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Racing for Ratings

12/05/2004 7:00 PM Eastern

The dressing rooms are stocked with the finest hay several feet high. Bushels of oats, grains and cut carrots are at the ready for noshing. And there's no shortage of hands for the regular grooming, training and pettings required for these mammoth entertainers. It's an expensive luxury, but nothing's too good for these 15 thoroughbred horses — the stars of the newest GSN series, American Dream Derby.

Here at the historic Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., surrounded by picturesque palm trees in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, 12 contestants from around the U.S. are vying for a purse of $250,000 and their own stable of thoroughbred horses, like the agile equine in this holding stable. Premiering Jan. 10, American Dream Derby chronicles these players as they experience the racing life, from slogging through the daily chores of life in the stables to living the high life of an owner in a nearby mansion to mastering the art of betting on the ponies in weekly “guts matches.” These matches lead up to the final racing event, scheduled to air live on Feb. 21.

BROADENING THE PROGRAM BASE

GSN has spared no expense for the eight-episode unscripted series (including the purchase of its team of horses), and it's really no surprise. A lot is riding on the success of the series. As the recently rebranded “network for games,” GSN is looking to expand its programming beyond the older-skewing retro game shows. It is adding other types of non-scripted gaming and documentaries that can bring more eyeballs, and broader audiences, to the channel.

“If you look out at the television landscape, there's all sorts of game programming going on,” says Ian Valentine, GSN senior vice president of programming. “Survivor is a game. American Idol is a game. [And] since we're the network for games, it seems appropriate that we should be able to hold any kind of game that's being done on television on our air, whether as an acquisition or as an original production.

American Dream Derby,” Valentine adds, “is a little bit different than a proscenium game show [but] is certainly within the realm of game, of competition, of fun, of entertainment. It's a show that — if you enlarge the definition of games to include these reality games that are appropriate for GSN — fits our new brand very effectively.”

Documentaries about games comprise another area of programming that fits within the channel's revamped identity. The network has had some notable success with its run of two one-hour documentary specials, and this month releases the DVD of its sophomore documentary, Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession, which aired in March. It followed GSN's first documentary hit, Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal, which in March 2003 scored the highest ratings in the channel's history, averaging a 1.5 according to Nielsen Media Research data.

In the coming year, executives plan to take their commitment to docs much further. “Instead of doing a one-shot documentary that's a one-hour special, we're looking at doing documentaries that will be weekly series,” says Rich Cronin, president and CEO of GSN. “We think it's more effective and efficient for us to do documentaries as series where we can examine all kinds of interesting elements about people and competitions.”

In the three years since his arrival, Cronin has worked to bolster the network's profile with interactive game shows and reality shows like the popular Extreme Dodgeball, the buddy competition series Kenny vs. Spenny and the competitive spoofs Who Wants To Be Governor of California? and National Lampoon's Greek Games. The network also found a niche in card games with its blackjack franchise, including the World Black Jack Tour, Celebrity Blackjack and World Series of Blackjack.

Cronin will extend the casino play on Dec. 7 to include poker with the upcoming series Poker Royale, and several bar-room games are in the works. The network currently has a pilot on the table, No Limit Nine Ball, based on the popular poolroom game Nine Ball. Additionally, a micro-pilot is being shot, featuring actress Jasmine Guy, for a potential series around the card game Bid Whist, an African American tradition said to date back to the 19th century. Guy approached the network about doing the series on her favorite card game, which is a cross between Spades and Bridge.

A NETWORK WITH ALL KINDS OF GAMES

“We're looking at all kinds of games from card games, casino games, playground games, bar room games,” Cronin says. “We're trying to find games and physical competitions that have the entertainment value and the interactive play-along that fit with our brand.”

And so far, so good, according to Brad Adgate, research director for the advertising buying firm Horizon Media. He says GSN is seeing significant growth in its audience. Currently available to 56 million subscribers, its average number for homes tuned in during primetime has increased from 186,000 in the third quarter of 2003 to 253,000 homes for the same period this year. “That's pretty healthy growth in terms of household delivery,” says Adgate.

He adds that secondary networks like Home & Garden Television, E! Entertainment or Comedy Central – those that haven't been around for 25 years but are in 80 million homes – have also grown rapidly. “But GSN is in a level beneath that. So I think it's imperative that they have that growth,” he says.

Rick Kushman, television critic for the Sacramento Bee in Sacramento, Calif., believes that GSN's on-air programming choices are crucial at this juncture.

“GSN, it seems, is at something of a critical point, because they are now at that stage where, basically, they need to grow or die,” Kushman says. “The thing that is really going to set them apart will have to be original, and it's hard to imagine anything in reality that's going to feel original. That's not to say that people wouldn't watch it, but it won't give them the kind of buzz they need.”

Unlike a niche channel like Comedy Central, which has continually come up with unusual original comedy series like South Park, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Chappelle's Show and Reno 911, Kushman believes GSN will have a more difficult time latching on to a groundbreaking series “because they're sort of limited by their own niche,” he says.

“It's really hard to do something groundbreaking and attention-getting and have it be a game, unless they start showing the NFL,” Kushman adds.

Cronin obviously thinks GSN has pretty good odds. For the record, he says, “we're not going after NFL Football – we'll let the others fight it out over that.”

Instead, he and Valentine are gunning for Hollywood talent and providing a nurturing environment for diverse creative minds “to make sure GSN is their favorite place to do business,” Cronin says.

This summer Cronin and crew teamed with producer Mark Cronin (no relation), creator of The Surreal Life and Singled Out, for three GSN series: Who Wants to be Governor of California?, National Lampoon's Greek Games and two editions of Extreme Dodgeball.

By the fall, they'd re-teamed with producer Scott Stone for American Dream Derby. Stone had already worked with the network on Mall Master, and his reality credits also include The Mole, Pop Stars, The Joe Schmoe Show and The Man Show.

GSN also re-upped with producer Andrew Golder, creator of Win Ben Stein's Money and Star Search, for the second season of Celebrity Blackjack.

“Increasingly people are [becoming] aware of the network,” says Golder, who is developing another new show for the network. He adds that GSN offers “extremely competitive budget numbers” for shows the network believes in.

“On both a personal and production stand-point, that makes them a very attractive place to want to produce for,” Golder says. “They are not a place where you're going to get grounded in the dirt about every penny. They have shown an ability and the desire to make the show and make the show right.”

 

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April