Wired 2.06, June 1994

QVC and the Home Shopping Network probably thought they had the corner on the compulsives-with-credit-cards market, but two new television channels - Gaming Entertainment Television and The Game Show Channel - could have couch-potato shoppers extending their credit limits with somebody else. Considering Americans spent US$340 billion last year gambling and a wimpy $5 billion at the box office, potential viewership and income is enormous.

In June, Gaming Entertainment Television, based in Pittsburgh, plans to bring Atlantic City to the home, replete with horse racing, poker, and $1 million jackpot bingo The Game Show Channel, owned by Sony in partnership with Mark Goodson Productions and United Video, sports a softer, fuzzier, feel: This is The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune with smaller jackpots and better chances of winning. Both are banking on two assumptions: that this programming format will offer more profit than any other type of television programming, including network TV, and that lots of people are going to bet lots of money.

The Federal Communications Commission forbids broadcasting games of "chance." But find a way to turn gambling into a game of skill and you're in business. Simply put, a game of chance is one where a fee is charged to play, luck (instead of skill) determines the outcome, and a prize is given to the winner. Figure out a way to bypass just one of those three tests and you've got a legal game. That's what these stations have done, in two very different ways.

Gaming Entertainment TV's solution is to offer games the FCC considers skilled: horse racing, card playing, billiards, and yes, bingo. By offering bingo as part of its premium channel, your monthly subscription fee becomes the "bet." Since the monthly fee isn't directly tied into the game itself, there is technically no bet, and broadcasting bingo becomes legal under FCC codes.

The Game Show Channel plans to begin airing by the end of this year. It takes a different tack: Advertising alone must cover broadcasting costs. You won't pay to play along and win. Interactivity will be the lure that draws more viewers, so the prizes will be small and broadly distributed.

If these shows get as popular as their owners hope, expect Congress to step in and regulate these new industries. Until then, have couch, credit card, and remote handy!

by David S. Bennahum