America's Love Affair with the Game Show ; Hype and Glitter Don't Equal Lasting Success in the Television Game. for the Longest-Running Shows, the Audience Is the Thing

Article excerpt

The answer is: easy rules, everyday contestants, a charismatic host, and just enough twists to keep it fresh.

The question?

"What is the perfect formula for creating a long-running television game show?"

"Jeopardy!" fans have long been familiar with the venerable quiz show's counterintuitive - but catchy - answer-then-question format. Now that the erudite and unflappable Ken Jennings has captured the imagination of a whole new legion of viewers with his unprecedented million-dollar-plus winning streak, the war horse is creating a fresh pop-culture buzz.

In the fickle world of television where genres like westerns come and go and sitcoms are trumped by gross-out reality shows, game shows have managed to find perennial appeal. These shows have always been the cheapest game in town - a host, a set, and some prizes are the components shared by classic programs such as "Wheel of Fortune," "The Price Is Right," and, of course, "Jeopardy!"

"Other than the winners, you're not paying the talent," says Marc Berman, senior television writer at Mediaweek. "What's not to like from the producer's point of view?"

People line up in droves to be on the shows for the same reason audiences stick with the tried and true formats. "Everybody likes things they can relate to, and these shows give just enough of that to feed the dream," Mr. Berman says. "That could be me, I could win that money. And the truth is, it could be you. That's why these shows are so enduring."

But the most vital ingredient of a long-living game show may well be the audience.

So, what is it that keeps those faithful millions, with each new generation learning from their elders how to play, tuning in to 500- plus shows over the decades?

"They're fun, they're not too hard, and we've always watched them with my family," says Damon Burnley, a 30-something personal bodyguard. His family moved to Los Angeles from Nicaragua when he was 4, and he says the shows helped them bond while they learned English. "My sisters and my mom and I all watched them together, all the time," he says.

Now a father, this University of Southern California graduate doesn't miss a day of his favorite shows. …

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