At FremantleMedia, The Game Is Always Afoot

This past summer, ABC scored big with its "Sunday Fun and Games" block comprising Celebrity Family Feud with Steve Harvey, The 100,000 Pyramid with Michael Strahan and Match Game with Alec Baldwin.Among those enjoying the resurgence in game shows is FremantleMedia's Jennifer Mullin, a producer of many of the most popular titles in the genre. She talks about the staying power of games in both daytime and primetime and the growing opportunities for them.

Games shows have been a staple of electronic entertainment since the early days of radio and the genre has experienced many ups and downs over the decades. These days, it’s clearly up.

This past summer, ABC scored big with its “Sunday Fun and Games” block comprising Celebrity Family Feud with Steve Harvey, The $100,000 Pyramid with Michael Strahan and Match Game with Alec Baldwin. ABC also successfully aired To Tell the Truth with Anthony Anderson on Tuesday nights.

Among those enjoying the resurgence is Jennifer Mullin. As Co-CEO of FremantleMedia North America, she oversees its vast archive of game shows, which includes the Mark Goodson collection, and produces or licenses many of the games show now on the air.

In addition to three of the ABC summer shows (all but Pyramid), Mullin and FremantleMedia are behind CBS’s The Price Is Right and Let’s Make Deal and broadcast syndication’s Family Feud and Celebrity Name Game.

And drawing on its vast library, FremantleMedia last year launched Buzzr, a classic game show diginet.

It’s not all fun and games at FremantleMedia. It’s also the producer of America’s Got Talent, which just wrapped up its 11th season on NBC and is set to come back for a 12th.


Mullin comes from the programming side of the business. Prior to joining FremantleMedia in 2005, she was an executive producer at Telepictures and Universal. Earlier credits include work on Fox’s Married By America, Rendez-View, RealTV and A Current Affair.

In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Mullin mulls the staying power of games shows and promises more from the archive and creators at FremantleMedia.

An edited transcript:

To what do you attribute the staying power of game shows?

On some of these older titles, there is a sense of nostalgia. In others, there is an incredible amount of play-along. Look, the best game shows are simple. They are simple at their core. They are easy to understand. I always call it low-impact viewing. They are entertaining, they are light, they are family viewing. There’s a lot of different reasons, but, at the end of the day, I just think they make you feel good. There is nothing controversial about a game show.

What do you think accounts for Fremantle’s recent success?

It comes down to great formats, which we have a lot of, and phenomenal talents, which we have been fortunate enough to find and which not everybody would think of as traditional game show talent.  We have cast different types of people, but the common thread is that most of them have a bit of a comedy spine.

I guess the best example of that would be Steve Harvey. Family Feud really took off when he took over.

Yeah, but Drew Carey [The Price is Right] came from a comedy background, too. Wayne Brady [Let’s Make a Deal] has a strong comedy background. Anthony Anderson [To Tell the Truth] has a strong comedy background. And Alec [Baldwin, Match Game] — you don’t immediately think of him as having a strong comedy background, but, boy, he is as witty and smart and funny as they come.

So why don’t we have more game shows in broadcast daytime? It’s all talk and judges.

Celebrity Name Game is the last one that came out. That’s a partnership with Debmar-Mercury. It’s with Craig Ferguson, produced by the Courteney Cox and David Arquette company and it’s based on a board game that we adapted into a television show. It’s very funny; it’s very light. The Tribune and Sinclair stations were the primary stations that picked it up and that was three years ago.

But that’s prime access, isn’t it?

A lot of these stations are running it in access, but some of them are running it in traditional daytime parts. It’s all over the place.

Do you think we will see more games in broadcast syndication for daytime?

Yes, I do.

What about primetime? Is there any talk about trying out one of the summer shows during the regular TV season?

You are talking to a content provider. It depends on network needs. We have a very big fan of the genre in Rob Mills at ABC, and I haven’t heard that level of enthusiasm necessarily for the regular season from the other broadcasters. I mean, we do have some games in play at some of the other networks. They are in various stages of development.

I do think that ABC’s success for this summer is probably making other broadcasters take a look at it and ask, “Hey is there room?” Look, NBC has Hollywood Game Night. That’s  a really fun game with celebrities that has been living in primetime in the regular season for NBC for four years. 

We ran some primetime specials on CBS in late May that did very well. Fox brought back Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? last summer [2015], although it wasn’t as big as it was the first time. 

So I think game is always there. It’s not like it’s gone away completely and just made a resurgence this summer. 

Let’s talk a little bit about Buzzr, your multicast channel. I don’t think anybody would start a classic TV or movie network on cable today, but the format seems to work in broadcasting, on subchannels. Why is that?

