Didja catch the first show in the new round of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" on ABC last night? As its irrepressible host, Regis Philbin, kept saying, "UnbeLEEVable!"
An accountant from New Jersey flamed out fast because he thought there were two teaspoons in a tablespoon. (There are three.) A Minnesota computer programmer sailed along until he hit a question about which of four state capitals is at the highest altitude and went for the obvious answer, Denver, except it's really--who knew?--Santa Fe.
Apart from a financial analyst from San Diego who pocketed a $32,000 check last night, nobody else went home with serious money. Nobody got to be a millionaire. In fact, since this nouveau quiz show premiered in Britain a year ago and then made an astonishingly successful U.S. debut for two weeks last summer, nobody's ever taken home the jackpot.
And maybe nobody will. "Millionaire's" confoundingly simple strategy is to build quickly from easy multiple-choice questions worth a few hundred bucks to tougher ones worth half a million. Miss one of the 15 questions and a contestant is history, and his winnings slip back to a previous level. The option to stop playing, and it is an option, grows tempting as the amounts fatten.
"Rather than risk it and only get $32,000, they'll take what they've won and leave," Philbin explained last week, psyching himself up with Dean Martin tunes in his "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" dressing room before rehearsals for "Millionaire's" two-week, seven-nights-a-week return (air times vary). That had been the British experience. "We thought, 'Oh boy, these hellbent Americans will go for it!' " Philbin added. "But they're not fools, either. I don't know if we're ever going to see a million won."
But somehow, that hasn't mattered. Record-breaking numbers of viewers tuned in in August when ABC gave "Millionaire" its tryout.
"Like any other entertainment or art form, quiz shows appeal to something deep in the human psyche, and it's not just vast sums of money," insists Michael Davies, the show's executive producer, a Brit and a serious student of '50s TV. "People like watching real people like them test their knowledge [and] make the biggest financial decisions of their lives in front of the whole country."
Why did this hybrid show--simultaneously contempo and retro--catch on in prime time? Credit or blame these two guys. Philbin, normally as antic off-camera as on, has learned how to look downright menacing and intone "Is that your [unnerving pause] final answer?" He's gotten so good at it that it's become one of those "Where's the beef?"-like buzzwords that pop culture generates now and then.
And Davies has immersed himself in black-and-white American quiz shows that he's far too young, at 33, ever to have seen on the air. He haunts broadcasting museums in Los Angeles and Manhattan, and pores over game show encyclopedias. He had a control room revelation a few years ago, while trying to bring back Wink Martindale: "Quiz shows have the perfect three-act structure: the setup, meeting the contestants; that wonderful confrontation and conflict; and ultimately, this beautiful resolution."
Of course, there are more prosaic explanations. "Millionaire" benefited from its dog-days debut; there's not much to watch in August. It takes place on an eye-catchingly futuristic set, all multicolored lights swirling on metal surfaces, very Starship Enterprise Goes Vegas.
It uses an innovative strategy to find contestants: Anyone can call the toll-free number announced on the show and answer three questions, each within 10 seconds. Semifinalists, randomly selected from those who correctly answered all three, face a playoff round, also by phone. Then, faster than they can yelp "Reeege!" the 10 winners are flown to New York, ready for tight close-ups of their agonized faces as they wonder which band won the first Grammy for heavy metal. (Answer: Jethro Tull, and had Richmond attorney Michael Shutterly known, he would have been the show's first millionaire instead of merely American TV's first half-million-dollar quiz show winner.) Washington resident Joel McElvain is one of tonight's 10 finalists. During the last round, 1.5 million would-be contestants called in.
Maybe that approach reinforces the audience's identification with the folks in the hot seat. Or maybe contemporary TV watchers simply hadn't seen anything quite like this in a very long time. Until last summer, the prime-time quiz show had been absent from network television for most of a decade. Cable was having some success--Comedy Central's Emmy-snagging "Win Ben Stein's Money" was a hit, and the Game Show Network had begun to turn a profit--but with ratings numbers that would get them yanked from broadcast networks. Occasional attempts to resurrect the genre kept fizzling. Even "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," chugging along in syndication since time began, suffer from declining and aging audiences.
There was, in short, absolutely no reason to think America would warm to a nighttime show whose central challenge was the ability to answer questions like "Which American poet wrote 'The Road Not Taken'?" ABC's own research department had advised that "Millionaire" would likely achieve a modest 9 share, meaning that 9 percent of the households watching TV would tune in. Once "Millionaire" climbed from 9 million viewers its first night out to 15 million mid-run to more than 22 million on its final night, grabbing a 22 share, Davies proudly had ABC's predictions framed and hung on his office wall.
"People in the industry didn't see this coming," says Janeen Bjork, a programming adviser for Millennium Sales and Marketing here. "None of the wannabes have been able to do it."
Now, of course, there are a lot more wannabes. Programming executives like game shows because while name-brand hosts like Philbin add considerably to their costs, they're cheap compared with sitcoms or dramas. So Fox hustled "Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge" onto the air last week, with a top prize of 2 million bucks. ("It's so Fox, isn't it," Philbin chortles, making a scary-monster face and waving his hands. "GREED!!")
