Determined producer revives forgotten 'Lingo'

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In anybody's lingo, the story of how veteran reality producer Phil Gurin gave an almost forgotten American game show a new lease on life in the U.S. and abroad dramatically demonstrates the fortitude that an indie producer must have to survive in today's global broadcast arena.

Gurin, founder and head of Los Angeles-based the Gurin Co., was casting around four years ago for popular shows in overseas markets that might translate well in the U.S.

"Back in 2002 when I was working on 'The Weakest Link,' an international partner and friend, Marc Jansen, exposed me to a show running in the Netherlands called 'Lingo.' " he recalls. "It was hugely popular there, yet it had been originally created by Ralph Andrews and put on air in the U.S. in 1987. The show ran for just one season."

The format was picked up by leading Dutch producer Harry de Winter, who recast it as a local production and made it a major hit in the Netherlands.

"I flew to Amsterdam and met with Harry and did a deal to sell it in the U.S.," Gurin says. "The problem was that nobody in the U.S. wanted the show. So Harry and I concocted a scheme to produce 20 episodes in the Netherlands and give them to a U.S. broadcaster. This meant finding American contestants for the show in Amsterdam and bringing over an American host. The American broadcaster in return would make us financially whole if the show was successful."

It was a huge financial gamble for Gurin. He doesn't say how much of his own money was on the line but concedes that it was "very substantial."

He continues: "I went to the Game Show Channel and said all you have to do is take care of the prize budget and you get 20 episodes. My agent, John Ferriter at William Morris, who brokered the whole deal, put me in touch with Chuck Woolery, and he came over to Amsterdam, and we shot the 20 episodes. The Game Show Channel began airing them in August 2002, and it instantly became one of their biggest hits." (Woolery still hosts, with former Miss USA Shandi Finnessey co-hosting.)

Despite a brief period when the Game Show Channel stopped airing "Lingo" -- a show in which contestants have to guess a word from letters that are gradually displayed on a bingo-type board -- it remains one of the channel's most popular programs. It even has an online version in which participants can play for cash prizes.

Gurin says that British outfit All3Media, which has international rights to the show, is ramping up its slate of worldwide productions on the format. It airs in France (where it has been running for about 16 years) and also is seen in the U.K., Spain, Greece, Turkey, Norway and Sweden.

"We are hot on the heals of making deals to sell the U.S.-produced episodes around the world," Gurin reveals. "So I really see this as the little game show that could."
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