New Wave of Game Shows Hit TV as Reality Looks to the Post-'Idol' Landscape

Illustration by: Zohar Lazar

Summer tests a crop of competition shows, starting with Mike Darnell and Mark Burnett collaboration '500 Questions.'

A version of this story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As Fox abruptly yanked American Idol offstage with an invisible vaudeville hook during its May 11 upfront, the show's expiration date (it's been renewed for a final season) signaled more than just the end of a behemoth. Singing competitions (save anomaly The Voice) officially are done, and unscripted executives are salting the earth.

Many in the industry now suggest the next great reality hope could be a game show, and summer sees a slew of hopefuls, starting May 21 with ABC's 500 Questions. "Generally, when there's a drought of anything in reality for five or six years, people are ready for another version," says Warner Bros. president of unscripted and alternative TV Mike Darnell, who's working on the quiz show with longtime collaborator Mark Burnett.

Just over a year ago, proposing that a game show could be the Big Four's best shot at a reality smash would have gotten you laughed out of a pitch. Broadcast execs turned their backs on the space after Million-Second Quiz. NBC's 10-night 2013 spectacle failed on multiple levels and cost nearly $30 million. Ratings were middling to miserable, falling to a 0.7 rating in the key adults 18-49 demographic in one episode, despite zero broadcast competition. Hosted by Ryan Seacrest and broadcast live from a Manhattan rooftop, it also debunked a once popular sentiment among reality producers — that tie-in phone and tablet apps would draw viewers to real-time telecasts. (That theory was again refuted by ABC's Rising Star, the signing competition that failed spectacularly during summer 2014.)

But buyers again are feeling warm and fuzzy — not least about 500 Questions, from Warner Bros. TV and Burnett's United Artists Media Group. The hook? Unlike nearly all such shows, it swaps everyday contestants for ones with above-average IQs. "There's no quiz show that's comparable to watching the Olympics," says Darnell, who partly was inspired by the 2004 frenzy that surrounded Ken Jennings' 74-win streak on Jeopardy!

The last game show to crack the zeitgeist was Fox's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? in 2007. First-year Fox Television Group chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman are hoping to repeat history when they revive it May 26. Fox is pushing hard in the game space after the risky Utopia sucked the air out of four hours of its 2014 premiere week (and cost $50 million). Bullseye (a Wipeout-meets-Fear Factor challenge) debuts May 27, and Israeli quiz format Boom! debuts June 25.

Elsewhere, NBC is developing a game show with LeBron James, and CBS recently ordered six episodes of philanthropy-minded The Briefcase. Game shows can be made more cheaply than other reality shows as long as host fees are low.

Producers are trying to stay optimistic that any new offering might move the dial, though they bemoan the lack of scheduling space on the broadcast networks. CBS serves largely as a custodian of stable franchises — Survivor, The Amazing Race, Big Brother — while ABC, with a steady alternative catalog (The Bachelor, Dancing With the Stars) and full scripted lineup, has run out of real estate.

NBC has the luxury of reality champ The Voice and has much alternative interest in the event arena. (See the star-studded May 21 live comedy spectacle Red Nose Day.) Fox is an outlier, set to have nearly 40 empty hours to fill for 2016-17 once Idol signs off.

"Not all networks want games right now; it's just a big push toward event TV," says Paradigm domestic alternative television topper Sean Zeid. Adds Darnell: "500 Questions is a gauge. If it works, we're going to see a lot of games."