‘Let’s Ask America’: A new game in town

10/02/2012 10:23 PM

05/16/2014 7:51 PM

The two possible answers are Hard and Fast

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The question: How did female gym members say they prefer their workout sessions?

Raquel Kennedy, described as a “full-time mom” from Kansas City, opts for “fast.” In this first round of the game show “Let’s Ask America,” she is battling against Tyler from Arizona (fast), Tia from Texas (hard) and Ken from Tennessee (fast).

The correct answer is fast, and three of the contestants bank $100 each.

A pretty typical game show moment, right? Yes, but with one genre-busting difference: While the amiable host cracks jokes — women “always seem to finish up really quickly when I’m staring at them on the elliptical” — and the audience cheers in a Glendale, Calif., TV studio, all four contestants are at home sitting in front of their computers.

Smart, right? Why make players go to the game show when, these days, the game show can so easily go to them?

“What we’re doing is groundbreaking,” says a modest Jeff Apploff, one of the executive producers, who then goes on to sound like any other game show producer: “I got into this business because I wanted to see people win money.”

But back to this groundbreaking business. Really, “Let’s Ask America” could become the most democratic TV game show ever, geographically anyway. Have a webcam, an Internet connection and a personality? You, too, could be on TV, no matter where you happen to live.

In Kansas City and a handful of other TV markets, “Let’s Ask America” recently replaced “Wheel of Fortune,” the aging king of game shows. In Kansas City, the upstart airs on NBC affiliate KSHB-TV at 6:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. (“Wheel” moved over to Fox 4, same time slot.)

Googling won’t help

Contestants playing by webcam is the most remarkable aspect of “Let’s Ask America,” which in most other respects seems to be a standard-issue game show. Each half-hour starts with four at-home contestants, often wearing headsets, guessing correct responses to questions posed by host Kevin Pereira, 29, who interacts with players via a big video screen on a set that includes a black version of the Statue of Liberty. A la the old “Match Game,” challengers write their answers (sometimes with illustrations) on oversized note cards and hold them up to their webcams.

One player eventually triumphs. A contestant who gets every question right, including the final one, can go home with — OK, stay home with — as much as $50,000. To win the top amount, though, he or she must wager all the cash on hand on that last question.

More typical, Kennedy of Kansas City wagered $500 at the end and wound up with a total of $9,000.

But, you might ask, what’s to keep a contestant’s off-camera spouse or kid or best friend from looking up answers while the game is in progress? The player is at home and the producers are in L.A., right?

Right. But they’re a step ahead of you. The show uses a polling firm to survey Americans — hence the title — on just about anything. So the contestants aren’t being asked to recall or guess facts; they’re being asked to predict how others answered survey questions, kind of like “Family Feud.”

“These are all original questions and original polls,” Pereira says. “You can Google them all you want and it’s not going to help you.”

The show is all about opinions, Pereira stresses. Contestants need to be opinionated. When they choose an answer, they explain their thought process.

One nit you could pick is that some questions are awkwardly phrased, such as: “Women said their husband is worse at repairing which of these?” (Worse than the wife? Worse than someone else’s husband?) And the way the questions are posed suggests that everyone surveyed answered the same way.

But “Let’s Ask” gets around that by later revealing the percentage of responses to each possible answer. (Car, at 38 percent, was the No. 1 answer. Other choices were marriage, TV and toilet.)

Real-life charms

But back to the “I’m sitting on my couch playing a game show” concept. Any distractions that happen at home? “Let’s Ask America” embraces them.

Think about a more serious program. On a news show like CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” for instance, you’d have to think Coop would cringe if, in mid-interview, his subject’s doorbell suddenly rang or a dog started barking.

But because “Let’s Ask” is not a serious show and — just as important — is not a live show, moments like a cat jumping on a contestant’s head or furniture delivery guys showing up (both real examples, Pereira says) can be milked for comedy. When one player’s birds started squawking off camera, Pereira asked to see them.

Bob Sullivan, vice president of content for E.W. Scripps Co., KSHB’s owner, recalls that in the midst of taping a test show in August, a contestant’s kid walked in the door from school and the mom had to tell him to hush, she was on a game show.

“All of a sudden, we said, wait a minute, that could be really interesting,” Sullivan says.

Those intrusions of real life “bring charm to the show” and make it “absolutely different from any other show on TV,” Apploff says.

In early episodes, though, we didn’t see many of those moments. One wonders if most of them get cut for time.

