Skip to comments.Prime-Time 'Millionaire' Returning to ABC (Regis Lives!)
Posted on 01/26/2004 12:31:14 PM PST by Timesink
ho Wants to Be a Millionaire," the most successful game show in the history of prime-time television until ABC burned through its popularity by overexposing it, will return next month, complete with Regis Philbin, the hot seat, the lifelines and the steady progression of cash prizes.
ABC is expected to announce today the comeback of "Millionaire," not as a weekly series but as a one-week burst of one-hour shows in the last week of February. This time the show will be called "Super Millionaire," and to distinguish itself from the common reality show prize of $1 million, the top payout will grow to $10 million. If the show is successful, ABC may bring it back for one-week runs as many as three times a year.
But a "Millionaire" revival faces a number of obstacles. When it made its debut in 1999, "Millionaire" was the first entrant in the broadcast network trend toward unscripted shows in prime time. Now it enters a television landscape crowded with reality shows, many of them with gimmicks far more outrageous than the question-and-answer format of "Millionaire." And the show will have to re-establish its appeal to viewers, many of whom abandoned it when ABC began showing it on multiple nights every week of the year. ABC executives, however, expressed confidence that the fundamental appeal of the show was undiminished, even though it has not been on a network since 2002.
"The time just seemed right," said Lloyd Braun, chairman of ABC Entertainment, pointing to the growing success of the syndicated daytime version of "Millionaire," as well as to the network's research, which found viewers were still fond of the show. Mr. Braun emphasized that ABC had no intention of repeating its previous scheduling mistakes. "If it works," he said, "we are going to have a great deal of discipline with how we program the show, basically as a sweeps event that we run two or three times a year."
To try to create an event, ABC will go back to the original schedule plan in effect when the show first came over from Britain: one short burst over several nights during one week. The new "Millionaire" will start on Sunday night, Feb. 22 at 9. It will then play that week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights at 10.
Mr. Braun said ABC considered three elements crucial to bringing the show back. "It had to be done in its original event form," he said. "We had to have Regis. And we had to freshen the format."
Also returning will be the show's executive producer, Michael Davies, who has always maintained that "Millionaire" worked best as an occasional entry. Mr. Davies and Mr. Braun jointly called Mr. Philbin last week. "He was a bit shocked," Mr. Davies said. "I think he thought we were pranking him. But he was totally enthusiastic." Mr. Philbin, the co-host of the morning show "Live With Regis and Kelly," could not be reached for comment.
The biggest format change of course involves the ultimate prize. "When `Millionaire' first came on, playing for a million dollars was revolutionary never done before," Mr. Braun said. "Now winning a million is all over television. It's lost the wow factor."
Mr. Braun likened Mr. Davies's new format to the structure of a video game, in which players get to advance to higher levels if successful. As with many video games, the additional levels will be characterized by different graphics, colors and music. But instead of the new lives granted to a successful combatant in a video game, players on "Millionaire" will get extra lifelines, an important part of the original game.
In the original "Millionaire" contestants were allowed three lifelines to help them answer questions, including calling a friend. The new game will add three more, but only when a contestant reaches a second level. Mr. Davies said the details of the lifeline format would be revealed later.
In the new "Millionaire" all the dollar figures will be expanded tenfold. Players will eventually be asked questions worth $2.5 million, then $5 million and ultimately $10 million. Any question they miss at these elevated figures will result in the loss of all the money they made in the second level, although they will not have to relinquish their Round 1 earnings.
Mr. Davies said ABC executives had run all the changes past Paul Smith, whose British company, Celador, originated the format and sold it to more than 80 countries. "Millionaire" has earned hundreds of millions of dollars for Celador. And the show was so successful for ABC during its glory days, when it brought in between $400 million and $600 million a year, that it almost single-handedly drove up the stock price of Disney, which owns ABC. The show also lifted ABC to victory in the network ratings race in the 2000-1 season.
But it was partly the lure of that instant money and success that led to ABC's overreliance on the show. At its height, in 2000 until the end of 2001, when the show's catch phrases like "Is that your final answer?" had become part of the country's vocabulary, ABC put "Millionaire" on four hours a week. With so many of its prime time hours filled with one show, ABC let its development of other shows falter. When "Millionaire" began to fade in late 2001 and early 2002, the network had few adequate replacements ready.
ABC is still recovering from that fallow period, when it dropped to fourth place in the ratings, and only in the past year or so has it begun to recover some momentum, placing new series, especially comedies like "All About Jim," on its schedule. So far this season ABC still ranks fourth.
Mr. Davies said he doubted the downturn in the fortunes of "Millionaire" truly affected people's basic opinions about the show. "It's not like it suddenly became a bad show," he said. "All our research indicated people still love the concept."
Mr. Davies pointed out that the syndicated version of "Millionaire," with the former television journalist Meredith Vieira as host, has seen its ratings steadily increase over the past year. "The show is up about 30 percent," Mr. Davies said, reaching an average of 4.2 million viewers. It has also become a significant moneymaker for Disney's syndication arm.
"It seemed like a time to let people see it in prime time again and maybe generate heat again," he added.
Mr. Braun said the show fitted nicely into the growing trend of limited series, which have become a staple of cable networks like HBO. As part of widespread thinking about how to program prime time, many broadcast networks, including ABC, are already gearing up several dramas to fit into that limited series pattern.
"It goes hand in hand with what we are trying to do with some of our new dramas, like `Kingdom Hospital,' " Mr. Braun said, referring to the coming 13-episode horror series created by Stephen King. "Basically create short-term events with them."
But Mr. Braun added, "We have no illusions about this being Round 2 of a show that turns the business upside down."
Which reminds me... I wish they'd put the $ level of the question on-screen.