Q&A With GSN President David Goldhill
David Goldhill first joined GSN in August 2007, replacing Rich Cronin. Over the past few years GSN has seen a good deal of change, especially in the development area. 2010 seems to be the most aggressive, programming wise, the network has seen in some time; they are currently airing Baggage and The Newlywed Game, another season of Catch 21 is on the way, Late Night Liars joins the lineup in June, and more are in development. I recently got the chance to talk to David about difficulties the network has seen with some recent shows, the state of the network currently, and what will be seen in the future. For reference my dialog is bolded and Mr. Goldhill’s has his initials before it, as well as being non-bolded.
There are a lot of shows in development. There’s Late Night Liars, Baggage, it looks like Catch 21 is coming back…Newlywed Game. Is this your biggest development slate in a while?
DG: We have been, each year, increasing the amount of original programming we do, and that’s a continuing commitment of the network and its owners. We’ve also tried to be more consistent in the approach we take to developing shows. GSN has not had a long history of bringing shows back, or certainly several shows at once back, and we’re trying to build long-term franchises (with the shows you’ve mentioned).
Is this your second or third year at the network? I can’t remember.
DG: Neither can I.
DG: I’m in my third year at the network.
Does it take a few years to get up to this level of development, because the first year or so there were a few shows, but not nearly what we are seeing now.
DG: I think, first of all, yes, whenever you’re expanding the amount of original programming; it does take a while to get to the level of development we’re at now. You need to have a choice when you green light shows. In the first year or so, we had an almost empty development cupboard. So as we tried to expand the amount of originals on air, we’ve probably green-lit shows we were less confident, less comfortable in, than we would hope to be now.
Also, we’ve made significant changes to the programming team over the last year and a half, and it takes a while for any team to get up to speed. And a third element is we now put more of an emphasis on homegrown ideas, as opposed to what was more traditionally done here, which was to develop primarily out of pitches from others. So all of those things, I think you’re right, take a while to get this large slate of development you need to identify the smaller number of shows you’re comfortable taking to the next step.
What type of shows are you looking for? Is there a certain area you’re looking to fill?
DG: I think the most important principle that guides our development is staying true to our brand of competitive entertainment…grounded in the long history of game shows. At the same time, we look for shows to broaden our audience while still being attractive to the very loyal core audience that we are very lucky to have a relationship with.
What that means is shows that are true to the game format…competitive format, but with more contemporary more relevant elements, often produced outside of a studio. They may involve more explicit play-along elements…so people have the option to participate through our currency program on television or online. But we still insist on a good traditional entertainment experience, which at the end of the day is what television is about.
Speaking of the online thing, especially the last few months, it’s clear you’ve been doing a big online push, with the Oodles, some shows going online, Bingo Blitz, and a lot of other things that take the online community and puts them in the network. Is there more online to TV synergy coming on?
DG: In some ways I think there’s less explicit synergy than there was before I got here, when focusing on ideas that were specifically cross platform was very important. What we are doing right now is trying to build a great television lineup and a great television experience for our TV audience..as well as a great online experience for our online audience. Those audiences are not exactly the same.
And, more importantly, even when those are the same individuals, they differ in why they go to the various platforms. So we have a very robust stand-alone online business with Oodles, GSN.com and WorldWinner, as well as our significant social presence through Dumbville and Mesmo games.
But it’s not about trying to create synergy as much as trying to take advantage of our experience in developing, promoting and creating scale in competitive entertainment, sometimes with common intellectual property, but sometimes with different properties. We recognize that a great entertainment experience on television does not automatically translate to a great online experience, and vice versa.
It seems like the non-studio shows have been disappearing more quickly than the studio-based shows. Has this changed the programming outlook? We’ve heard less about the non-studio shows recently.
DG: I don’t think so. I think the difference is more between a weekly and a daily “strip” show. It’s much easier for this network to launch successful original daily shows such as Baggage, Catch 21, or The Newlywed Game…than to launch a successful weekly. It just so happens that a weekly is more likely to be shot outside a studio, as the economics of a strip make it very difficult to produce anywhere other than a studio. .
Bringing audiences to a weekly is a more difficult challenge, but we’re in a business where a success rate equal to a mediocre baseball player’s batting average means you’re doing well.
Is it something you’re always looking for…the weekly shows? You’ve had Big Saturday Night and that didn’t work out, and the three other weekly shows and none of those have really worked out. Is the weekly something you’re still looking for or does there come a point where you say, “It’s clearly not working out, let’s look somewhere else for now.”
DG: Well your measure of working out and our measure of working out may be different.
They probably are.
DG: There’s no question that the ratings on the strip shows are higher for us than the ratings on many of our weeklies. We’d always prefer higher ratings to lower ratings, but understand that when we do a weekly show, it’s also an important priority to attract new audiences to GSN.
Keep in mind that all television networks face the difficulties of fragmenting audiences, competing platforms, and time-shifting Our network is no different from others when trying to address those issues.
We recognize we have a large and often passionate audience about our core genre, and we’re committed to serving them. But at the same time, as with any network, we must bring new people to it…to come for something like a Carnie Wilson: Unstapled, or a Big Saturday Night, or an Instant Recall, and stay to watch our other shows. In that sense, the weeklies have actually performed better for us than you’d think because though the ratings may not be as high as some other shows, they have introduced GSN to people who otherwise didn’t watch us and that’s a crucial goal for our long-term health.
At the end of the day, GSN will be about games and game shows, but if we can do things to introduce just how fun that genre is to a broader audience, then our long term survivability and ability to thrive in this environment will be assured.
