You’re tired. you’re hungry. You’ve just traveled 2,504 miles to New York City for a revealing peek into the prime-time quiz-show sensation Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. After signing through security, you proceed past airy offices and hallways full of friendly faces. And then suddenly you spot it: the imposing wood door (complete with menacing push-button combination lock) that blocks passage to The Room — the mysterious place where writers and researchers hole up like Santa’s helpers, crafting those brain-taxing questions that separate the wimps from the winners. The possibilities race through your greedy little brain: A good swift power kick here, a picked door handle there, and you could be just a couple of ill-gotten answers away from winning (place your pinkie on your bottom lip) one meeellion dollars.
”No one’s allowed back there,” announces the show’s no-nonsense supervising producer, Ann Miller, who’ll kindly give you a tour of everywhere but The Room. ”Look, I wouldn’t even let the phone-company guys in there until they signed agreements. And even that makes me very, very uncomfortable….” C’mon, any chance of making a one-time exception for a financially strapped, puppy-dog-eyed journalist? ”Sorry.”
Alas, that was indeed her final answer. Don’t worry, though: There’s a far more enriching story to tell here than of some poor bloke’s take-the-money-and-run scheme. In one of the most surprising successes of the year — an imported British quiz show? in prime time? hosted by Regis Philbin? — Millionaire stirred up a cross-demographic phenomenon rarely seen since the days of three-network TV. When the ABC series debuted on Aug. 16, it started cashing in viewers the way Trump blows through 20s (averaging over 14 million people in a two-week run, including a grand finale that netted 22.4 million). The miracles don’t stop there: Millionaire also dramatically hipped up the game-show genre (Wink Martindale, we have some lovely parting gifts for you) and single-handedly put a spring back in the step of the third-place network. ”I don’t know if Regis saved the network,” says ABC Entertainment cochairman Stu Bloomberg, ”but he saved my paycheck.”
But was it true love or just a summer fling? That big-money question will be answered when the show returns for another two-week engagement on Nov. 7. And though sweeps month will present more formidable competition than August’s Veronica’s Closet reruns, all the (dollar) signs look promising. Weaned on a strict diet of sitcoms, dramas, newsmags, and low-rent reality specials, viewers have been energized by Millionaire’s tasty slice of nonfiction high jinks. New yet nostalgic, high-tech yet minimalist, foreboding yet friendly, Millionaire is hardly your uncle’s Jeopardy. ”The calling card is that you can win a million,” says Millionaire cocreator Paul Smith. ”But the primary attraction is the drama taking place on a nightly basis. It’s seeing people wrestle with some of the most important decisions that they will ever make in their lives. You see them sweating, terrified, biting their nails, their pulse rates high — yet all that’s going to happen is they might not go away with as much money as they’d hoped.”
It certainly didn’t take long for the flop sweat to start flowing down rival networks’ foreheads. In November, Fox will debut Greed, a pop-culture trivia challenge with a jackpot of — not one, but — $2 million. NBC is planning to bring back its scandal-scarred ’50s hit Twenty-One. Meanwhile, CBS has two game shows in the works (old-school revivals What’s My Line? and The $64,000 Question), as well as Swedish import Survivor (16 contestants marooned on a remote island vie for a million smackers). Even Pee-wee Herman is game: Production company Carsey-Werner signed Paul Reubens for an adaptation of the CD-ROM trivia test You Don’t Know Jack.
But you don’t have to know Jack to grasp the business sense behind the game-show boomlet: They’re cheap to make. (An hour of Millionaire costs about $500,000 less to produce than a typical drama). “We’re sitting on game-show titles that we’ve had for 10 years and now everybody wants them,” says William Morris’ Ben Silverman, one of the agents who packaged Millionaire for ABC. CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem concurs: “I think Millionaire shook up everyone. Now the whole industry is saying ‘Wow, we really have to take a closer look.'”
All they had to do was gaze across the Atlantic. Over in England, Smith and three other chaps at production company Celador had fleshed out an intriguing format for a high-stakes quiz show: Contestants are asked questions with four possible answers that increase in difficulty and value; with each correct answer, they can cash out or risk their money on the next level. And to make things really interesting, competitors also receive three aids called lifelines, which allow them to either ask the audience for help, call a friend, or have two of the wrong answers removed. (Do they award Nobels for game-show genius?)
Premiering last fall on Britain’s ITV, Millionaire was an instant smash: Of all the people watching prime time, more than half had their tellies tuned to the show. And faster than the Concorde, the buzz hopped over to the States and right into the lap of transplanted Englishman Michael Davies, ABC’s exec VP of alternative series and specials. “Literally, two days after the show aired,” he recalls, “I received eight copies of it, from my mother, my brother, and friends of mine in the television business. I watched it and instantly knew four things: This was the best quiz show I had ever seen. The format would work everywhere. I wanted to get it on ABC and get the rights to it, even though that would be incredibly difficult. And I wanted to quit my job and go produce it.”
After outmaneuvering several syndicators for Millionaire‘s rights, Davies turned in his ABC suit. And though little translation of the British prototype was necessary, the one hurdle would be finding the perfect Stateside host. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…the master of cranky camaraderie, Regis Philbin (see page 25). “Michael Davies had a shortlist of people,” says Philbin. “My name wasn’t even on the long list. I had to get on the phone and say, ‘Look, I’m turning down a lot of shows, but this is the one that really knocks me out. It’s the most compelling television I’ve seen in years. I’d love to be considered for it. I really love this show.'” While Davies recalls that Philbin was on the shortlist (with Bob Costas, Phil Donahue, and Montel Williams), he agrees that Reege’s enthusiasm was undeniable: “He blew me away with both his passion for the program and his understanding of the format. He pledged that he’d do anything to be considered: audition, travel to London, anything. He really wanted it. So I thanked him, hung up the phone, and instantly crossed out the other names on the list.”
From then on, the wheel of fortune kept spinning their way. ABC execs were so high on Millionaire — except for the research department, whose forecast of low ratings now hangs proudly in Davies’ office — they didn’t even commission a pilot. But the gamble paid off immediately: The questions were captivating (“What is the only current U.S. coin with a President’s profile facing to the right?”), and the contestants were memorable (“I feel like I’m sitting on the toilet and all of America is watching me,” confided a nerve-wracked Paul Locharernkul). Even a mini-fiasco turned out fortuitously: Contestant David Honea was asked to name the second largest in area of the five Great Lakes and responded, “Lake Huron”; he was incorrectly informed that the answer was actually Lake Michigan. (“The worst 24 hours of my life,” shudders Davies.) Honea was quickly invited back and, amid great media attention, won $125,000 in the show’s highest-rated episode.
The producers are now confident that the show’s only future embarrassment will be one of riches: In the coming months, look for the official Millionaire Internet site, book, board game, and CD-ROM. There’s also talk of a behind-the-scenes TV special. And Davies is already quietly working on his sequel: an adaptation of the long-running Brit game show Mastermind. “I decided to develop this show when that guy Michael Shutterly won $500,000 on the Pope question,” he says, referring to the wizard who correctly identified Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I. “I was sitting in the control room and I realized there’s room out there for a show where instead of saying ‘Oh my God, these questions are so easy,’ you say, ‘What planet are these guys from?’ It’s probably the most intelligent, most blue-chip, most high-pressure show of all time. It was originally developed by a guy who was cross-examined by the Gestapo during the Second World War. He tried to re-create the most amount of pressure he was ever put under in his life, but do it in quiz-show form.” Cripes — who’d want to be a millionaire under those conditions? Well…okay, maybe we would. But can Reege at least do the interrogating?