Your Questions Answered: Reality-Competition/Game Shows and Other Stuff


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Yours truly, lurking behind Bruno Tonioli and Tom Bergeron at a DWTS season finale. 

I’m spending some of this fine Emmy Sunday catching up on old business, working on the book, and FINALLY getting around to some of the questions you’ve been kind enough to ask.

First, from Jack D:

As you’ve worked on game shows (and I am about to launch one on YouTube), what lessons have you learned when doing test shoots and dry runs of a new game show? What are common mistakes? What tricks of the trade have you learned? What’s the minimum number of dry runs do you recommend? Which outsiders (if any) should be brought in to give their input? Have you ever brought in former game show hosts and/or producers for their input?

While I did work on Hollywood Game Night and have had a game show in development for a long while, I have a great deal more experience in reality competition, which I think operates on a number of the same principles. That said, here’s what I know about game shows from my limited experiences on them:

As far as the number of test shoots and dry runs, I’d say the correct number of the former is one, if it’s needed to prove something, the latter being however many you need to get it right.  Don’t shoot anything until the gameplay bugs are worked out, or you’re throwing money down a hole.

Two of the biggest things to consider: Bulletproof elimination metrics and the audience’s ability to play along at home.  In reality-competition, audience participation is replaced by making sure everyone in the audience has someone they can choose to root for as their participatory avatar.  Dancing With the Stars is one of the best examples, as each season starts with someone for every demo on the floor.

When I speak of game show elimination metrics, I mean that if you’ve got a show built to go three rounds with someone being eliminated at the end of each round, you’d better know how to handle or avoid a tie.  If no one’s out of the running until the very end, you’ve still got to avoid that tie.

Jeopardy is one of the all-time great formats because if, heaven forbid, a show end in a tie, they’ve got a contingency for a tiebreaker question in which the first person to buzz in with a correct response takes the game.  While I’m sure it’s happened a few other times, I’ve only seen it once, in the semi-finals of the 2012 Jeopardy Teen Tournament.

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What Jeopardy also handles well is avoiding the feeling that anyone is ever totally out of the game, no matter how far behind they are. The Daily Double on the board can narrow a gap quickly for someone who’s lagging behind, keeping the suspense going, and the final question allows players to wager up to the full amount of their winnings so far.

The audience on Jeopardy, of course, can play along at home, shouting answers over each other for living room domination or even when watching it alone.  I am never louder while viewing a game show than I am watching Jeopardy, except maybe when someone on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader biffs an easy question.

As to outside consultants, I have a number of friends who work full time in the genre, so I’m lucky enough to be able to fly things by them.  You can hire any game show veteran to look over your premise and pitch in their two cents, though I’ve got a great guy you should listen to about that stuff right here on the first season of my podcast REMEMBER, WE’RE NOT HERE: Joey Ortega.

The most common mistake, I think, is overcomplicating game play.  If you can’t tell someone in a few sentences how the game works, rethink your format.  Check this out:

WIN BEN STEIN’S MONEY: Three contestants compete to answer general knowledge questions in order to win a grand prize of $5,000 from the show’s host, Ben Stein. In the latter rounds of each episode, Stein participates as a “common contestant” in order to defend his money from being taken by his competitors.

Simple, right?

Also, for trivia-based game shows, triple-check your writing to make sure that there is only one correct answer to your questions.  If you say “Mia Farrow’s famous film star ex” hoping to get Woody Allen, but your player says Frank Sinatra, they’re still absolutely right.  If you’d said “famous ex-husband” hoping to get Frank Sinatra (since Farrow and Allen never married), but your player said Andre Previn, you’d be stuck again.

Good luck with the game show, Jack!

Another (non-reality) question was posed by Krystol D:

How about taking about the latest films or books that you have read? Tell us about your favorite character in a film and why you liked it.

I’m mostly a biography/autobiography guy, and am currently finishing Kathleen Sharp’s MR AND MRS. HOLLYWOOD, about Lew and Edie Wasserman.  I’d read THE LAST MOGUL, another bio of Wasserman, some years ago, and this is an interesting supplementary take on the guy.

My favorite character of late is Joy from INSIDE OUT, and if I told you why, I’d ruin the movie for you.

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8 thoughts on “Your Questions Answered: Reality-Competition/Game Shows and Other Stuff

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  1. Troy, thanks for answering my questions!

    I think I have the “bulletproof elimination metrics”. The challenger goes first and last episode’s champion goes second. The champion has to correctly guess the mystery in one less question than the challenger or the challenger wins. One less because challengers win ties. That seems fair since the champion has already shown they can play and win the game, they have played the game so are used to it, and have competed in front of a studio audience. The game is a short one. One game. Single elimination.

    As for “the audience ability to play along at home”, the mystery isn’t revealed to the audience when the challenger plays so they can play along with the challenger. However, yes, the mystery is then known by the audience when the champion plays, but the hope is that they can then laugh along. Like how they did on the old “What’s My Line?” when the panel asks an innocent question but the audience laughs because it seems funny as they know what the real answer is. So the first half of the game is play along while the second half is laugh along.

