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October 30, 1999


A November to Remember

        This is it. Time for the genuine big money is here. No sneaking up on everyone as the Arizona Diamondbacks did in baseball this year.
       What happens over the next four weeks will determine whether quiz shows make this a November to remember, or become the equivalent of a ground hog going back into hibernating for another 40 years.

       More scrutiny is already on the revival of quiz and game shows than at any time since the mid-1970s. As far as network games, many of you weren't around the last time we had this much hoopla. Only, then, the coverage centered around a federal grand jury and the United States Congress probing the genre.
       I'll go on record right now and predict Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? will draw ratings most nights close to those of summer, despite some skeptics who persist. The reason most of the naysayers, including some advertising agency people and some within the game show creative community, exist is because Millionaire drew its monster ratings over the summer against predominantly repeat competition on the other networks.
       My argument: the genuine story over the summer was not WWTBAM? winning its time period every night---but the margin of its victory. Those ratings towered by as much as 3-to-1 over many of the game's opponents and soared to the highest summer numbers on network television in 30 years. For two weeks in a row, WWTBAM? did something no show has accomplished in 15 years----outdraw NBC's formidable Thursday lineup (including Friends, Frazier and E.R., even during the rerun season. Such is not just the measure of a summer fluke.
       By contrast, the previous summer, the media was declaring Whose Line Is It Anyway? a "hit," and by summer standards, it was. Yet, Whose Line? was scoring ratings of 8s and 9s while finishing in the lower half of the Nielsen top 20, in part helped by its Drew Carey Show lead-in. Millionaire was scoring 14s and 15s at the end and dominating the top five of the Nielsens. There is a difference between a media-declared "hit" and a legitimate hit.
       However, I also share the sentiments of NBC executive Rick Ludwin. In an interview with the Associated Press, which you've read here on this space, Ludwin said he feels we'll have two or three quizzes in prime time, "not the 18 or 19" of the 1950s. I predict you'll see as many as eight to ten attempted by the networks and probably three will survive, though I anticipate you'll see summer now become a major testing ground. A good game will draw profitable numbers, provide fresh programming and cost less than even some of the network's reruns.
       This is also going to liven up the syndication market. You're seeing more trial balloons floated for revivals and originals since 1984. Producers, both new and veteran, are pitching what they're sure will be the next Millionaire. Still, one finds a bit amusing a national story this week declaring the revival of Family Feud a hit when that show doesn't even average a 2 rating.
       What we are going to discover in the next four weeks is whether we have a positive trend. I don't even think the success or failure of Greed has anything to do with it. That show is being rushed together and is, unfortunately, being thrown against Frasier without a track record. Plus, ABC's decision to overlap WWTBAM? against the first half of Greed Nov. 11 and 18 will have the VCR users working overtime but won't do much for the ratings of Greed.
       Like it or not, the whole weight is going to be carried by Millionaire. If the numbers are strong, we have a revival. The networks know it. All the producers know it. If the ratings go south, you'll hear the Garth Anciers and Stu Bloombergs back off on their prime time quiz expansion plans faster than the Yankees won the World Series.
       The competition will be stronger. Yet, were I a betting man, I'd put the action on Millionaire. It's the most compelling game on television in 25 years and if it comes down to a choice of Regis for two weeks and taping a sitcom or drama favorite on the other network, I'm predicting the audience will pick Regis. And that's my final answer.

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