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Game Show Renaissance or Millionaire Mania

       I keep coming back to a conversation I had with Tom Kennedy earlier this year. We were discussing the entry of the networks back into prime time quizzes. Tom had a pertinent point: "The jury is still out on whether we have Millionaire Mania or a true game show revival."
       If someone held me hostage today and the price of my freedom was to cast my vote, I begrudgingly would have to say I believe we have Millionaire Mania.
       That's not going to set well with my pals in cyberspace who, like me, have been game show junkies for 40 years or less. I had truly hoped when WWTBAM exploded, the success would breed success in all of the copycats we knew would come.
       However, an old adage in entertainment is: "If you can't be first, be better." When you peel away the hardcores of the audience who will watch anything which says "game" or "quiz," in the listings, the people who like Millionaire have sampled the other offerings and their fires have not been lit. The three which were not first, are not better, in a huge majority of eyes.
       I won't rehash my feelings on NBC's treatment Twenty-One from last week. The show has proven it can perform on Wednesday nights but NBC is going to kill it, mark my word, on Mondays, unless we have a groundswell of e-mails and, horror of horrors, 33-cent letters to NBC in protest. I'm not one for leading campaigns----but if you don't want to see Twenty-One go back to the scrap heap, you better be getting loud with the Peacock.
       With Greed, you either love it or hate it. The show can be interesting, almost to the point of parody. However, the quiz is not a hit. Greed may survive because it does good numbers by Fox standards and the two weeks of trilogies does not hurt its exposure. However, how much pure street talk do you hear about the Fox quiz? Other than, "Oh, I've seen it a few times...."
       As for CBS, that network's attitude is a puzzle. Winning Lines obviously wasn't going to be a hit; however, the Dick Clark game performed better than the far more expensive Cosby has on Friday nights. Further, the return of Early Edition Saturdays has provided no ratings explosion. The network will likely play off its contract for eight more shows but WL is, for all intents and purposes, gone.
       From the conversations I've had with some affiliate managers over the course of the last week, The $1,064,000 Question may well be dead. The project has bogged down in a sea of arguments between CBS President Les Moonves and a variety of producers over how to present the show and not make it look like a clone of WWTBAM. Plus, What's My Line?, which CBS p.r. spokesmen touted would definitely air this summer, looks to be a slim candidate, now that the network has committed almost $30 million into the production of Survivor and Big Brother----both of which only loosely fit the definition of "game."
       Once all the shouting is over in the summer, I truly would not be surprised if ABC does not have the field to itself. After a couple of slim ratings slips with Millionaire in Thursday and Friday shows week before last, the series bounced back like a boomerang this week with two episodes drawing more than 30 million viewers. Plus, Celador is developing a British spinoff which sounds vaguely like the format of The $64,000 Challenge of the '50s. ABC will have first shot at the U.S. rights to that series. Add to that Michael Davies' in-development Mastermind, which may premiere this summer, and the network may have enough in its closet to actually be able to slow down the volume of WWTBAM output each week.
       Moonves, who in January launched a scathing criticism of the quiz show trend before the nation's critics, may have made the ultimate admission this week: "If I had had Millionaire, I would have used it 25 per cent of the time (as opposed to the 18 per cent of ABC's schedule in the February sweeps)."
       What Fox, NBC and CBS are all finding out with this phenomenon: if you aren't first, you have to be better. None of them have been.
       Until any of them are, Tom Kennedy's jury-still-out proposition has much more pertinence than when he first offered it. If I had to vote today, until another network comes up with something better, we have Millionaire Mania rather than a true game show renaissance.

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