What I would say, I guess, is, because the networks are filled with archive or library shows and there is nothing original, the expectation for ratings is a little bit lower than when you are producing original content. 

For us, what it was was a way to take what we consider a very valuable asset, our library, and ask what else can we do to monetize it.

You are right. You would never be able to do this on traditional cable and be able to sustain it, but I think the revenue, the financial threshold, is a little bit lower by doing it in this space. It’s a great business to be in.

Buzzr is all your programming?

One hundred percent. So we didn’t go out and license it and we don’t have to acquire anything. We are just taking what’s sitting on shelves and bringing it back.

What is your distribution goal? Can you eventually reach 90% penetration?

I don’t think anybody is at 90% if you look at the current numbers right now for cable. I think the biggest distributions are in the 70s. We are in 33 million homes right now and I would love to see that double at some point or maybe get to 50 million or 55 million.

What is your deal with your affiliates? I know that different networks have different approaches.

Our primary station group is Fox and so they were the ones that helped us launch. We have an arrangement with them on a rev share. We have an agency that sells all the ads.

Well, that’s a little bit different than many, which split the inventory. They make the stations sell their own inventory.

Yeah, I know. We held onto the inventory and we are doing the selling on our end.

Some of the multicasting networks have cracked the general advertising market. What do you have to do to get to that level?

We have to have more distribution. When we get to a certain point where we actually get rated, then we can get a crack at that.

But it’s more than just a question of distribution. Are you going to get the ratings to go with it?

Yes, I hope so. GSN [the Game Show Network] gets the ratings and a lot of that network is the same content.

I know that. They have many of the same shows as Buzzr. Do you license and any shows exclusively to them or do you retain any exclusively for Buzzr?

No, we don’t. You will see the same titles, but you won’t see the same episodes.

I was looking at Buzzr and it’s a lot of the same classic series like The Match Game. How come you don’t dip deeper into that great archive of yours?

It’s a conversation that we have a lot. When you are building a brand, which is what we are doing with Buzzr, there is something to be said for consistency and for the viewing audience knowing what they are getting and when they are going to get it.

We have shows that have [stood] the test of time and so we are really building the brand around those tent pole shows. Certainly, in success, you can branch out and then play around with some of the more obscure titles that don’t have as many episodes. But from a ‘building the brand’ perspective, I think it’s important to be consistent and give the viewers what they know and what they are familiar with and what we think they like.

There is another platform emerging, OTT.  Do you think that there is an opportunity for you and your library there?

Possibly. We have talked about that as well, but I think we want to crack this one first.

Let’s get back to first-run programming Are you developing anything new right now?

We are. We have quite a few original games in development, some really good ones that we will be taking out to the networks in the coming months.

We are always developing games because, again, of the cyclical nature of the genre. Games aren’t going to be going anywhere. We always want a pipeline full of solid entertaining games.

So when you are saying take it out to the networks, do you also mean cable and broadcast syndication?

All of them, yep.

Also within your bailiwick is America’s Got Talent that just wrapped up with that marvelous young singer, 12-year-old Grace VanderWaal. So, after American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The Voice, is there any place else for the great American talent show to go? Is that genre in danger of being exhausted?

I don’t think so. There will always be a fascination for finding new talent and seeing how amazing some of these people like that 12-year-old girl are. A new talent is born every day and people are doing amazing things. I really do feel like these shows can go on and I really do feel like there is another one or two out there that can hit it big.

Comments (3)

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matt fess says:

October 5, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Seems the networks have forgotten how to attract families and provide traditional wholesome programming. It still works. Worked for FOX on Friday Nights with Smarter than a 5th Grader, ABC had been good at it. Shows like The Voice, American Idol, Ninja Warrior and America;s Got Talent. Now Game Shows. The nets need to learn that America still is looking for some good wholesome TV to sit down and enjoy. There really is a lot of crap that the produce that is so niche. May be politically correct, but nobody watches. Kudos ABC,

    Wagner Pereira says:

    October 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    You seem to forget the ABC “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” disaster. Did great as limited run. Made it regular and still did good. So they stretched it out to 4+ nights a week, not developing other hits. A year later when it all came tumbling down, ABC had no hits developed to replace it and no show to promote possible replacements. Took 4+ years to recover as they lucked into Lost, Greys, a Desperate Housewives and Bachelor to give them water cooler talk that lead to ratings. Fox essentially did same thing with American Idol. Now they are in constant 4th place and little hope to get out of that position. 5th Grader only worked on low HUT level Friday night with all other Nets doing reruns. Would die against First Run Shark Tank or CBS First Run Programming today.

Patrick Burns says:

October 7, 2016 at 10:34 am

One comment – Buzzr TV – diginets erode big 4 base- hello !!!

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