INTERVIEW: Robert Mills
Cory sits down with the Senior Vice President for Alternative Series, Specials & Late-Night Programming at ABC.
The past year has re-energized the game show industry. The summer’s triple-threat of Celebrity Family Feud, The $100,000 Pyramid and Match Game on Sundays in primetime, during an Olympic year, was not just simultaneously daring and impressive, but paid off in huge ratings for ABC. The man behind the block of Sunday Fun and Games was Robert Mills, the Senior VP for alternative programming. (Alternative, in this case, generally meaning unscripted primetime programming.) I sat down with Robert for a conversation about the past year in shows under his purview, future projects, and more.
Thank you for taking the time—
Oh my gosh, my pleasure. Thank you for asking.
Oh no, I mean, this is the biggest interview we’ll get all year.
Oh, please! You have a lot of fans. We talk about you guys a lot out here, so we love you. Thank you for all the good work.
I just wanted to talk to you a bit about, you know—all of this. So, we started the year, game show wise, very optimistic. We heard a lot of good things coming down the line about Match Game and Pyramid and all these shows coming out. We were very excited that they were coming out. Um, why did you do that to us?
Well, honestly, part of it was by accident. The first thing I had done when I took over in charge of [ABC’s Alternative Programming Department], when I was able to make some decisions, was the idea to do Celebrity Family Feud, which was the year before. That was really just borne out of watching the syndicated version and how great Steve [Harvey] was on that. That just seemed like a no-brainer for primetime. You know, you can make a special by having the celebrities on there, so it feels different from syndication.
The Pyramid thing also sort of happened by accident. Michael Strahan is somebody we do a lot of business with at the Walt Disney Company, and he really wanted to do something in primetime. Sony happened to come to us and, after Feud, they said, “Oh, we have Pyramid!” I said that Michael Strahan’s looking for something to do and it actually didn’t strike me at the time how perfect that would be, because he really has a lot of the attributes that Dick Clark had. Michael immediately was so excited.
Once that happened, we had two-thirds of a three-hour primetime game show block. The only natural fit there for 10 o’clock was Match Game, where it feels more 10 o’clock—you can be a bit racier. The hardest part of that was finding a host. Obviously, Steve Harvey was already established on Feud. Michael was an easier one, on Pyramid. For Match Game, it was much, much harder. Alec Baldwin’s not a name you think of immediately to host a game show, just because that’s not what he does. Getting him to sign on was tough, but once we did that, we knew we had a dynamite three-hour block.
I think the ratings and the current trends that TV is taking this upcoming winter, it’s evident that the success of Sunday Fun and Games has brought a resurgence.
I’ve noted that this kind of resurgence tends to, in history past, come about when scripted TV starts to get stagnant. But, I mean, the current atmosphere of television in the past year has been phenomenal in scripted. What happened in our culture, in your eyes, that buck this trend of, “People are getting bored with the same ol’ hackneyed comedy and drama, so let’s turn to a game show?”
I think there’s a couple things. When you talk about scripted being great, you’re absolutely right, it’s better than it’s ever been, and I think a lot of that is on the various cable and streaming platforms, and they’re not for everybody—they’re a little bit more challenging—so I think, for broadcast, it was nice to have something that really has no bigger desire than just to entertain you, for something that everyone can watch together—really puts the “broad” in broadcasting. I think people are looking for that type of stuff, so I think that helps.
Another thing too: just, the mood of the country, as well. From the beginning of time, television or not, we all played games to entertain ourselves, to keep our minds off things. This is nothing more than just playing a game for a couple of hours. All very different, all fun, all entertaining, you know, with no bigger statement than to help you have a good time.
Expanding a little further on this idea of having a good time, comparing the other breakout shows that would skew toward our genre, specifically this winter’s Great American Baking Show and the upcoming Big Fan—which, I watched the screener for that, and that is the cutest show I’ve ever seen—we take these two very comforting, comfortable, fun shows, and looking at offerings from other networks. Why are you leaning toward these fun, comfortable shows as opposed to cutthroat shows or multi-million-dollar 40-foot extravaganzas?
