Sunday, February 22, 2004

ABC won't bank on 'Millionaire,' even if ratings hit gold



By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - Michael Davies says he's losing sleep over the prospect of a gusher of $10 million payoffs on the revamped prime-time version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

"I want it to be close and I want someone to have a shot, but I don't want too many people staring at that $10 million question," said Davies, executive producer of Super Millionaire. "My heart can't take it."

For ABC executives, a different set of numbers - ratings - may be inducing insomnia.

If the British-born quiz show repeats its late 1990s prime-time success, however, network executives swear they won't slip back into their disastrous Millionaire addiction.

"If it does well, I'm not going to resist bringing it back as a regular presence on the schedule, probably as a sweeps event," said ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun.

"But we've made it clear we're going to have discipline in terms of how we schedule it," he said. "You're not going to see this series multiple times a week as a regular series. That's not going to happen."

With new rules and bigger prizes - but the same dapper host, Regis Philbin - Super Millionaire airs 9 p.m. today on Channels 9and 2 and at 10 p.m. Monday-Friday.

(A syndicated version, with host Meredith Vieira, has aired daily since 2002.)

The huge bounce that ABC got from Millionaire starting in 1999 was followed by a hard landing. Audiences tired of it, and ABC had little to replace it.

The last prime-time version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire aired June 27, 2002. Braun was aware that bringing it back to ABC would again highlight the network's much-covered misstep.

"There was no doubt in my mind it was going to do that," he said. "But at the end of the day I didn't care, because I felt it was the right thing to do for the network."

Over regular golf games, Braun and Davies had been kicking around the idea of reviving Millionaire. But it had to bring something novel to the table, they agreed.

So, besides more money, there's a redesigned set, different music and inventive new "lifelines," the crutches available to players. (There will still be a version of the "Is that your final answer?" query posed by Philbin; it's a legal issue, Davies said.)

A "three wise men" lifeline will be among those joining the old standbys of phoning a friend and seeking studio audience help.

The three-member panels, which Davies said will include women and be made up of scholars, journalists and former quiz show whizzes, will be available to help at crucial moments.

Returning host Philbin (co-host of the syndicated talk show Live With Regis & Kelly) says he's eager to help make it all work again.

"They're right back where I found them five years ago, but I'll fix it," said Philbin, perhaps only partly tongue-in-cheek. "They're cutting me to a week but I can still get it done."

As for that $10 million prize, Braun is aware of Davies' money worries ("Believe me, I hear about it every hour," the ABC executive said) but is comfortable with the network's cost calculations.

"We concluded it's a viable business to do this or otherwise we wouldn't do it," he said.

Dale Samberg of West Chester Township will be a contestant on the first show, says Channel 9, the local ABC affiliate. Watch how he does tonight at 9. It's on Channel 2, too.




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