Pereira and Apploff say that so far the show has had contestants playing from kitchen tables, backyards, porches, basement man caves, friends’ houses, even from work. One woman had her webcam set up in the bathroom. You can guess where she was sitting.

“I asked her to light a candle and give us a courtesy flush, and she did,” Pereira says.

The show also has a tiebreaker, called “Dash for Cash,” that takes advantage of its players’ locations. On one show, the “Dash” was to the kitchen, where contestants were to find a soup ladle, fill it with something besides water, then return to the webcam and drink it. On another, players had to scurry to the bathroom for toothpaste, then squeeze it out on the webcam.

Webcam technology — the show partners with Skype — is not only the show’s unique selling proposition that marketing experts talk about but also an occasional drawback. Internet connections being what they are, the audio might cut out momentarily, for instance.

Right now, just nine stations in eight cities are running “Let’s Ask America” weekdays. Like KSHB, all are owned by E.W. Scripps, which eventually will air the game show weekdays on five additional stations. Later, it will probably be offered to other stations nationwide.

Scripps had observed that audiences for both “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” were growing older — “very much skewed 60-plus,” says Scripps’ Sullivan. It wanted something a little younger, more advertiser-friendly. Meanwhile, those shows continued to cost more, too, he says.

So Scripps decided to develop shows of its own instead. In the case of “Let’s Ask,” Warner Bros.’ Telepictures is producing the show; Scripps is a 50 percent partner.

Two years ago Scripps commissioned a study to find out what audiences wanted to watch during the “access” time period, which in Kansas City is 6:30-7 p.m., just before prime time. No surprises, really: The top three were game shows, sitcom reruns and newsmagazines (like “Inside Edition”).

Execs listened to more than 60 game show proposals before picking “Let’s Ask America.” Scripps also developed a pop-culture countdown show called “The List” that has replaced “Jeopardy!” on some Scripps stations. (“Jeopardy!” will run for two more years on KSHB.)

Sullivan expects a “slow build” in the ratings with “Let’s Ask America.” But even if ratings never match “Wheel of Fortune” levels, Scripps stands to benefit. Not only does it own half the show, but it will have more ad time to sell. Typically, a nationally syndicated show includes some built-in national advertising, but at this point “Let’s Ask” is not a national show.

It’s also not a big production in the way “Wheel of Fortune” is, Sullivan says. No Pat Sajak, no Vanna White, no big wheel. And, in the case of probably a couple of contestants already, no pants.

‘BRADY BUNCHING’

The first round of each episode includes the four contestants’ faces displayed onscreen, kind of like a certain ’70s show.

Players have noticed and are having fun with it: “There’s a bit of ‘Brady Bunching’ going on,” host Kevin Pereira says.

Besides looking at one another, contestants, all in separate cities, have pretended to high-five, hug or pass drinks back and forth.

WHERE TO WATCH

“Let’s Ask America” airs at 6:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday on NBC affiliate KSHB and at 1:30 p.m. weekdays on KMCI, Channel 38.

OTHER NEW GAME SHOWS

• 

“American Bible Challenge”:

Just what it sounds like. Jeff Foxworthy hosts; contestants play for charity. (7 and 10 p.m. Thursdays, Game Show Network)

• 

“NumbNuts”:

Stunt mishaps made famous on the Internet are re-created (safely, one hopes). From the producer of “Fear Factor.” (9 p.m. Fridays, MTV2)

• 

“White Elephant”:

A show from Howie Mandel based on the party game of trying to trade away your white-elephant gift. (Expected midseason on NBC.)

• 

“The Pyramid”:

Yes, that pyramid, like the one Dick Clark used to host. (5 p.m. weekdays, GSN)

• 

“Hip Hop Squares”:

A retread of “Hollywood Squares” designed to appeal to young men. (Premiered last spring on MTV2, but not currently being shown.)

GETTING ON THE SHOW

Because “Let’s Ask America” is not being seen nationwide yet, you might suppose, as we did, that it would be easier for locals to get on the show.

Not necessarily, it turns out. We’re told that initial casting did favor people in the handful of launch markets — “Let’s Ask” held tryouts at a recent lifestyle expo here, for instance — but since then the show has been seeking contestants from across the country.

For details, go to

letsaskamerica.tv. Not surprisingly, if you get an interview, it’ll be through Skype. Contestants are mailed kits that include a T-shirt and cards to write answers on.

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