Probably, the simplest thing is that this is what I enjoyed growing up watching as a kid, what I enjoy now, and what I sort of gravitate to, and it’s been really nice to see other people say, “yes, we really like this.” That’s the thing: it’s a brand for us. Not just ABC—it’s the Walt Disney Company. They’re smaller shows, so they’re smaller wish fulfillment. But at the end of the day, it is wish fulfillment. No matter whether we’ve entertained you or made your life better, that is really the goal of what we’re trying to put on and what we’re trying to do here with the shows we’re doing. It’s just great that people respond to it. It’s what I always really loved when I watched ABC growing up, and now. That’s why we’re doing this type of programming.
What kind of game shows did you watch growing up?
Oh, really, everything you’d expect. The Price is Right, Tic Tac Dough, Sale of the Century, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! once that came back in ’84, Tattletales, Card Sharks, Press Your Luck. Anything and everything. I loved a good game. I think it’s fascinating, though, when we were growing up, there were no real primetime game shows. I remember when [Who Wants to be a] Millionaire came on, that seemed crazy! I thought, “Can they do that? Can you actually air a game show in primetime?” It seemed so crazy. And then, that ushered in a new era of game.
I really loved the old ones. You really Goodson-Todman, they were really geniuses. Other than Millionaire, and maybe Deal [or No Deal] and to a lesser extent, things like The Chase, it’s harder for new formats to work and in part because there was something about those two guys, they were such geniuses. It wasn’t just them—Merv Griffin also, incredibly smart with his games. Some of the stuff Chuck Barris did as well. I don’t know why, but it feels like those formats are so good and time-tested, that’s why I’ve enjoyed revisiting them.
It’s interesting you mention that, because I think the two shows that ABC has touted as being new—500 Questions and upcoming Big Fan—those are new and at least in 500 Questions’ stead, they’ve gotten a second season, maybe a third… maybe a third?
Um, probably not on 500 Questions. It’s funny—the one show that I binge watch is Jeopardy!, believe it or not. Not Game of Thrones or anything like that. I love to come home and watch five episodes of Jeopardy! in a row. I love a question-and-answer game show. I hoped we were going to get there with 500 Questions. We didn’t quite hit the mark. I was happy we did, but I don’t think we’ll get to season 3. In theory, it should’ve worked, and it got close, but it was just missing one or two pistons that just weren’t firing. We’ll get there on the next one.
Assuming someone at the head of the board at ABC has a giant stroke and gives you a couple billion dollars to just revive whatever game show you would ever want to, what’s that fantasy game show you want to bring back to TV that you haven’t already?
Gosh, that is a very good question and also a really tough one. If you asked me this question a year ago, I would’ve said Match Game. So let’s think… is there anything else? I don’t know. You know what I’d like to see again? I always joke about Press Your Luck when I do interviews. I love that show. I don’t know necessarily that would work as a primetime or if it would necessarily fill an hour, but I love that show. I loved Tattletales. That would be a very interesting one this time. There also was a game show—it was so politically incorrect and sexist…
3’s a Crowd?
[laughter] Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly right. I mean, it’d be just fascinating to see how that would work. Then again, look—we elected Trump. So maybe there’s more people who would be willing to play 3’s a Crowd than I know. That one would be fascinating to see if that could work in this day and age.
Obviously, ABC is owning game shows in prime time. What about daytime?
Y’know, I don’t oversee Daytime, but I would certainly like to see more game in daytime. I certainly think Michael Strahan would love to do a daytime version of Pyramid. My biggest worry is that, would there be over-saturation on that one? That’s my worry on all the games we do, although it doesn’t seem to hurt Feud. I wonder, should Daytime be trying some new stuff, with them incubating it and then if really worked, it could go primetime? I’m not sure. You’ve got the Fremantle/CBS staples with Let’s Make a Deal and The Price is Right, but look—I’d love to see us try some new game at ABC.
It’s funny—we had found out that the Walt Disney Company actually owns Win, Lose or Draw. That’d be one that’d be very interesting to see if there’s a way to make that work.
