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ABC debates the future of ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire''

Experts tell EW Online about the risks of making Regis’ show into a series

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Regis Philbin, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
Donna Svennevik/ABC

After all seven of last week’s episodes of ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” ended up in Nielsen’s top 15, is it any wonder ABC doesn’t want to close up the bank? Yesterday the network announced the addition of three more hour-long episodes to this 15-night run, airing next Monday through Wednesday. Beyond that, rumor has it that the network will make the show a regular part of the schedule, with one, two, or even more weekly episodes; a network spokesperson says further options are also being weighed.

One thing is as obvious as the show’s $100 questions: The reason ”Millionaire” is proving so addictive is that viewers think it’s NOT going to last. ”If it’s on 15 nights and you’ve watched 12, and nobody’s gotten the top prize, you feel like you should watch the remaining nights,” says Ed Martin, editor of the Myers Programming Report, an industry newsletter. ”If you skip a night or two and somebody wins, you’ve missed it.”

Last week the show never dipped below a 20 share, a feat it won’t be able to duplicate if it goes weekly. ”As soon as people get used to something,” says Martin, ”they start looking around or are easily pulled to something else.” Tom Watson, VP of Western International Media thinks that ”Millionaire”’s ratings will decline if it gets an extended run, just as a popular series loses audience after older shows are syndicated as reruns. ”If you can see your favorite show any day, it’s no longer as important,” says Watson. ”For example, I don’t have to watch ‘Frasier’ on Thursdays at 9 if I can see it any night of the week. Yes, it’s a rerun, but I may not have seen it, so it becomes less and less of appointment TV.”

With the numbers ”Millionaire” is pulling in, a dip might still qualify it as a hit. Bob Flood, senior VP of DeWitt Media, predicts it could drop around five share points, ”but that might still generate numbers that ABC may not currently get.” (A 15 share would put it on a par with ”Will & Grace.”) Considering how cheap ”Millionaire” is to produce — each hour costs around $500,000 less than a drama — a modest hit would still be a major profit maker.

As a regular show, ”Millionaire” could earn steady, respectable numbers instead of the isolated spike that the show is getting during sweeps week. But that may not be a problem. Sweeps ratings aren’t particularly beneficial to networks — these quarterly events are staged for the good of small affiliates who measure their audience only during sweeps week to set local advertising rates. But national advertisers keep track of network numbers all year round. ”This event programming only helps networks the moment it’s on,” says Watson. ”They can have a great November, but when December rolls around, it’s gonna get awfully cold.”

Which brings us to ABC’s final dilemma: The great game-show rush. If the network waits until the next sweeps period to bring back ”Millionaire,” other networks may already have placed their own quiz shows onto the schedule (NBC’s ”Twenty-One” and CBS’ ”The $64,000 Question”), and ”Millionaire” might face stiff competition. ”If you try to keep the property fresh by keeping it off the air,” says Flood, ”you run the risk of losing your audience to the other networks.”

Okay, ABC, what’s your final answer?