Culture

Attracting new viewers the old way

Culture | Return of the game shows, nothing but net for NBA fans, and Enquirer's troubles

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

As memories of fixing fade, nets repackage game shows
The greatest sham in TV history wasn't pro wrestling, but the big-money quiz shows that won high ratings before they turned out to be rigged. Now NBC and CBS are dusting off two once-tainted games (Twenty One and The $64,000 Question, respectively) for proposed revivals that would bring the isolation booth back into American living rooms. The two shows were similar, with contestants battling one another answering questions. Sticking contestants in the isolation booth told viewers that the pressure was on. Actually, the fix was on. Producers knew their shows had high ratings and that to stay on top they needed charismatic champions who would keep people tuning in-some contestants were given answers beforehand. But viewers did not realize the shows, like wrestling, were shows rather than competitions. Maybe Americans had more respect for brains than brawn. The rigging of Twenty One was described in the 1994 Robert Redford movie Quiz Show. The show's producers kept dashing young star Charles Van Doren on top. When exposed, he told a congressional committee: "I have flown too high on borrowed wings." Today's network execs know the quiz-show history, but "frankly the notoriousness made it more interesting to me," said NBC senior vice president Rick Ludwin. Little is known about the revivals, except that the original hosts, Jack Barry and Hal March, are long gone. The new Twenty One and The $64,000 Question probably won't be rigged, but the formats will be similar. So why are the networks bringing back something that was a blight on the industry? Because times have changed. Fewer people have first-hand memories of these shows and the networks need cheap hits, especially with the smash success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on ABC. People like excitement and the networks are turning to old formulas to help themselves in an era of declining audiences. A hoops fan's dream
Ready for 24-hour basketball? The NBA is preparing a cable channel to start in November, in time for the new season. Named NBA.com TV, it will be nothing but net. This never-ending collage of basketball will show scores, highlights, and vintage games. It's the first time a league has started its own network, giving itself access to the revenue stream it usually licenses to others. The first move in this direction came when Britain's soccer megapower Manchester United launched a channel dedicated to itself, MUTV. Note that ".com" in "NBA.com TV." This new channel will also be the most blatant crossover between online and televised features. They will serve as ancillaries to game broadcasts, which belong to NBC, TNT, and other outlets right now. The channel will allow the NBA to mine its footage resources and archives to give fans a nonstop fix, thus milking the pro sports cash cow a little harder. Will this find an audience? The NBA already sells a pay-per-view package called NBA League Pass that offers 40 games a week to those willing to stomach the $169 per season price tag. Right now such services are only available to a few million homes with small satellite dishes or digital cable hookups. Yet the drive to push the channel selection ever higher never stops. Speedworld and The Golf Channel will join a 24-hour horseracing channel next summer. Why the Enquirer can't compete
The National Enquirer wants you to stop mocking it and start respecting it. Circulation is down-way down-and the king of supermarket tabloids got a makeover to buy itself some respectability. "A lot of people think of the Enquirer as pictures of Elvis being alive and aliens, but we're trying to attack that," explains editor Steve Cox. "We are bold and saucy, but the design gives us a bright, credible look." The Enquirer called in graphic design guru Roger Black, who performed facelifts on Newsweek, Esquire, TV Guide, and even Foreign Affairs. Call it putting icing on a trashcan, but the tabloid is serious about its newsier look, sporting bolder typefaces and more modern-looking headlines. According to The Wall Street Journal, a group of investors spent $300 million and absorbed $467 million in debt last spring to buy the Enquirer's parent company, American Media. Circulation is down from 4.5 million in 1985 to about 2.2 million now. The investment firm Evercore Partners now must get a return on its investment. After the estimated $10 million upgrade, the tabloid looks about the same to untrained eyes. The Enquirer swears the days of big stories about Elvis and aliens are over, but a recent issue gave dirt about Hillary Clinton's facelift, discussed charges that John Travolta is gay, and showed an 81-year-old Mickey Spillane going door-to-door for the Jehovah's Witnesses. It even featured a story about aspiring starlet Emily Lloyd, who claimed her career was trashed after she took a pilgrimage to India and was bitten by the Dalai Lama's dog. And while there was no Elvis story, a feature scrutinized daughter Lisa Marie's love affair with a 25-year-old Hawaiian rock singer. The National Enquirer, it seems, is still squirming to survive, but pop culture and real news are so extreme today that the tabloids aren't all that different from The Washington Post.

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