Oh yeah! Disney Channel, I think, just revived it.
They did, yeah. Honestly, it would be more fun to see it a little bit risqué, somewhat like Match Game. I think there’s a lot of stuff you could do there that could be really fun.
I mean, the most popular board game at Target right now is Cards Against Humanity, Match Game is doing well, Gong Show’s coming back… if Gong Show maintains its storied past, then someone’s going to be fellating a popsicle on ABC very soon.
Yes! Very good. You know your Gong Show history! [laughter]
Let’s talk about other mediums. I think one of the interesting things about game shows is, traditionally—going back only so far—when you stick a game show on the Internet, in some kind of first-run, with the exception of Sports Jeopardy!, it doesn’t work. Do you see game shows moving into a streaming platform of any kind, whether it’s ABCD or a Netflix thing?
I don’t know—you never say never, but I think it’s very difficult. A lot of times, these things are meant to be enjoyed en masse. I do understand the world is changing and there’s we’re getting more and more segmented, but there’s something about everyone coming together. I’ll never forget: it felt like the entire country was sitting, holding hands while John Carpenter was trying to figure out which president appeared on Laugh-In for a million dollars.
I do think these things are better on TV, where you feel like you have a mass audience. I’ll tell you one thing that could work on the Internet, and I felt really bad; I think Sony and the producers really, really wanted to—especially for the first season of Pyramid—play it straight. We did something: Rosie [O’Donnell] and Kathy Najimy played together, and it was basically Porno Pyramid. It was them trying to guess things like, “What a Broke Prostitute Might Say” and it was so funny. Rosie said, “Oh my God, I’ll host the online version, this is viral gold.” She completely got it. That’s one that would absolutely work, where you be outside the network censors. That’s something that really could work online, where it’s something you normally couldn’t do on TV.
Now I’m going to ask some questions that are specifically designed to make most of our commenters shut the fuck up for 20 seconds. Do you think there would have been an increase in ratings if it was the Million Dollar Pyramid?
No. 100% not. The game is really the thing. Nobody really cares about the prize. You’re really in a no-man’s-land if you do Million Dollar Pyramid. If you make it too easy, then people are winning a million dollars all the time, and that’s incredibly unsatisfying because there’s nothing special about that. If it’s too hard, and no one wins the million dollars, then you have something that people are losing all the time. Honestly, the beauty of Pyramid is it’s just a fantastic game. It’s a fun, simple party game. You know, when you find out with these people, the money they’re playing for, whether it’s $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000, that’s a lot of money for them. That’s a lot of money for anybody. Believe me—they’re happy to do that, but really, what you find with these contestants, they’re really just happy to be there. You see it on Pyramid, you see it on Match Game, where these people just love the fact that they’re basically playing a parlor game with a bunch of celebrities. They love it. The prize is not the thing.
Now, for a game like Millionaire, certainly, in its time, and even now: I get it. That’s a game where the million dollars makes sense. That’s a different type of game. For these games, which are really, really just about entertaining, that’s where it is is. The prize is not the thing. The game is the thing.
Do you think Family Feud is in its current incarnation too risqué for 8:00 PM?
Boy, you know, it’s funny: that’s a really good question, and it’s one—believe me, we talk about it all the time. Certainly, the natural flow would seem to be Pyramid at 8, Family Feud at 9, Match Game at 10, because Pyramid is about the safest one of all of them, and then it gets a little more risqué.
Part of the appeal of Family Feud are these questions, and Steve [Harvey] with these questions, but we do get comments from viewers, and we do think about it ourselves. 95% of the questions are about some variation about what you do when you’re having sex. Look, part of that may be that we need to look and be more clever. We certainly tried to do that.
Match Game came together so quickly, you know, that we didn’t really take as much time as we’d like writing the questions. I think they got a little bit better in season 2. I think we’ll look at that with Celeb Feud too and see if we can be a little bit more careful. I also think, too, a move to 9:00 is not out of the question.
Is Match Game just a front for your commie hippie liberal agenda?
