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Special
ALL IN THE GAME

Long, Long Drought Ends

               This is it!
       For 28 years, we've been waiting for a network game show to click in prime time and I'll go out on a limb already Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? will father the next copycat genre in nighttime television.
       True, a few insiders are chalking up the early success to the summer and to the Regis Philbin-hosted game going opposite other networks' reruns.

        As you, who have followed this column, are aware---as much as I have rooted for success for WWTBAM? or any game show to make it again on network television, I was skeptical. I've observed how sophisticated the audience has become (or likes to think it's become). I've watched producers push the audience to untold vulgarity over the last 20 years. I've heard all the talk about the unwillingness of young people to sit still for TV games today because of computers, varied choices in entertainment, and video games. If you see how Jake Tauber's trying to reinvent Game Show Network, you'd get the idea no one has any respect left for the genre, except for universal dysfunctionals.
       Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, in my view, is anything but a fluke. The show has the right mix of suspense, drama, and tension that makes you sit on the edge of your chair and want to take a baseball bat to contestants who use a Lifeline on what seem to be obvious questions to you at home.
       True, if you've been around as long as I have---and this week strikes 45 for me---you could say Millionaire is nothing more than The $64,000 Question with a boosted purse, more hurdles, high-tech effects, and no isolation booth. Contestants even have to answer a $64,000 question along the way. Yet, this game is proof certain a game does not have to be frenetic or vulgar in the late '90s to hold one's attention. In fact, Millionaire is one of the slower-paced games in years. One contestant let 4:20 elapse during the first week before he settled on a successful $32,000 answer.
       More than a few were skeptical of whether Regis could pull this off, based on 15 years of seeing him exchange jollies with Kathie Lee in the morning. Before the premiere, some of the very few who remember Regis' ill-fated game show efforts of 1976 (The Neighbors, Almost Anything Goes) asked me why him, when he had never had a track record of success in this format.
       Easy answer: time, experience, maturity, and name recognition. Regis Philbin is doing the best job I've seen since Hal March and Tom Kennedy at milking suspense and emotion from a question-and-answer show. His pauses are not dead giveaways as to whether an answer for big dollars is right or wrong, something I continue to struggle with on my own I've Heard That Song!.
       My colleague Aaron Barnhart tvbarn.com, a great reviewer of television, is one of several critics who panned the opener because the contestants appeared stiff. Yet, that frequently happens on game show premieres. Plus, this is not a show which lends itself to Price Is Right reactions. I'd rather see more cerebral contestants here than the kind we had during the awful recent version of Pictionary. On the other hand, the New York Daily News called Millionaire the "freshest summer offering in years."
       Quick Pick I: ABC will bring this one back at least twice a week during the regular season---sooner, rather than later. It's too profitable and capturing the imagination of the country by word-of-mouth as well as its massive promotional blitz. I'm being stopped by tons of grass roots people asking if I'm watching. That tells me something.
       Quick Pick II: No one will win $1 million if the player has used all of the available Lifelines by the time the $64,000 level is reached. Future contestants are going to have to be more judicious in using the available helps.
       Quick Pick III: If these ratings hold up for the second week, every game show producer in Hollywood who's ever had a question-and-answer show on the shelf will dig it out. Millionaire has the potential of being that breakthrough show which becomes the copycat sire for prime time of the early portion of the new century, in the same fashion as happened with reality shows in the '80s and '90s.
       However, for all of you who have been waiting 33 years----as I have---for a game show to become a top 20 hit again, savor it. The time appears to be right and the show appears to be the same. Don't try to overanalyze it. Just celebrate----and keep watching!

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