EmptyA game show that features 26 models clad in identical alluring outfits and posing on an elaborate stage while clutching briefcases full of cash? It seems obvious that NBC's "Deal or No Deal" -- which hits the 100-episode mark Monday at 8 p.m. -- would be a hit with American audiences. But when executive producer Scott St. John first heard about the series, which Endemol originated in the Netherlands, he wasn't sure it would work.
"If you try to sit someone down and explain it verbally in a paragraph, it's hopeless," St. John says. "It's kind of like trying to explain checkers, which is convoluted to describe but a lot of fun to play. Once I saw the Australian version of the show, it was like, 'Oh yeah, I get it.' That was always the big fear in bringing this show to the U.S.: The game is simple and yet confusing. There was a concern about audience comprehension."
A few format tweaks later, and everyone seems to want in on this "Deal." From the moment that "Deal or No Deal" launched as a weeklong event Dec. 19-23, 2005, it has proven to be a surprisingly dependable player for NBC, single-handedly resuscitating a primetime game show genre that had floundered since "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" burned so brightly, and so briefly, for ABC from 1999-2002. During "Deal's" holiday-season stunt, each of the five installments finished in the Nielsen top 20 in both households and the 18-49 demographic.
Despite its consistent ratings performance, the show was repeatedly dismissed by naysayers, according to NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly.
"I'd hear, 'Oh sure, it works as a stunt at Christmas,'" Reilly recalls. "Then we came back last May and did another solid number, getting 15 shares in households and 13 in 18-49. And I heard, 'Sure, it can work against spring competition, but it'll never sustain.' Then we came out of the gate this past fall and did pretty good numbers with 'Deal' wherever we put it. It's become clear to us that this is not only a destination show but the best utility player we have -- and a meaningful piece of our primetime rebuild."
Indeed, "Deal" has consistently defied the conventional wisdom that says you can't move a show around the schedule like a chessboard piece and expect viewers to find it, much less follow it. "Deal" has gone toe-to-toe this season with ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy," CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Criminal Minds" and Fox's "American Idol" and "Prison Break" -- and lived to tell the tale while hopscotching from Monday to Wednesday to Thursday to Friday to Sunday.
It seems that at any given moment, you can turn on your television, and there will be another fresh "Deal" installment plugging a leak on the NBC slate like a good soldier. A mere 161D2 months after its premiere, it is reaching the 100-episode milestone, a figure that typically takes comedy and drama series nearly five years to achieve. It's another advantage of producing a series that requires comparatively little heavy lifting. Yet, it almost didn't happen for NBC. The show originally was developed at ABC, which, in hindsight, dropped a very big ball in allowing it to be snatched away by the competition.
"You can't really blame ABC for not ultimately ordering it," maintains Craig Plestis, NBC's executive vp alternative programs, development and specials. "You never really know what's going to click, especially with game shows. It's a little bit like panning for gold. Even if you're taking a format with a proven track record all over the world, that doesn't mean it's going to succeed in this market. You can do all kinds of research, but in the end you're left crossing your fingers."
Not that Plestis was going to leave "Deal's" success to chance. He, St. John and Endemol USA -- which already had found success on NBC with "Fear Factor," another overseas import -- worked in tandem to tweak the existing format with cultural nuances that make it more visual, intense and theatrical. Plestis compares it to a variety show in terms of how it ramps up elements of comedy and overall energy.
For those who haven't seen "Deal," it features contestants playing a game of pure chance. They are asked to choose from among 26 sealed, numbered briefcases, each of which holds a cash prize varying from $1 million down to one cent. As they compete, a banker offers to purchase the originally chosen case based on its potential value. As they continue through the rounds, players can accept the banker's offer ("deal") or reject it ("no deal").
The Americanization of the show includes having identically dressed models hold the cases onstage and giving the banker more of a prime position, strategically perched in something of a skybox above the set and cloaked in an air of mystery. Family members and supporters, too, have a far more prominent role in NBC's version of "Deal," as they are seated in a special section just offstage and their reactions are incorpor-ated as part of the suspense.
"We've given a little bit more sex appeal to the show," St. John says. "We felt we needed to up the spectacle factor. Subtlety is not what we're known for in this country." "Deal" has given away more than $16 million to date and continues to average more than 15 million viewers each week. And if you ask St. John why he believes the show resonates so well with audiences, he'll tell you it's based on three things.
"One, ultimately the show is simple," he says. "You choose something, and you either swap it for another cash prize, or you don't. It's easy to follow. Two, it involves great drama. You either win it all, or you lose it all. Everyone can relate to that idea, and it carries an edge of excitement. It's nice to actually see people walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars on a goofy lark. Those 26 models don't hurt, either."
The third factor in "Deal's" success, St. John contends, is its host, Howie Mandel, a longtime comedian who has hit a home run in his first gig hosting a game show. "He really enjoys the game, and it shows," St. John says. "He has been just an amazing part of this whole thing."
"Howie is funny and likable. You want to invite him into your home every week," Plestis adds. "That's really what it's all about."
Notes Reilly: "You have to give Howie tremendous credit. He embodies the definition of what a pro is. I mean, doing this show forced him to reinvent himself in a few ways. He made his bones by being quick on his feet in stand-up comedy clubs. But he just seized the 'Deal or No Deal' opportunity, and he gave it its personality. He reined in his own act and tailored it to the show. Now, it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it. I'm glad we don't have to try."
So is Endemol USA president David Goldberg, who observes that Mandel is adept at "putting people at ease, at interviewing, at bringing both drama and wit. He's elevated the bar in the same way that Bob Saget did for (NBC's) '1 vs. 100' and Jeff Foxworthy for (Fox's) 'Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?'"
But of course, "Deal" is more than its host. It's also about the American fascination with winning bundles of cash -- or, as Goldberg puts it, "greed."
"At its core, this show is about greed and when to take the money and run," Goldberg adds. "It's the ultimate example of having a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush. It's the way we play the stock market and make decisions in life. Are you happy with what you have, or are you going to risk it to be happier? No matter what age you are or country you live in, everybody can relate to that human emotion."
So well is "Deal" performing that Endemol has plans to take the show into primetime syndication as a daily strip sometime in 2008. But Goldberg emphasizes that both his company and NBC are cognizant of overexposure and work together to limit the number of episodes produced annually and aired weekly to guard against the kind of overkill that caused "Millionaire" to flame out on ABC.
"We both believe that the more restraint we exercise, the longer the life span it can have," Goldberg notes. "The show already has been going strong for more than four years in some countries, and we're hoping to emulate that here."
As a result, "Deal" has ushered in the latest revival of the game show in primetime, though in truth, the ongoing success of the syndicated shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy!" speak to the genre's consistent strength -- if you have the right game.
"This show presents a nightly story that the audience can hook into," St. John says. "And no two shows or two people are alike. It's got drama, soap opera, reality, competition and comedy. It's hard to miss with a formula like that."