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February 6, 2000

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Panic Time in Prime Time?

       Sweeps stunt for a "million-dollar moment." Cutting payoffs for champions to make a $1 million hurdle tougher. A low-rated Friday edition of a new prime time game. Panic time in prime time? Depends on how you view things.
       We are now in the first full ratings sweep period in which each network has a prime time game show since 1964. Only the acknowledged dominant leader, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, is not having to resort to tricks and, in an ironic sort of way, is generating more publicity than its rivals with its recent problems with two questions. Besides, ABC knows it can destroy any of the show's copycats by merely dropping an episode opposite.
       Greed's "million dollar moment?" On the surface, the twist---bringing together two past players in a Terminator-style showdown for a chance at a four-of-eight multiple choice question with a $1 million payoff---does not sound bad. However, the producers are making Chuck Woolery come off as incomplete. By what criteria were Robert Louie and Troy Glenn selected for the first "moment?" Why did they "qualify" for the playoff, which Louie won and then lost his bid for the $1 million? Why them and not another ex-player?
       The grim expressions of Louie and Glenn during the tease and later bump shots looked too staged and encouraged. Sure, anyone would be nervous about a chance at $1 million----but these two fellows looked excessively tense.
       As for the experience of Twenty-One this past week, I hope---once and for all---the networks recognize they cannot build a huge audience merely by giving away their finishes and telling the viewers they are going to award a record amount on the upcoming episode. Greed tried that in November with the Dan Avila episode and was creamed 3 1/2-to-1 by WWTBAM. Twenty-One went further than Fox when NBC announced a full week in advance of the record winnings which were ultimately Rahim Oberholtzer's and lost 3-to-1 opposite the late-scheduled Millionaire. In fact, a larger audience saw Rahim's interview on the same NBC Nightly News story on which I was a part Friday night than watched his actual victory last Wednesday.
       Producers in the 1950s learned this same lesson. Mert Koplin, one of the original producers of The $64,000 Question, once said: "If the amount you gave away was all that mattered, Break the $250,000 Bank would have had four times the ratings of The $64,000 Question."
       The current prime time shows cannot be done live, as were the hits of the '50s era, because they are so computer-driven and too much room for technical foulups exists. Plain and simple---and every network ought to go to school on this: since the shows have to be pre-taped, viewers will not watch just because of the size of your jackpot if they like another game better. Further, while the media's breaking the story of John Carpenter's million-dollar win did not hurt the ratings of Millionaire, as a whole, viewers do not like spoilers. To give away game show finishes in promos is like telling a viewer a football score when he has a videotape of a game rolling at home to watch later because he has to miss the live telecast. The audience prefers the suspense of not knowing.
       What I fear genuinely may hurt Twenty-One is the decision to scale back its payoffs in the earlier rounds. One may be able to understand if that choice is for budgetary reasons----if you are an insider in the business. However, consider Joe and Mabel at home. All they know is they have seen a show they like (and the Wednesday night ratings with the exception of last week's aberration have been good). How do you explain to them, with any degree of credibility, why you are suddenly growing cheaper? You have already raised the bar of expectation, now you are lowering it in one month. That sends a message of retrenchment, in my view. If Fred Silverman and Phil Gurin had launched the show with a $25,000 payoff in the first round, nobody would have flinched because you could have kept a skillful contestant on for two or three weeks. However, this is somewhat akin to beginning The Munsters and deciding in a month, we don't need Grandpa any more.
       Joe and Mabel won't miss Tom Scott and the band. They're only an issue to the hardcores who follow the inside of game shows. Joe and Mabel will be looking at each other Wednesday night and wanting to know why Twenty-One suddenly is giving away less money and Maury Povich will have to make a creative pitch to make this a credible explanation.
       As for Winning Lines, a show I am slowly growing to enjoy far more than my review of its premiere indicated, CBS should not panic at all over Friday night's low ratings. The network did not even make the decision to add that episode until Tuesday and, if my e-mail is any indication, scores of viewers did not tune in because they never saw any announcements or promos for WL.
       Nonetheless, one thing is strikingly clear. America is beset with Millionaire Mania, not an across-the-board, can't-do-without-it phenomenon. The three copycats have the hardcores---who will watch anything with game written on it, niche viewers who have decided they like one or the other choices, and occasional casual samplers.
       As I mentioned to correspondent Jim Avila Friday in a cutting room floor portion of the NBC interview, the numbers suggest to me Millionaire is in the same category as The Beverly Hillbillies was in 1962---a hit of stratospheric proportions. Petticoat Junction and Green Acres had good, loyal followings in succeeding years but never propelled to the audience levels of their parent show. If ABC's rivals plan to stay in the game, they best be satisfied with those ratings, or do the one thing which none of them have accomplished yet----come up with a better game, in America's mind, than Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

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