Perhaps you've heard of it--that little game show on ABC?

By Dan Snierson
Updated December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The audience cheers as the stage lights darken. The synthesizer music tumbles into a suspenseful, low-pitched hum. Suddenly, a hush descends on the set, the only sound the percussive thump of a heartbeat: Boom, boom…boom, boom…

”Now, for one million dollars — and remember, you’ve already used up all your lifelines — here’s your question: How on earth did a British quiz show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire kick-start a third-place network, spawn a slew of copycat shows, devastate the ratings of anything scheduled opposite it, revive the waning phenomenon of watercooler television, revolutionize the way the industry looks at low-cost alternative programming, and mesmerize a nation (an average of nearly 21 million viewers per episode), making it the TV sensation of the season?”

A. It’s the Brainteasers. They ranged from annoyingly easy (What is your power source if you use solar energy?) to ridiculously arcane (Which English king did William Shakespeare refer to as Bolingbroke?), but either way, America debated, dissected, discussed — obsessed over — the ABC show’s puzzlers. ”A $500,000 question can be ‘What’s the real name of Pope John I?’ but it’s also ‘Which one of the following is not a Pokemon?”’ says exec producer Michael Davies, a former ABC exec who adapted the show from the British prototype. ”Perhaps what we proved is that there is no canon of American trivia.”

B. It’s the Contestants. For once, TV’s most gripping human dramas didn’t unfold on ER or Law & Order—they took place in the Millionaire hot seat. (Witness Paul ”I feel like I’m sitting on a toilet and all of America is watching me” Locharernkul.) In an L.A./N.Y.-obsessed TV universe, Millionaire wisely exploited a vast untapped resource called the American public. ”I was terrified that the contestants were going to have no personality or be too old,” says Davies. ”But the fact that they didn’t have ‘TV personalities’ is why people relate to them.” On the other hand, such democracy also allowed an IRS agent (for God’s sake!) to win the first million.

C. It’s Interactive, Inclusive Fun. Unlike the clinical, isolation-boothed appeal of ’50s quiz-show hits The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One, Millionaire was a refreshing, we’re-all-in-this-boat-together affair — from the tricky phone qualification game to the innovative ”lifelines” allowing contestants to poll the audience or dial up anyone they wanted. (Trendy cocktail party patter: ”So, who’s on your phone-a-friend list?”) ”It’s a drama people can directly identify with because they can be there themselves,” sums up cocreator Paul Smith. ”They’ve only got to lift up the phone.”

D. It’s Reege. ”I thought I had reached my little mountain peak with the show I’m doing in the morning,” says Regis Philbin, 66. ”I never wanted more than that. And then along comes this thing—a hit that saves ABC!” Watching him enjoy the sweet success was our tasty treat: Finally Kathie Lee-free, the talk-show host handled the emcee role with equal parts bravado, ice-breaking humor, and hammed-up gravitas. ”There’s a huge sentiment on staff for Regis,” says Davies. ”He’s been a sidekick and a cohost, but he’s never had his own show. There was incredible motivation to make Millionaire work, just for him.”