Hello, You've Got Game Show!

This week on "Gold Rush": who will walk away with $1 million in genuine gold bars? Will it be Michael Kearney of Memphis, who holds a world record for graduating college at 10? Will it be David Delaserda, the unemployed single dad of two from Freemont, Ohio? Or maybe it will be one of the 16 others who've survived a barrage of pop-trivia quizzes, rounds of charades and frantic treasure hunts in their coast-to-coast battle for the gold. Tune in this Thursday and unlock the secret combination to "Gold Rush."

What? You can't find "Gold Rush" on your 500 cable channels? That's because it isn't there. It's on the Internet. And nearly 11 million users have tuned in. Chalk up another home run for reality-TV king Mark Burnett, the man who changed the rules--and economics--of television with "Survivor" and "The Apprentice." Now he's applying his lucrative formula to a Web confection that's helping long-suffering AOL in its quest to reclaim the gold itself.

"Gold Rush" is a hybrid online reality game. Each week, the site features rounds of questions and puzzles--and to solve many of them users must look for clues on other AOL-owned sites like MapQuest; in the pages of the site's magazine partners, Star, People, TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly, and on CBS shows like Burnett's "Survivor" and the new series "Heroes" (crafty cross-promotion, huh?). The three people who answer correctly and the fastest are then whisked to Atlanta, New York or another city where they face off in front of Webcams for a $100,000 prize. Those winners will compete in this week's episode for the final $1 million prize, which will run at AOL and on "Entertainment Tonight," a CBS-syndicated show whose host, Mark Steines, also hosted "Gold Rush." "When you're a prodigy and have read the classics by age 5 and graduated college at 10," says finalist Kearney, now 22, "you don't have much else to do but delve into all sorts of trashy stuff."

If online entertainment ever becomes the mass medium of choice, the trashy stuff that is "Gold Rush" will be remembered as a stroke of genius. It debuted online at AOL.com in early September, about the same time the broadcast networks launched their fall seasons. Dubbed an "interactive reality game," it's notable for a number of firsts. As Internet content, it's remarkable for holding audiences' attention. "Gold Rush" has also taken product placement to new extremes: let's call it "advertainment," in which the products from advertisers like Chevrolet, Coke Zero and Best Buy are entertainment, integrated into the action no differently than, say, pop songs belted out by the kids on "American Idol." In the round EitherOre, sponsored by T-Mobile, questions pop up on a T-Mobile device, and players must click on the photo of a celebrity to answer the question. Sample: "Dated Fiona Apple in the '90s--David Blaine or David Bowie?" (If you punched Blaine's mug, you're right.) Another challenge was built around songs featuring the word "Chevy" in the lyrics. "Chevrolet has been featured in over 600 [pop] songs," says Julie Mynster, the company's digital manager. "This was completely different than just a banner ad."

In a rare--and imminent--maneuver, Burnett says he plans to seek a patent on the underlying "format" of "Gold Rush." His goal: to prevent a contagion of clones from spreading across the Internet, as happened when "Survivor" became a runaway TV success. "I came up with something unique, and I intend to protect it," he says. "But I am willing to license the idea to many other people." Experts say a patent may be sought for anything that's new, useful and not obvious.

For AOL, the game is an important success in its comeback strategy. Once the king of the Web, AOL has struggled in recent years, suffering a collapse in advertising, accounting scandals and the loss of millions of subscribers who ditched AOL's dial-up service for broadband--subscriptions plunged by almost half to 15 million now. In August, AOL began transforming itself into a free broadband portal, like Yahoo, that provides online music, videos and other offerings. With the free access and added content, AOL hopes to lure millions of new eyeballs--and advertisers who want to reach them.

Judged in that light, "Gold Rush" is a major triumph. With 10.7 million unique visitors since September, the game's traffic is impressive by Web standards. (Just for comparison: the popular craigslist.org, the 50th largest site, attracted 14 million visitors in September.) More important, "Gold Rush" fans linger at the site an average of 17 to 20 minutes--an eternity in Web time. And more than half of the "Gold Rush" viewers are newcomers to AOL, indicating that the free-portal strategy is paying off. "We wanted to create something that our current users would spend time with, and to attract new people from outside the network," says Kevin Conroy, a top AOL executive.

The show even managed to sprinkle gold dust on the third-quarter earnings of AOL, a unit of Time Warner. Advertising revenue at AOL soared 46 percent, and Conroy says the show was a "meaningful contributor" to those gains. Time Warner didn't break out the show's numbers in reporting its quarterly results last week. But people familiar with the finances of "Gold Rush," who aren't authorized to comment in detail on divisional results, say the show cost $10 million to make and took in $25 million in advertising.

"Gold Rush" arrived at a computer screen near you at Internet speed. It was only last January that Burnett met with AOL executives. He'd been weighing a Web foray for a while, and AOL was still basking in the afterglow of its groundbreaking July 2005 Webcast of the worldwide Live 8 concert. After watching Live 8, Burnett says, he knew that "someone would jump in and take a big risk and try to find some new kind of engaging content directly for the Web." He decided it would be him. But with what content? A game show! After all, this was Mark Burnett. To draw a large audience, it had to be welcoming to hard-core computer-gamers, as well as casual leisure-seekers. The eureka moment came when he began thinking of the game as a sort of treasure hunt, in which clues and puzzles ultimately lead to a vault of gold. "We liked it and thought it was very fresh," says AOL's Conroy. Advertisers like it, too. WaMu, formerly Washington Mutual, had a 21 percent jump in new free checking accounts in the third quarter, and president Steve Rotella says, "We believe that 'Gold Rush' helped get us there." Word to this week's winner: the bank accepts deposits in gold bars.

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