We love the weeklies because they offer a lot of creative license. You mentioned Late Night Liars, which is a show that’s very unusual for GSN that we’re very excited about. It’s different, it’s fun, it’s comedic.
To go back to Late Night Liars, this one is getting a lot of attention so far. I’m looking forward to it. It’s very different than anyone the network’s done in a very long time. How did this all come together?
DG: Well, our team led by Kelly Goode and David Schiff are under explicit direction to take chances and to bring in — and create internally — ideas that are different and fun and…contemporary is a word I’ve probably used too often in this discussion…but contemporary and relevant and a little broader than the traditional game while still relying on game elements.
One of the things that’s most exciting to me about the future of the network is that the projects under development now represent a very broad range of potential programming around that core genre, Late Night Liars being one example. You know, we’ve been talking to the Henson folks for a while about doing a project with them. They are extraordinarily talented people. Even seeing a run-through: you forget these are puppets and have to remind yourself. The personalities of the puppeteers are so distinctive and powerful and funny. Together, we re-conceptualized this as a fundamentally comedic take on those sort of ”Match Game” relationships, with a celebrity puppet panel that sometimes feels more genuine than today’s panels of often overexposed celebrities
I wanted to ask about poker really quickly. There were a few issues this past season (with High Stakes Poker) that were well documented. There’s the Doubles Poker special coming on, but it seems like poker has been taking a little less of a focus on the network than when you came in. Is there still a long-term commitment to poker on the network or is it more of a “We’ll play it by ear and see how it goes,” type of thing?
DG: I think we’ve made a real commitment to poker. We’ve given it a full night on the network. High Stakes Poker, our original show, has had a terrific season from a ratings and demographic delivery point of view–up in every key demographic we measure. We’re very excited about how well poker has done on the network.
However, we recognize that the poker audience is not exactly the same as the GSN audience for our game show programming. I think whereas a previous approach here would have been, “How do we get the GSN audience to more resemble the poker audience?,” our current approach is, rather than change the entire network to fit the profile of the poker audience, we’ve tried to make the rest of the network better at what it does for the audience that loves it, and keep poker somewhat separate. We’re thrilled with how well poker does on the network, and we think High Stakes Poker is a great show and we’re proud to produce it.
Hasbro Studios is gearing up. It’s not a direct competitor to GSN. They are very different. But…I don’t know how it happened but basically every old GSN executive is working for them, especially in the game show department. Again, I know they aren’t a direct competitor at all, but has this caused a little bit more of a concern at all to get some new, fresh ideas out there?
DG: I don’t think we’re particularly focused on what Hasbro is doing. We’ve got a very good partnership with them. They are a terrific company. I can’t tell you I know much detail about their staff, but I think to say that every former GSN executive is working there is a bit of an exaggeration. But, we have a lot of friends there and we wish them well. I must tell you we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about competition in the game show space. Frankly we’d love to see more game shows made. We think it’s a foundation of television and we’re focused on making GSN as great at game programming as possible.
Going back to the reality thing really quickly. Fox Reality died away recently. GSN’s tried some reality in the past, and did so recently. And it hasn’t really worked out; it hasn’t been one of the higher rated things. It seems to just go away and never sticks around for long. Do you think there’s still a place for reality at the network?
DG: I don’t think in terms of labels that are as confined as you may. We were very happy that Unstapled brought in new viewers to the network who have stayed with the network watching Baggage, watching Deal or No Deal, watching The Newlywed Game. That was the point of doing it. I don’t draw a line, in my mind, with a hard distinction between one genre or another. We think about competition and games, that what we see our mission as. That’s what we believe defines our relationship with GSN’s audience.
I don’t think we’re going to use artificial distinctions to exclude programming that we think would be entertaining to game show fans or would introduce new people to GSN. You know, I think it’s a bit of “inside baseball” to put shows in these tightly defined genres. If you’re genuinely trying to be creative about building your programming lineup and making it more relevant and fun for more people, I don’t think you let yourself be defined by these boxes.
GSN is one of the few networks, and a lot of people are very happy about it, that has stuck to its original programming ideas and stuck with games and game shows. What direction do you see the network’s programming going towards, or shifting, in the future?
DG: Well, I don’t know that it is a shift. We recognize what our brand stands for. We have a commitment to doing it very well, in the way we program and the way we complement the classics with new acquisitions and with a significantly greater amount of original programming. With the way we add participatory elements to make it more fun. And hopefully with the way we make GSN up to date and alive, with initiatives like GSN Live, Bingo Blitz and other TV games and our online offerings. We’re committed to making the most of what we think is a cornerstone of television entertainment.
I can’t help but read comments from people who are absolutely passionate game show fans that anything we program that may not resemble game shows made 20, 30, 40 years ago is straying from the true path, but the reality is, in television, to make a genre thrive, you need to make it relevant to today’s audience. The desired balance — which I think we’re getting better at although it requires a lot of experimentation — is to complement the core entertainment elements that game shows have always delivered with those features of television that resonate with today’s audiences.
Like any great brand with a base of truly passionate fans, we have to walk a line between programming that traditionalists enjoy and elements that work for audiences of more contemporary programming. So I think you’ll see in originals that we continue to experiment broadly around the theme of competition and games, but also program and acquire the great game shows that all of us who work here and watch the network love.
The good news for GSN, and I think the good news for even the most traditional of our audience, is that during the last 2 years our ratings and demographics have grown significantly, which means this is a much healthier network, much more capable of thriving as a network dedicated to games.