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''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'' slumps

”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” slumps — Sean ”Puffy” Combs, Charlie Sheen, and other celebrities are called in as the ratings for Regis’s game show fall

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For $100: Who Wants To Be A Millionaire is (a) About to be canceled; (b) Slashing its budget and becoming Who Wants to Be a Thousandaire; (c) replacing Reege with Carson Daly to attract those crazy kids; (d) Finally, at long last, showing the first signs of vulnerability.

If you’ve been following the television biz the last couple of weeks, you don’t need a lifeline to figure out the answer is D. Sure, Regis Philbin’s trivia-packed show remains a colossal powerhouse, and, yes, other networks would still sacrifice small children to call it their own. But in this season’s very early returns, ABC’s four-night-a-week quizzer has slipped an eyebrow-raising 29 percent compared with last season’s remarkable run, falling from an average 27.6 million to 19.7 million viewers. ”The inevitable decline of ratings was going to happen,” explains Millionaire exec producer Michael Davies. ”We were an event TV program. Now we’re not. The show’s on all the time.”

And that has eager rivals sniffing blood. Last week, both NBC and CBS — aware that Millionaire needs special events to keep fresh — quietly urged their stars to reject invitations to the show’s November sweeps celebrity edition. ”It’s not quite as potent as it once was,” snipes a rival network exec. ”If you have a competitor wounded, you do everything you can to finish him off.” The result: Would-be contestants including Patricia Heaton (of CBS’ Everybody Loves Raymond), Martin Sheen (NBC’s The West Wing), and Conan O’Brien (the Peacock’s late-night host) have all pulled out of the hot seat opposite the Monochromatic Man. Apparently, in some cases, with mixed feelings. ”I understand NBC’s point,” deadpans O’Brien. ”Why be smart and funny in front of 30 million viewers when you can be smart and funny in front of three?”

Celebrity Millionaire will instead rely on dutiful ABC folks (Spin City‘s Charlie Sheen), music types (Sean ”Puffy” Combs), and cable stars (Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart). ”I was sort of stunned,” says Davies of the rival networks’ talent boycott. ”We feel pretty good about Celebrity Millionaire — all [the winnings] go to charity.”

Who knows if CBS and NBC’s uncharitable ploy will hurt Millionaire, but the game show — which jumped from three to four nights this season — has already had a bumpy post-summer reentry. In addition to the ratings sag, the audience has gotten grayer — which doesn’t sit well with youth-obsessed advertisers. Millionaire‘s median age has climbed from 48.7 years (the average from January through May) to 54.1 years. ”If the show continues to get older, it may get to a point where it’s not reaching the type of viewers that advertisers are seeking,” says Dana Friedman of media investment company MindShare.

Of course, these worrisome early numbers don’t provide a final answer; they could just be a temporary aberration. ”We’re up against the launch of fall shows,” says Davies. ”Everybody’s coming back with 22 new episodes, big promotable story lines, and cliff-hangers.” The man’s got a point: Expect Millionaire — which has remained in the top five — to make a mini-comeback as producers dream up gimmicks (Olympic athletes will air on Oct. 22 and 24), and as Americans get bored with the newfangled fare. Already, fast-out-of-the-gate rivals like NBC’s sudser Titans are dropping in the Nielsens. Says an ABC spokesman, ”We’re confident Millionaire will remain a strong, viable part of our schedule through the season.”

Meanwhile, if the unthinkable occurs and Millionaire takes a drastic dive, ABC has developed what seems like a promising mid-season slate. Among the offerings: a Joan Cusack sitcom produced by James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets), a Damon Wayans comedy, and a quasi-Survivor reality show called The Mole. ”I don’t think [ABC] feels panicked,” says media buyer Paul Schulman. ”But I think they feel that they have to be prepared for when the time comes that Millionaire is no longer a top 10 or a top 15 show.” And whatever happens, don’t worry about Reege: His day job is doing just fine.

Additional reporting by Dan Snierson and Tricia Johnson