ABC eyeing Russian game show

Network orders presentation of 'What? Where? When?'

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming … to American reality television.

ABC has ordered a presentation for a U.S. version of “What? Where? When?” the No. 1 Russian game show that next year will mark its 35th anniversary.

Merv Griffin Entertainment is producing the project, tentatively titled “The Six,” after the number of contestants on the show.

“What?” was created by veteran Russian TV host and director Vladimir Voroshilov. It premiered in 1975, the same year Merv Griffin’s “Wheel of Fortune” made its debut as a daytime show.

The two have something else in common: Their centerpiece is a spinning horizontal wheel divided into segments. While on “Wheel” three contestants compete against one another in solving a word puzzle, on “What” a team of six “knowledgeable persons” or “experts” compete against viewers. Each segment on the wheel represents a viewer question. When the spinner lands on a question, the team has 60 seconds to discuss it and formulate an answer.

The team earns a point for each correct response; a wrong answer means a prize for the author of the question and a point for the viewers.

Unlike a typical quiz shows that involve encyclopedic knowledge, the “What” questions involve logical thinking.

“It’s much more accessible knowledge and intelligence than you would think at a first glance that translates to the viewers at home, and they can play along,” Merv Griffin Entertainment’s Roy Bank said. “It’s a show about teamwork and interaction.”

An example of a question used on the original show: “They first appeared in 1908 in Mexico. There were two of them. Over time, they came closer and closer together, like wings of a black raven. Name them.” Answer: Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows.

“What” was brought to Bank by Ukranian-born actor Alex Reznik, who loved the show growing up.

“The second I saw it, I knew it was unique and different and would work on American television,” Bank said.

But acquiring rights wasn’t easy. They are controlled by Voroshilov’s widow, Natalia Stetzenko, and stepson Boris Kruck, who succeeded Voroshilov as the show’s host and director after his death in 2001.

Several U.S. producers flirted with the idea of bringing “What” to the U.S., but none was able to acquire the format because the rights-holders have been protective of the show.

Reznik spent about two years talking to Stetzenko and Kruck until he convinced them to allow him to do a U.S. version. Then, when he found a U.S. partner in Merv Griffin Entertainment, Bank had to get the Russians’ approval as well in video conferences via Skype.

“For the first time ever, after I was pitched something I had to interview for the right to buy it,” said Bank, who is executive producing “Six” with Reznik, Jonathan Barry, Ron Ward and showrunners Dwight Smith and Michael Agbabian, with Brian Veskosky co-executive producing.

Although there will be tweaks to the format — on the original series, the host is present in the studio only as a voice; in the U.S. version, there will be an on-set host — “our goal is to preserve as much of the essence of the original as we can,” Bank said.

In addition to the game show, which continues to be one of the most popular programs in Russia, “What” has spawned an international league of more than 10,000 teams in several countries with Russian-speaking populations including Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., as well as several Eastern European countries including Bulgaria and Moldova.

“What” world championships have been held every year since 2002.

"Six" was packaged by APA and WME.