The biggest battle on TV isn't Bryant Gumbel versus Katie Couric--it was last night's head-to-head combat between ABC's ratings Goliath "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and Fox's little David knockoff "Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge."
"Millionaire" is sure to be the ratings victor; after sucking in 26 million viewers in its triumphant return last Sunday, it has pulled in nearly as many viewers each night through Wednesday, which eclipses "Greed's" debut audience of 9 million last Thursday.
But "Greed" landed one in giant "Millionaire's" eye last night when it gave away $1 million--the biggest cash prize ever awarded on an American game show.
ABC's show--brought back for the November sweeps after its stunning summer success--has been airing nightly since Sunday. Fox's "Greed" is airing on Thursday nights during the ratings derby, and last night was the two shows' first faceoff.
In terms of dollar giveaway, "Greed" hit the jackpot. Granted, the million-dollar winnings were split among three teammates--two men and a woman who won their prize by knowing that James Dean, Joan of Arc, Janis Joplin and Buddy Holly were dead before age 30 whereas Harry Houdini, Lou Gehrig, Chris Farley and Rudolph Valentino lived longer, if only slightly, than that. But their individual take wasn't that much more than the biggest prize on last night's "Millionaire"--$250,000.
That went to a Long Island dentist, because he knew that Queen Victoria was the empress of India, not Egypt, Ireland or Canada.
Then the guy blew it on a half-million-dollar puffball question about how many children Capt. Von Trapp had in "The Sound of Music."
"Millionaire" has not actually made a millionaire out of any of its contestants. The Long Island dentist and another guy back in August each won $250,000, and Richmond attorney Michael Shutterly took home $500,000 in August.
ABC and Fox have to be loving all the publicity they're getting out of last night's game show smackdown--even if it costs them a million dollars. These shows are, after all, dirt cheap to make. "Millionaire," for instance, costs about $400,000 an episode to produce. And 30-second ads on the show--of which there are plenty each night--cost about $300,000 each. So ABC's delighted to hand out the dough to players, even on nights like last night, when contestants' total haul came to more than $300,000.
Now, the million-dollar question is: Will ABC dumb down the big-buck questions on "Millionaire" to make sure the show lands a million-dollar winner soon, lest it start losing viewers to "Greed"?
NBC appears to have figured out what went wrong with its most recent Garth Brooks special, "In the Life of Chris Gaines." No fright wig.
Sure, Brooks talked at length about Chris Gaines, this failed rock star who's running around in Brooks's head. He even sang Chris Gaines songs, some in falsetto a la the Artist Formerly Known as Talented.
But Garth Brooks was dressed like boring old Garth Brooks, in his usual black shirt and jeans--though he did forgo the 30-gallon black cowboy hat, for which we were thankful.
Did viewers actually want to see Chris Gaines--that is, doughboy Brooks badly got up in that black wig from the Andy Warhol School of Hair Replacement that he's sporting on the cover of his "In the Life of Chris Gaines" album? And that black five-button suit that Brooks, during the special, said makes him--or rather, Gaines--look 20 pounds thinner?
"In the Life of Chris Gaines" was a bomb by Brooks standards, scoring only about half his usual NBC prime-time audience.
Garth Brooks will play Garth Brooks when he hosts this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" on NBC. And Garth Brooks will play Chris Gaines as the show's musical guest--NBC is billing it as Brooks's one and only live performance in his goofy Gaines get-up.
The absolute final official Nielsen numbers are in for the first week of Bryant Gumbel's new CBS morning program, "The Early Show." For the week of Nov. 1-5, Gumbel's program pulled in an average of 3.16 million viewers--up 17 percent compared with how its predecessor, "This Morning," had been doing this season.
But it's still a far piece behind ABC's "Good Morning America," which averaged 4.5 million, and NBC's "Today" show, with 6.63 million.
"Early Show" wasn't the only program to benefit ratings-wise from the busy news week, which included early reporting on the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990. The "Today" audience was its biggest in nearly two years, up 16 percent compared with its season average. "GMA" performed 14 percent better than its season average.
The gap of 2.1 million viewers between "Today" and "GMA" is the biggest since the ABC show moved into its new Times Square studio in mid-September. The nearly 3.5 million viewer difference between "Today" and "Early Show" for the week is larger than the gap of 3 million that "Today" held over "This Morning."
But, as "Early Show" Executive Producer Steve Friedman keeps telling us, it takes a long time to turn around viewing habits in this daypart.
Oops! CBS is touting its special "Celine Dion: All the Way" as the diva's last appearance for two or three years. Following her one-hour special on the eye network, on Wednesday, Nov. 24, Dion is beginning a self-imposed break from performing, CBS claims.
Unfortunately for CBS, she'll also perform on ABC on Sunday, Dec. 5. Dion is one of the singers joining Rosie O'Donnell on her holiday special "A Rosie Christmas" that night. O'Donnell's special is, however, being taped in advance of its broadcast date.
WB's planned midseason series about Washington interns is in trouble. The network has scaled back its 13-episode order on "D.C." to seven and production has wrapped. This is not a good thing; it means the network wasn't wowed with what it saw and decided to cut its losses. There were early signs of trouble when the drama series, which was initially considered a very hot project over at the Wanna Be network, got bumped to the midseason bench. Midseason shows are supposed to be better--or at least be able to attract more viewers--than the shows they replace. Apparently WB suits don't think "D.C." is that much better than "Safe Harbor" or "Jack & Jill"--the only two new drama series at WB whose futures are in question. WB has given full season orders to dramas "Roswell," "Angel" and "Popular."
So don't expect to see "D.C." until the summer--it's called a burnoff.
But, never fear; it looks as though there's another Washington-based series on the way. NBC is developing a comedy about an idiot detective at the Department of Housing and Urban Development--which, it turns out, is actually a top secret spy agency. Think "Get Smart."
The sitcom pilot, with the working title "H.U.D.," will be penned by two comedy writers, one of whom comes off "Seinfeld" and "Saturday Night Live," the other from flicks "Airplane!" and "Naked Gun."
One of the creators told trade paper Variety that the show's being set at HUD because the FBI and the CIA have been overexposed.