The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

April 1999

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 10 March 99 Copyright ©1999 alt.screenwriters

You remember the scene in Diner — Kevin Bacon is watching a quizshow, and although we’ve seen him as a loser up to now, in the privacy of his own home he doesn’t try to hide his intelligence. He nails every trivia question faster than the contestants.

This has always been the principal pleasure of TV gameshows. It’s fun to play along and show off how smart you are, even if only to yourself. But the drawback has always been the same: even if you’re better than the contestants, you don’t win anything.

Well, now you can actually play in the privacy of your home, not just “play along,” and you can win prizes! Welcome to the world of online gameshows! It should come as no surprise that, from their inception, these have drawn from the ranks of WGA members who know a thing or two about snappy patter and clever wordplay.

One of the earlier experiments in folding gameshow elements into Web entertainment was employed by writer Alan Glueckman, whose credits run the gamut from TV drama to musical comedy. Glueckman developed and wrote Disco-rama for EntertainNet, and describes the foray as “a retrospective about ‘Everything you ever loved about the 70s — and tried to forget’…” The online show included “interactive segments where you could test and explore your knowledge of the 1970s, like dressing 70s movie stars in the horrendous fashions of the time, or guessing which stars of The Poseidon Adventure survived and which became fish food.” Fun stuff, but sort of like playing solo trivial pursuit. With all these other people on the Web, why not play against them?

The granddaddy of multi-player online gameshows is, of course, You Don’t Know Jack, which started life as a CD-ROM party game with gobs of Gen-X attitude before it came to the Web. Jack has become one of the first entertainment websites to actually earn a profit, thanks to interstitial advertising (i.e., “commercials” that play between rounds). You’d better believe that when profits are possible, Hollywood sits up and takes notice.

Ask your Mom if she’s heard of You Don’t Know Jack and she’ll probably shrug. Ask her about The Match Game or Family Feud — well, Mom knows about those. Instant brand-name recognition. Enter Sony Online Entertainment, which has fast become the leader in transforming America’s mainstay gameshows into “cool” websites. Head to The Station and you’ll find plenty of your old favorites, including Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune and even The Dating Game.

Veteran TV gameshow writer and producer, Joseph Neustein, recently served as head writer for Jeopardy! Online — where websurfers compete against each other for points and prizes. He finds the online gameshow environment exciting because “they are more game than show. On TV, the show comes first — and the player is just part of the mix.”

Sony plans to continue rolling out online versions of their gameshow licenses, as does English-based Pearson Television, which owns an incredible 70% of gameshow formats worldwide. Meanwhile, with the success of Jack, other new media entertainment companies are trying to establish new gameshow brand names online. One is Boxerjam, which, in an interesting example of media pedigree, is headed by Merv Griffin’s ex-wife, Jeopardy! co-creator Julan Griffin.

WGA member Bob Silberg, whose credits include TV comedies and award-winning corporate training films, now writes for Out of Order, one of the webshows found on Boxerjam’s site. Silberg describes Out of Order as “a little like Password meets Jeopardy! meets the old newspaper puzzle game Jumbler.” Though Silberg says the actual writing differs little from that found in traditional TV gameshows, he agrees with Neustein that the interactivity with the audience, who are now actually contestants, changes everything.

“Yes, people can ‘play along’ with the game shows they watch on TV,” notes Silberg, “but it’s different when you actually have to enter your answer on a keyboard before the clock runs out. It’s a much more intense experience.” Glueckman concurs, “You’re really writing for your audience, creating a scenario for your players to directly experience themselves.”

Does all this interactive game play mean the death knell of traditional TV gameshows? Not according to Silberg. “There’s some fun to be had in being a spectator — just relaxing and watching other people under pressure while you eat guacamole and chips.” Not unlike the sports world, adds Silberg. “People have the opportunity to play baseball themselves, but there are still audiences for professional games.”

But Silberg does concede that changes are a-comin’. “It’s easy to imagine TV/Internet shows that play on two tracks simultaneously, giving their audiences a choice between sitting back and watching contestants play, or playing themselves in real time — maybe not in competition with on-camera contestants, which I think would be kind of clumsy, but rather with everyone else who’s playing online.” Neustein speculates that the near future might hold, for example, “a Super Bowl where the fans get to choose the plays, or at the very least, pick the MVP… The future is real time interactivity combined with TV-quality entertainment.”

Breaking new gameshows has become very difficult on TV, but as You Don’t Know Jack and the Boxerjam webshows indicate, it’s still the Oklahoma land rush online. And given the success that traditional shows are also finding on the Web, it’s not hard to envision people playing Wheel of Fortune a hundred years from now. With the continued advancement in computer graphics, we can even look forward to having a virtual Pat Sajak and virtual Vanna White to complete the experience.

For writers who dream of answering everything in the form of a question, new opportunities abound in the world of online gameshows. After all, what could be more exciting as a writer than making your audience’s palms sweat and hearts pound because now they’re in the game?

Written by tborst

March 10, 1999 at 9:57 pm

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