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Countdown (1990)


Producer: Guber-Peters
Host: Michael Jackson
Announcer: Charlie O'Donnell
Celebrities: Heather Thomas, Woody Harrelson
Word Authorites: Tony Pandolfo, Lori Huggins
Taping Info: September 18, 1990
Made it to Air: Not this version. The French version, des chiffres et des lettres has been on the air since 1972, and the British (also called Countdown) since 1983. This is unrelated to the 1974 Barry-Enright pilot.

This one is going to get a bit personal. I am under the firm belief that des chiffres et des letters is the perfect game show. Since I discovered this gem 15 years ago, I have been waiting for an American version, or at least the British version to be regularly shown in this country. Countdown is a very cerebral game, and is not for the mentally weak. And with the international reputation of Americans being a bit slow on the uptake, I would fear that it would lose something in the translation. Well, now I have proof that they at least did try.

First off, the host is a ex-pat Brit, local Los Angeles radio personality Michael Jackson. So that's a good sign. There are two word authorities, that's good. But, oh oh, there's celebrities. The other versions have a single celebrity, but they act as an extra word authority. Here, they are playing with the contestants.

The object is to make the longest word you can from a set of nine letters. One team asks for either vowels or consannts until nine letters are out. Each team has 30 seconds to come up with the longest word they can. Even though Michael Jackson says that players may confer, each player comes up with an individual word and shows them Match Game style at the end of the 30 seconds. Teams score points based on the length of the word, so if one team has both the contestant and the celebrity have 5 letter words, they would score 10. For the second word, the other team called the consonants and vowels.

The third round was like the second, except only eight letters are pulled. The ninth letter is wild, like a blank in Scrabble. Also, players were not allowed to confer in this round. Control of the letter calling was given to the team with the fewer points. At this point, I need to mention that there was a $25,000 bonus for anyone coming up with a nine letter word. Again, they think we're dumb. On the British show, this happens several times a week without a wild.

Sadly, Gerald Ford must have had some involvement with the pilot, because there was no maths round. At this point, the leading scorer moved onto the bonus round. This worked very similar to the second bonus round for Caesar's Challenge, where there was a progression of seven scrambled words to solve from four letters to nine in 45 seconds (four, five, six, two sevens, eight and nine). The celebrity was allowed to assist. Getting each word was word $200 or $10,000 if the player could get all seven. All words had something in common, like "At the Movies".

At this point, the players switched celebrities and the three rounds, plus the bonus round, were repeated. There was no conundrum like in the British version.

On a strange note, one of the executive producers listed was Tony Danza, along with Scott Sternberg and Steve Sauer. It was also weird to see Woody Harrelson involved, he was never really on regular game shows, let alone having to do a pilot. The production company, Guber-Peters, was mostly known for films including Rainman and The Color Purple. On the game show ledger, they were distributors of the 80's version of The Dating Game and the 1990 version of Quiz Kids.

I'm torn here. The British music was in full force, in both the original version and remixed. The elements of the word game were there, even if the players were a bit slow and the celebrities really didn't add anything. Not having the maths was a big minus in my book. However, if I had no knowledge of the other shows, I would have considered this a good show and worth watching. I have to take that and wonder why this didn't make it.

This pilot has been viewed 109 times since October 6, 2008 and was last modified on Dec 15, 2009 21:35 ET
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