For the legions of viewers suffering post-"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" letdown, here are some multimillion-dollar questions to mull from 8:30 to 9 tonight.
* Why did host Regis Philbin jump the gun and announce on Sunday's show that ABC is bringing back its ratings magnet in November for a limited run?
* How mad were the suits at ABC that he'd let the cat out of the bag before they had a chance to break the news to the A-list producers whose shows will be bumped to make room?
* Did Philbin not know that the Disney-owned network plans to turn "Millionaire" into a weekly series if it succeeds in November and has been quietly calling around to non-ABC stations to gauge interest in a syndicated version of the show? (Actually, we think we know the answer to that one. It can only be because he didn't know).
* How hard are CBS executives kicking themselves for failing to get their remake of "What's My Line?" on the air this summer, as planned?
* Will the gazillions of game shows that are being pitched around Hollywood make it onto the air in a sort of "Millionaire"-cloning frenzy, similar to the "Friends"-cloning disaster of a couple seasons back?
These questions, and others like them, have occupied our every waking moment since learning that, according to early estimates, an eye-popping 22 million viewers tuned in to Sunday's final broadcast of "Millionaire," the game show where no one's stupid and disco lighting is still de rigueur.
Do you know when was the last time a broadcast network scored 22 million viewers during the summer? It sure as heck didn't happen any time this summer. Even the Major League Baseball All-Star Game roused only 17.6 million souls. The Miss Teen U.S.A. pageant snared a mere 10.8 million. And that immensely over-hyped season finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"--the one WB pulled in May--logged a paltry 6.5 million viewers when it finally aired in July. The last show to hit that mark was Michael Jordan's farewell game of the NBA finals last summer, which bagged an audience of 36 million.
For the three of you who didn't catch any of the 13 editions of "Millionaire" that aired on ABC over the past two weeks, this trivia show is one of those I-coulda-thought-of-that concepts that will do nothing to dispel Newt Minow's venerable notion of television as a vast wasteland. Contestants go on one at a time to answer multiple-choice questions that start out very easy--to make sure the whole family can watch and enjoy, the network says--and grow increasingly difficult as the pot approaches the million-dollar mark ("How much spit does the average adult human produce in a day?").
It differs from most game shows in two key ways. First, unlike its daytime counterparts, when a contestant makes his first mistake on "Millionaire," he's outta there. Then there are the "lifelines." Yes, contestants actually get to solicit outside help in their quest. They can a) call a Mensa friend on the phone, b) poll the audience or c) get the producers to eliminate two of that question's four possible answers.
In its two-week run, the show became the most talked-about and written-about TV program in years, harking back to the quiz shows that enthralled viewers in television's early years.
Making this comparison does not necessarily endear you to network execs. While those game shows were huge ratings hits--"The $64,000 Question" became the No. 1 show in 1957, eclipsing even "I Love Lucy"--they plunged the networks into scandal when an investigation revealed that some producers were giving contestants the answers in advance. Most network quiz shows were canceled, never again to appear. Today, only one game show, daytime's "The Price Is Right," airs on a network; the remaining are syndicated fare run by stations.
Which may explain why ABC immediately and very publicly owned up to a mistake it made early on in the game with one contestant, David Honea of Raleigh, N.C., who was asked "Which of the Great Lakes is largest in area after Lake Superior?"
"Huron," answered Honea. Outta there!
Afterward, Honea challenged the decision and the network investigated, discovering its mistake. So at the end of that broadcast--taped, like all the others, the night before it aired--Philbin came back to announce the mistake, give Honea the $64,000 prize he had won and invite him back to continue on Sunday night's final show.
So how did a program in which "dramatic climax" means an egghead from Virginia correctly identifies the birth name of Pope John Paul I as Albina Luciani become the most exciting thing going in the 100-channel universe? Greg Lipstone, senior VP at the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills and one of the Morris execs who brought "Millionaire" to ABC, thinks he knows. It's because viewers can play along at home, nearly everybody knows the answer to at least one question, the money's very big, those lifelines, and because a well-known talk show headliner is the host, he speculates. (William Morris represents Philbin, naturally.)
Whether "Millionaire" is to prime-time game shows what "The Cosby Show" was to sitcoms or "ER" was to dramas remains to be seen, Lipstone acknowledged. Which is pretty darned candid of him, since he's at the forefront of the game show pitching that's being done around Hollywood these days.
Among the titles he's shopping are the BBC sports panel game "They Think It's All Over" and the quiz show "It's Only TV but I Like It." And the Fox Family Channel has ordered a pilot for another Morris-repped gamer called "Don't Try This at Home."
ABC, meanwhile, has fast-tracked its Norm Macdonald-hosted "Have I Got News for You," which Macdonald pithily describes as a "faux game show" involving "a bunch of dudes talking about the news to each other."
And CBS may now be looking to air its remake of "What's My Line?" sooner than planned. The six-episode order was originally intended for this summer, but never made it. So the network decided to put it off until next summer. But that was before "Millionaire" hit the 22 million mark.
ABC has made it official: Jack Ford is leaving NBC to join the alphabet network's news division. Ford will report legal and other stories and will be an anchor for "20/20." He'll also substitute for Charles Gibson on "Good Morning America"; there has been wide speculation that ABC wants him to take over for Gibson, who returned as a "GMA" anchor along with Diane Sawyer when that morning show went into a ratings free fall. Both Gibson and Sawyer have said they will stay with the show through the end of the coming TV season in May.
Ford and ABC News spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said no promises have been made that Ford will inherit Gibson's job.
Ford spent the last five years as co-anchor of the "Today" weekend editions and as NBC News's chief legal correspondent, providing analysis for "Today" as well as for "Dateline NBC" and "NBC Nightly News." The former trial attorney began his TV career in 1983 at New York's WCBS. He was an anchor for Court TV from the network's inception in 1991 until 1994.
He starts at ABC on Sept. 7; his last "Today" appearance will be Saturday.