CBS, probably cursing the delays that kept its new version of "What's My Line?" off the air this summer, will showcase it for six weeks next summer. Then there's the network's odd "Survivor," whose 16 contestants stand to win $1 million, but only after spending six grueling weeks on a previously uninhabited island in the South China Sea. "We describe it as a cross between 'The Real World,' 'Lord of the Flies' and 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,' " a spokesman explains ominously.
There's more: NBC is shooting a pilot for "Twenty-One," resurrecting the program notorious for unleashing the quiz show scandals of the late '50s, while CBS tinkers with the old "The $64,000 Question." An updated "To Tell the Truth" will be offered in syndication for next fall. Panel shows, game shows, classic Q&As--everyone's scrambling for a piece of a pie of unknown dimensions. Somewhere the ghost of Mark Goodson, King of Quiz Shows in their decades-past heyday, is smiling.
Michael Davies is arguably his heir, the 21st-Century Goodson, a guy who was thrilled to move from London to Hollywood and sit at the feet of such ageless game show experts as Monte Hall and Merv Griffin. It wasn't what his parents, an architect and a hospital therapist who'd never had much taste for TV except for the BBC news, had in mind for their youngest child. When Davies landed a job as a writer and contestant wrangler for "Let's Make a Deal" and called home to exult, he recalls, "My father said, 'Hardly one of the noble and ancient professions.' I said, 'There must've been someone who selected the Christians to be fed to the lions.' "
Undaunted, Davies helped launch several quiz shows, including the short-lived "Debt!" on Lifetime ("five years too early," he laments), "Ben Stein" and ABC's comedy/game show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Then he encountered "Millionaire" and was so on fire to make it a hit in America that he quit his job as an ABC vice president to shepherd it personally. "Quiz shows are so often perceived as rather tawdry, low-rent and a bit seedy," Davies says. "I've always tried to make them blue-chip."
One could argue about "Millionaire's" spooky music (tautly suspenseful or ridiculously overblown?) and metallic set (boldly futuristic? seriously garish?) and how blue-chip they are. But when it comes to taking precautions against skulduggery, Davies and his team adopted procedures any covert-operations agency could envy. Thanks to Federal Communications Commission rules, ABC's nervous legal department and a healthy case of paranoia, "Millionaire" appears to be sealed tight.
Those questions about everything from the Bible to pop music? A crack team of a dozen writers and researchers--armed with reference works on French cheeses, a 15-volume series on natural disasters, and "everything you want to know on the life of the killer bee," says supervising producer Ann Miller--concocts them in a midtown Manhattan office.
But don't ask who the researchers are: They sign complex confidentiality agreements and aren't allowed to tell even their friends what they do for a living. Don't try dropping by, either; they work behind a locked door, and aside from the researchers themselves, only Davies and Miller have the combination. The janitorial staff is escorted in and out. Researchers "even have their own coffeepot, so there's no mingling" with other staffers, Miller reports.
All of which supposedly ensures that no one else in the operation knows that one of the next show's likely questions asks which of the Great Lakes is second-largest in area. But just in case, the contestants are guarded as closely as the questions. Staffers greet them at the Upper West Side hotel where ABC puts them up, stay in the hotel overnight and escort them to the studio. "They can never be alone from that moment," Miller says. "They can't go to the bathroom by themselves. No cell phones or Palm Pilots. There's a security guard outside the door."
Despite such precautions, mistakes happen in any quiz show, and "Millionaire's" came when contestant David Honea, a North Carolina graduate student, encountered that Great Lakes question and correctly selected Lake Huron. Alas, a researcher had inadvertently logged Lake Michigan (second-largest in volume) into the computer, so Reege offered Honea condolences and he was gone. It was "personally devastating," Davies said of the unpleasant discovery that Honea had been right. "I felt I had my pants down in front of the whole American public."
Yet even this screw-up seems to have boosted the show, industry-watchers think: ABC quickly announced the problem and asked Honea to return for the finale, where he wound up with a $125,000 check, and the show rode a wave of publicity to its highest ratings. "Our honesty eventually won us a lot of friends," Davies says. Indeed, "Millionaire" has friends everywhere: A genuine worldwide phenomenon, for better or worse, it is produced in 17 countries and will be in 59 next year.
How many friends will stick around for the next two weeks or in the months to come when Davies hopes to give the show a "regular presence" (read: weekly time slot), or when it eventually faces a bunch of competitors? Well, who knows? TV is known for the Golden Goose Syndrome: A hit spawns a genre, the genre includes too many shoddy or derivative entries, and then the whole idea gets boring and goes bust.
That trajectory isn't inevitable--there are many hit sitcoms and dramas, so why couldn't there be several successful quiz shows?--but it's certainly possible. Davies would be forlorn; he thinks "Millionaire" will flourish regardless, but visions of potential new quiz shows dance in his head. There's a venerable British show called "Mastermind"--developed by someone who wanted to re-create (well, almost) his experience of being interrogated by the Gestapo during World War II--that Davies is eyeing for next season. "Very, very blue-chip," he says.
And then there's Reege, who, having been around this track many other times, tends to luxuriate in success when it strikes and doesn't sweat the future. "Before you know it, some other fad will come along," he philosophizes, then brightens. "Maybe westerns will come back next!"
And before you can say a hearty "Heigh-ho, Regis," he's off to rehearsal.
CAPTION: Regis Philbin waxes philosophical: "Before you know it, some other fad will come along."
CAPTION: Regis Philbin rehearses on the set of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."