Yes. You figured it out. Thank you, Cory. You pulled the curtain back!
It’s so funny how everybody just assumed that. If you watch the show, there were Clinton questions as well. Donald Trump is one of those people—by the way, if Bill Clinton was in the White House, there would’ve been 50 questions about Bill Clinton! You saw that during Saturday Night Live all throughout those years. The guy loved McDonalds, he was an adulterer… great president, but there were plenty of things that we poked fun of with President Clinton and Trump, he’s very easy to make fun of. I think even he knows that.
Even if he doesn’t want to admit it.
Even if he doesn’t want to admit it, he gets it. Everybody just assumed that we were subliminally getting these left-wing messages out to the people of America.
I am very impressed in the fact that the new shows from ABC—Match Game and Pyramid—decided to tape in New York, which is rare. The only game shows that really tape on the East Coast… technically, Family Feud in Atlanta, and Millionaire—no! Millionaire’s in Las Vegas now. Why New York?
I wish I could say it’s an old-school feeling. You think about the game shows of the 60s were taped back there, you think that’s where Johnny Carson started. Believe me: as a student of TV, I love all that. The simple answer was: That’s where Michael [Strahan] and Alec [Baldwin] were located and that’s how we had to do it, to make it easier for them. It’s funny: ABC owns the building where we tape Pyramid and Match Game, and The View used to tape there. They had a few discussions about having to potentially shut the building down and then these game shows have come in and saved the building. That was an exciting footnote for me.
What shows do you have your eye on that are not in America? Do you watch foreign game shows? Obviously, something caught your eye to get The Great British Bake-Off in America. Are you keeping an eye out?
It was hard to ignore Bake-Off, because you were reading that this thing was bigger than the Olympics, bigger than Idol ever was. There are a few I look at. I haven’t heard of anything really breaking out recently, but obviously we’re always on the lookout for stuff like that. It’s interesting, because now, we really have this stable of games, so now it’s finding what games are different that sort of compliment them. Is it something like The Mole that’s a little more cerebral? What are things that are different?
The Gong Show, one of the things that’s great about that, is it’s more variety than it is a straight game, so that’s exciting to be doing that one.
Is The Gong Show going to be played for laughs or shock value, or is it going to turn into ABC’s America’s Got Talent?
No, it’ll be much more for laughs. We’re doing some really exciting things with that one. I wouldn’t say shock value, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it airs at 10:00 PM either. You want to entertain more than anything else, you know. Shocking just for shockings’ sake doesn’t work, but certainly 10:00 with allow you to broaden the type of acts you have. Look, what AGT does, it does very well, so we don’t want to do something that’s derivative of that. You want the [acts] you wouldn’t necessarily see on AGT.
Is Chuck Barris involved at all?
Chuck is not involved, no, but I know he’s very excited about the reboot, so we’re going to try to do right by him.
What’s the 5-year plan for Alternative at ABC?
Oh boy. It’s interesting: if you look at our alternative stuff, we have a lot of things that don’t really age, necessarily. Things like Shark Tank, The Bachelor, Dancing with the Stars, they’re still very strong. I think the fact that we now have this Fun and Games brand, I think it’s about keeping them really strong, not overexposing them so they stay special. Just adding to that. If you look at ABC, we have one of the stronger libraries of any other broadcast network. I think it’s just keeping this stuff fresh, and audiences engaged, and then looking for new things that can compliment that. If we can do that for 5 years, I would be absolutely thrilled.
What do you want to tell the readers of BuzzerBlog, from your heart?
Really, first of all, thank you for the support and thank you for confirming my instinct that there’s a lot of us out there that really love games, we love to play games, we love to challenge ourselves, we love to laugh, we love to cry, as we saw last week on Jeopardy!. Thank you and keep watching and keep supporting games.
I definitely know they will. Everyone’s really excited for upcoming everything—I mean, we get bombarded with “ARE THEY CASTING YET” so, you know.
You know, you guys are fantastic. You’ve really become the go-to place for games. Thank you for all the support through the years.