    As for simplicity of concept, I can do that in one sentence. I won’t repeat it here as this is a public blog.

    And thanks for letting me know about that podcast. I thought I listened to all of your first season ones but don’t remember that one. I’ll listen to it. Even if it turns out that I’ve heard it before. No harm in refreshing the old gray cells.

    Again, thanks for answering my questions!

    1. I had listened to that podcast before. Great one to listen to again. The one question I came away from it with was: How do you know when your game show is too derivative of a previous game show? The show I am planning to do was inspired by an old game show but it isn’t a carbon copy. One of the main differences is that the old show had a “celebrity” panel where as mine will have actual contestants. And that change has caused other changes. And the old show itself was inspired by an old parlor game, if that matters.

  2. I’m not sure how to tell when something’s derivative as television has had a good 70 years of content and you’re almost bound to be a little like something else. I always run things by Joey Ortega, who knows plenty about game shows.

    1. As I don’t have an army of lawyers or Joey Ortega as a friend, I guess the only thing is to just run with it and hope not to get sued, right? That sucks but isn’t that the reality of my situation and my only option.

  3. Here’s some more questions for you, Troy. 🙂

    Have you ever shot on a cruiseship? Or at least a big boat? If so, what are the pluses and minuses of doing so?

    My eventual goal is to get my YouTube game show on one of the mega cruiseships that do one-week cruises. Ideally, living on one full-time and getting the cruiseline to fly in and give cabins to YouTubers, bloggers, and podcasters (I’m looking at you, Troy!) so they can be contestants on the show and have passengers be the mystery guests. I plan to pitch it as a last-day-at-sea mid-day side entertainment. It enables 14 passengers to be mystery guests (a great participation activity for those lucky 14), all passengers to be in the studio audience (roughly ninety minutes of entertainment for them), and advertises the cruiseline. HOWEVER…

    I have been warned that filming on a cruiseship is a pain in the behind. It is a pain to get your equipment through TSA and ships rock. Maybe I’m naive but I just don’t see either as a problem. I will have the cruiseline helping me get through TSA and if the ship rocks and that’s caught on camera, so what? I mean I’m not hiding the fact that I’m filming on a cruiseship (just the opposite as I will plug the cruiseship after the mid-roll ad) and if the ship rocks, I plan to smile, laugh, and says, “See, viewers, we’re really out out sea.” But maybe I don’t know some big negative. Do you, Troy?

    As for getting it on a cruiseship, I plan to start producing the game show relatively soon. When I do, I plan to have a video that is linked in the description of all my game videos that is just for cruiselines. In that video, I will express my desire to have my game show on a mega cruiseship. First, I will simply suggest we (cruiseline and I) just give it a try to a week-long cruise and see how it goes. If they like the results, we can try it again on another week-long cruise. Hopefully eventually after doing a few week-long cruises, the cruiseline will want my show on one of their ships every voyage (full-time) and offer me a decent package (money, a decent cabin, possibly flying in and cabining contestants, giving passengers a rebate on their trip if they’re selected to be one of the mystery guests, etc.). However, I’m not expecting any cruiseline to bite until my YouTube show has at least 100,000 subscribers so Step 2 will likely be relocating to Miami once my YouTube revenue allows it since that is where the majority of cruiselines have their HQs. Then I will invite cruiseline executives, cruiseship captains, and other crew members of cruiseships to come on the game show as mystery guests. Yup, buttering them up. *LOL*

  4. Jack:

    Pardon the answer jumble to follow… I’m in a rush, but wanted to be sure I answered your questions.

    I’ve never shot on a cruise ship, no. Clearly, though, it can be done — Rosie’s Family Cruise and other projects have done it.

    It’s asking the cruise line a lot to give you so many cabins before you can prove the show a success and worth the tradeout. The paid entertainers I know that have done 10-day cruises are flown into one port and fly out from the next.

    I also imagine that you’d really have to understand the electrical situation depending on where you’ll be shooting, depending on the demands of your show.

    I don’t think you’ll have trouble when you’re on the boat, but shooting on land at international destinations presents its own issues, especially internationally. I have a friend who had the crew walkies confiscated on arrival in another country — I forget the details.

    1. Jumble answer appreciated. 🙂

      I plan to launch the show and then hopefully interest cruiselines in it. I don’t expect them to contact me until my show becomes a success. How big of a success it will need to be before they contain me, I haven’t a clue. That will probably vary from cruiseline to cruiseline. But when the first one finally does have me on for a one-week cruise, I expect the other cruiselines to contact shortly after that’s announced and invite me to do likewise on their ships. Ideally, more than one will want me on their ships full-time and a bidding war will ignite. 😉

      As for electrical, yup, that can be a problem. By the time they start contacting me, I will know what I need for electrical and will then tell them that.

      I do not plan to film off the ship. All filming of the game show will be done while sailing back to the home port.

      Again, thanks for the reply!

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