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Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 1999



What Now for Millionaire?

        What? How? Why? What next?
       Every one of those questions are being asked by network executives, critics, fans and pundits in the wake of the unprecedented success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
       Every theory in the world is being offered as to what to do now with America's newest phenomenon. None of them will please everyone.
       Let's take the case of Millionaire point-by-point. did it happen?
  • Outstanding Promotion:
           Not since Roone Arledge put his masterful touch behind promoting the Olympics have I seen a network put such a marketing blitz behind a show. The tie-in with McDonald's was another master stroke. For a summer series to get this kind of buildup is almost unprecedented.

  • Scheduling:
           The idea of making Millionaire an every-night event for two weeks was the most brilliant scheduling innovation since Fred Silverman ordered Roots to air as a consecutive-night miniseries in 1977. The series built a momentum which was the equivalent of a broadcasting tidal wave.

  • The Element of Surprise
           Face it, the networks have given token attempts to prime time games periodically over the last 25 years. CBS' six summer editions of The Price Is Right in 1986 were the most serious. Yet, most were low-budget, underpromoted, time fillers. Few people, including network executives themselves, took these shows seriously. I'm not even sure ABC brass knew they had a monster on their hands with this one.
            When a show surprises, as Millionaire has, what typically happens is a massive on-the-street, word-of-mouth promotion which the networks cannot buy. Case in point: Hee Haw back in 1969. CBS considered it a last-minute, throw-together sub after it canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The critics hated it. Grass roots viewership talked Hee Haw into a hit. This had a lot to do with the building numbers of Millionaire

       Now, consider why the audience accepted Millionaire in such mass numbers:

  • The Game Itself
           The game itself breeds suspense, tension, and drama---as Michael Davies said would have to be present for it to succeed---as nothing I've seen since the $100,000 mystery tune in the isolation booth on Name That Tune in the mid-1970s. You find yourself with the same anticipation as during time outs before a potential game-winning free throw in the NCAA tournament. Everything from the eerie, heartbeat music track to the lighting effects.
           Every major game show success typically has a catchphrase which sticks in the American vocabulary. How many of you have been asking, "Is that your final answer?," to friends in the last week? This may be the most popular phrase in game shows since "come on down."
           Plus, the $1 million payoff is no small sidebar here. We're all sitting vicariously wishing we were those ten competing for the big prize. Finally, I have always contended a one-player game where it's you and you alone who are the master of your own fate is far more enticing than a team game show on television.

  • Regis Philbin
           Oh, I've heard from scattered people complaining they don't like Regis. Most of it stems from their dislike of Kathie Lee in the mornings. In my view, Regis has catapulted himself in two short weeks into the elite of game show emcees. He's already in the Cullen-Barker-Kennedy category and he's doing for Millionaire what Hal March did for The $64,000 Question 44 years ago. A bad emcee could have hurt this show. Regis only enhances it. Plus, few emcees have ever promoted a show to the degree Regis has.

  • The Timing Was Right
           I've listened, ad nauseum, to theories over the last decade of how the game show was dead. Just as people pronounced the benediction over radio in the 1970s. Since games left network prime time on a regular basis in 1971, I have contended the right game with the right elements, well-produced and promoted, could start another spiral of popularity.
           You have to remember, two and a half generations have passed since the '50s scandals. Some people under the age of 35 have never even seen kinescopes of those shows. In a sense, Millionaire is little more than a repackaged $64,000 Question with a bigger purse, more high-tech elements, and without the booth. Yet, the same elements of drama and suspense are there. Even a veiled tribute to the old show is there with the $64,000 hurdle.
           I've never subscribed to the theory young people won't watch a game show. They won't watch bad ones or tired ones. They won't stay with those which catch their attention for a quick flash (i.e., the awful Game Show Network attempts to appeal to the Vince McMahon/South Park crowd with Burt Luddin's Love Buffet, Throut and Neck and even Extreme Gong) and ultimately insult their intelligence.

       So what's next for the phenomenon of the late '90s which may start the spiral of games back to prime time? What should ABC do with it? Here's my take on the options...:
  • Keep It on the Schedule Now
           That's not impossible, but not likely. In the 1950s, when schedules were more flexible, ABC kept The Lawrence Welk Show and CBS maintained The $64,000 Question on their fall lineups without interruption after the two were the biggest summer hits of 1955. Yet, as much sense as it makes, Disney/ABC has made an extraordinary number of commitments for slots on its fall schedule. Some producers would howl foul loudly if they were bumped at this late date.

  • Bring It Back as a Weekly Series
           That's the traditional thinking for a summer hit. My thinking is Millionaire needs to be at the very least a twice-weekly show, if not three times a week, to maintain this momentum. One or two of those episodes should be an hour.

  • Return in November as a 2-Week Sweeps Stunt
           This appears to be ABC's idea at the moment, though that hasn't been finalized. Bump several clinkers or pre-empt the schedule for two weeks in November, during the Nielsen sweeps, and follow the British model. Doing it in November, February, and May for two weeks each and perhaps six to eight weeks in the summer.
           That can do one of two things: create huge anticipation for the next event, or lose momentum. Plus, if the copycats come----as they are sure to do, just like the reality shows of the '80s and '90s and the variety shows of the '60s----and Millionaire is on hiatus, another show---if well-produced---could steal the thunder.

  • Schedule One Hour after The Super Bowl
           This is traditionally the slot set aside to introduce a new midseason series, picking up the spillover of the traditional largest audience of the television year. Only in recent years, the strategy hasn't worked well.
           This proposal was made Monday morning to me by three different e-mailers and I agree. ABC ought to make that commitment right now. This would guarantee holding onto at least half to 60 per cent of the Super Bowl audience, in my opinion, with the current momentum.

       For years, the networks have underestimated this huge cult following of viewers who grew up with the classic games of the '50s through the '70s and have felt almost straightjacketed with only syndicated Wheel and Jeopardy! as nighttime choices for a decade. A lot of new viewers were hooked these past two weeks to supplement them and they transcend every demographic bracket.
       What the key is here: this show has the whole nation talking. ABC has one of the biggest dilemmas any network has faced with a summer show of the last 30 years. What may be an even tougher decision than the one to put it on the air is what to do with it now?

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