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The Future of Millionaire

       Not even last summer have I seen the mainline media embrace a show to the extent as newspapers and magazines have Survivor. I guess eating rats and larvae and walking naked on a beach compel writers more than winning a million in a hotseat.
       Yet, folks, I have news for you: where we will see some erosion of ratings this year, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire will be ticking long after the "reality" clones have subsided. In fact, I think Monty Hall's quote from last December, "I think they'll eat each other alive," which he said about the race to duplicate WWTBAM, is even more applicable to the Survivor sisters. In fact, Big Brother is already sinking faster than the Titanic.
       Thursday night's Millionaire is a class example of why this show has longer legs than even some critics who are referring to it as the "old lady" of the "reality" genre, when---in fact---it's a pure quiz show, not even close to a cousin of the 2000 models.
       The real hero of Thursday night's compelling half-hour with Kim Hunt's millionaire win and even the excellent run of Omer Poirier was Mark Gentile. Who? WWTBAM's Emmy-winning director. Gentile crafted camera shots, closeups, cuts to Hunt's mother, reactions of Regis in arguably the most brilliant tempo on a quiz show ever. Mike Gargiulo was a master of it on Pyramid but was limited in the number of cameras he had to work with in that magic minute. In fact, I am having my students study the best of Gentile's work before they direct basketball games for Union University. Why? Because I want them to learn the art of the reaction shot and the drama of the closeup. Gentile is the best in the business.
       However, what happens if, say, a couple of years from now the numbers decline to the point that Millionaire just does not deliver the interest to remain a multiweek or at least as multi-a-week feature as it is now. Does that mean it's over? I have a theory the end will be anything but near. Want to hear my idea?
       Think back a moment to some of the national stories written about WWTBAM after November's monumental run when ABC, Disney, Valleycrest Productions and Buena Vista Television were all trying to determine the best course for the show. I never had a doubt we'd see the show go weekly and even predicted on a radio show in Denver in late November we'd see a thrice-weekly format. So much for my one crystal ball (note: I didn't remind you of my forecasts of renewals for Twenty-One and Greed).
       However, one of the options considered, as documented in a key story in Broadcasting and Cable magazine is something I still believe may well be in Millionaire's future. Stay with me on this one.
       One of the scenarios given serious consideration was actually taking the show into five-a-week syndication and leaving ABC with an event-oriented series for the sweeps, as the show had been created. In fact, one computer model indicated the company may well make more money with that combination.
       Consider this: the ABC o-and-o stations (owned-and-operated stations, mostly in the big cities, for you in Fargo, Ga.) have dominated the 7-8 time periods in the East and West for years with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. Guess who now owns the syndicator of that pair, King World? CBS/Viacom.
       When the current contracts expire on those shows (between 2002 and 2004, depending on the individual station deal), those shows will be on the CBS-owned stations as fast as the last Greed team crashed Friday night. So what is an ABC-owned station to do to be competitive in prime access?
       Scores of shows have melted like butter in a microwave trying to knock off the Wheel-Jeopardy iron curtain over the last 17 years. In fact, my theory is the reason we saw a major decline in syndicated games in the '90s is not because they were not still popular, too many producers were scared off from the failure rate against the big two. Everything from two versions of The Price Is Right to Name That Tune to Bill Cosby's ill-fated attempt to resurrect You Bet Your Life sank. That's just the short list.
       One show in the '00s may well hold the key to unlock the closed door of Wheel. I remember my general manager Randy Peltier, when he bought Wheel of Fortune at midseason in 1983-84, saying: "It's already become a Feud-killer, referring to the then-dominant show in nightly syndication."
       Who Wants to Be a Millionaire may well be the future Wheel-killer. ABC and Buena Vista won't consider taking that step until at least the fall of 2002. However, keep that in the flyleaf of your cranium.
       Package the show as a half-hour and instead of flying 10 people a night to New York, just bring 20 people for five shows over two days of taping. On all of the half-hour editions of Millionaire from the first 13 we just saw, never did more than three contestants reach the hotseat in a 30-minute edition. So, bringing 15-20 for a five-show taping would still be cost-effective and the format used during the recent Champions extravaganza would work of merely supplanting a Fastest-Finger contestant as each hotseat occupant is selected. The audience would not be disturbed at all if you were down to, say, seven or eight FF players on the Friday show.
       Plus, you still have the option of keeping WWTBAM as an event format for the network after a respite. This is a show which will always be viable for revivals as long as television exists as we know it and one day, we'll see it become an Internet staple, no doubt. The game is just too good.
       Who Wants to Be a Millionaire eventually in syndication? Don't discount it. Regis could well be the Wheelkiller.

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