? Today's game shows are very different in format from their counterparts of early television, but one thing still holds true- Dramatic tension. A good producer know how to create decisive moments of tension and drama within the format of any show, and this is most important for today's game shows, especially in a market that is keying on scouting for the next prime time hit. Those moments of drama always teeter on a CHOICE the contestant must make, and not always just on getting the right answer.

In "Who wants to be a Millionaire", anticipation is created with a panel of contestants who square off in the "fastest finger" competition to see who will take the hot seat for a shot at a million dollars. This doesn't just happen in the beginning of the show, but multiple times throughout. Each contestant who gets into the hot seat then faces a ladder of increasingly difficult questions, each worth an increased amount of cash winnings. He is given three "life lines" of help that he may use at any point during the game. So the choices that he faces during the increased difficulty of questions on way to the million are; what life-line does he or she use and when, and are they confident enough in their answer to risk almost all the money they've won in order to garner the even larger money that temps. So you can also see the "greed factor" at play within the game.

From a viewers perspective, there is nothing more fun than knowing the answer that could win you a half-million dollars while watching the contestant see-saw between the right answer and the wrong answer. Viewer involvement keeps the channel from being changed.

From a network programmers perspective, every beat of the show is filled with dramatic tension, and you may also notice that just about every other moment of dramatic tension is interrupted by a commercial break. For a prime time game show, that means big ad revenues for the Network. As a creator, write your format as a drama with critical moments of risk and ultimatums. We're looking for emotional and dramatic content, and when the stakes are high, and personal, a great game format will deliver that.

Creating beyond barriers- It is impossible to deny that anything is not derivative of things we've experienced before, in life, or in watching the boob-tube. 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 engrained 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. Study what is happening now, and look for patterns or breakthroughs in social appetite. And when is gets down to it, be able to simplify the idea so that it could be sold in a few sentence pitch, and if expanded have elements and a hook that make it unique.

Read our interview with CBS Studios International Executive, Paul Gilbert, as he touches on the current state and trends in game shows.

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