ALL IN THE GAME
A One in a Million Revival???
Who would have imagined? The hope of reviving network prime time game shows in the hands of Regis Philbin.
If you believe the words of producer Michael Davies this week in an interview with Fox News Channel, the chances of success for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? rests heavily on the shoulders of America's morning buddy for more than a decade. Davies may be part right----but if the game does not captivate the country, Regis, Bill Cullen, Tom Kennedy, Peter Marshall, nor any of the classic greats could push it into our hearts.
Make no mistake. I have been one who has never given up belief that a quality, well-produced, solidly-emceed game could still be a success in network prime time. Just as in any other genre of network programming, a game show would have to be well-scheduled and well-protected to launch. ABC used outstanding judgment last summer when it originated Whose Line Is It Anyway? as a lead-out to host Drew Carey's hit sitcom. The network was shrewed enough to bring back Line in the same time period at midseason. I have no clue where Jamie Tarses' judgment flew when she chose to schedule Line opposite NBC's Friends this fall, much as I detest (and I recognize I'm well in the minority) that weekly half-hour tribute to the libido of six thirtysomethings. Line would have to pull the upset of the decade to overcome Friends.
ABC is trying the most innovative strategy to "get Millionaire over" I've seen in years. Airing the series 13 out of 14 consecutive nights (including two Sunday night hour-long episodes) will either trigger a popular habit by the end of the two weeks or make Davies sorry he ever adapted the British hit for American audiences. Further, the continuous stripped scheduling will give ABC a clue if any time periods perform better than others for the ambitious effort.
Will the $1 million jackpot be the catalyst to bring the audience back for a prime time game? High stakes, themselves, are not the only formula. In the midst of the quiz scandals of the 1950s, a number of shows upped their jackpots to match the frenzy created by The $64,000 Question. Break the $250,000 Bank died a quick death with its quarter-million ante. The hike of The Big Surprise to $100,000 didn't work. Even adding four new plateaus to Question didn't help its ratings, once the Hal March legend began sliding on a downward spiral.
One would do well to recall the words of Monty Hall, on Phil Donahue's talkfest in the early 1970s at a point when The $10,000 Pyramid began sending the prizes soaring again. Said Monty: "We're not going to get a great deal bigger. It's not how much we give away----it's the way we do it." That's essentially what has to happen for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. The seven-figure stake is an attraction but if the game doesn't sell, the money will be no more of a magnet to keep viewers glued than 13 nights of Tom Daschle speeches.
From published reports, the preliminary interest in calling the show's 900 number to qualify for the game is of massive proportions. Whether that will translate into viewer loyalty is again a question mark. The game not only has to be a good one. It must be a great one.
Davies says he's waited for years for network television in the U.S. to take a chance on a game show based on drama, rather than comedy or exaggerated gimmicks. I have, too. That's ultimately what sold The $64,000 Question to the country in the 1950s. In the mid-1970s, $100,000 Name That Tune had viewers locked in the periodic drama of whether a single contestant could identify one difficult tune for a six-figure prize. Individual one-person drama was the key.
Since the scandals, the one attempt to foist a million-dollar jackpot as the hook for viewers did not work. While one occasionally finds a traditional game show fanatic who found the series captivating, The $1 Million Chance of a Lifetime, a syndicated effort which lasted barely a year and a half, built little drama. For one thing, the show was one of those games in which married couples were apparently teamed just for the sake of teaming pairs. Second, the game was not the most challenging. Third, for a million-dollar payoff, the couples should have had to win more than three games. Finally, not much attention was paid to the jackpot's payout as an annuity of $50,000 a year over 20 years.
The British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a monster hit. However, one has to remember British audiences are different from American viewers. In the '60s, many of us remember vividly and fondly the various English spy/adventure series imported. They all captured strong cult followings but not high ratings in the Nielsens. The arguments for years against a return of games to the networks in prime time have centered around a belief the U.S. audience, particularly younger viewers, have grown too sophisticated to accept games opposite other entertainment offerings. I still refuse to believe that. I agree with veteran game show emcee Geoff Edwards, who told me about a year ago, "The producers of most of the game shows today didn't grow up with game shows, so they don't know what makes a hit." Most of the ones who have failed on cable or in syndication have been shows where producers relied on a saturated influx of sex jokes, tasteless comedy, or ex-Saturday Night Live or standup comedians as emcees.
I've been a fan of Regis Philbin ever since his days as the sidekick of Joey Bishop on ABC in the 1960s. He has a big load on his shoulders with this venture. However, never have I pulled for a hit in years as much as I am for this one, because I truly believe it could be a turning point for network executives' views of games. The show could also disprove many theories about the audiences for game shows. The odds, as usual, are against it. Nonetheless, ABC is giving this show as massive a promotional push and scheduling opportunity as any summer offering in history. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Oh, I'd love to be. I'd also love for this show to be the biggest prime time game show hit in 40 years.
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