ABC's year-old 'Millionaire' at crossroads

As ABC prepares to celebrate the first anniversary of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the producers find themselves at a crossroads.

While network TV industry is still experiencing the aftershocks of last year’s “Millionaire” phenomenon, initial excitement about the show itself has settled down.

“I think the show is going through a transition from special event to series,” said U.S. exec producer Michael Davies. “It’s going to find its point where it’s comfortable being a regular series. I think it’s doing that right now.”

In the U.S., the halo effect of the show helped the six broadcast nets rake in close to $8 billion at this year’s upfront. “Millionaire”-rich ABC led the ad race with an estimated $2.3 billion — an all-time record for any broadcast net, and up substantially from the Alphabet web’s $1.8 billion last year.

Worldwide, the “Millionaire” monster continues to grow teeth. Local shows have debuted to huge numbers in 29 countries and are being readied in 50 others.

Almost two years after “Millionaire” made its debut in the U.K., the format continues to shatter performance expectations in just about every market it enters and to reap millions for just about everyone involved — from France to Finland, South Africa to Slovenia.

U.K. production company Celador is planning to throw a first-ever meeting of the “Millionaire” minds this fall.

Producers behind the quizzer’s 29 worldwide editions will toast their success while sharing lifelines and final answers at the Mipcom TV market in Cannes this October.

International format rights holders — and the U.S. companies adapting those shows Stateside — have also prospered. Tenpercentery William Morris, which brokered the U.S. “Millionaire” deal among other format pacts, has also seen its stock rise.

That’s especially true for the careers of William Morris’ Ben Silverman and Greg Lipstone, who brokered the deal in the U.S.

And one year later, “Millionaire” remains a lifeline for ABC.

The show has also been printing money for ABC parent Disney, spawning two best-selling CD-ROMs and an upcoming soundtrack, among other merchandise.

Its success paved the way for the current reality explosion, from CBS’ “Survivor” and “Big Brother” to upcoming events such as ABC’s “The Mole” and “The Runner” and Fox’s “Mastergame” and “Wanted.”

The series, which expands to four nights a week this fall, still generally wins its timeslot among viewers and adults 18 to 49 — although notable exceptions, such as its losing battle against CBS’ “Survivor,” has exposed its vulnerability.

While ratings have settled down, “Millionaire” is also on a rapidly aging tear. With PUT (people using television) levels among young viewers typically low during the summer, “Millionaire’s” median age has shot up to the mid-50s.

As a result, the skein’s young adult ratings may still be on par with other shows at the top of the ratings heap — but they’re at no means the stratospheric levels of the show’s early days.

“The numbers have leveled off but they seem to be incredibly stable at the same time,” Davies said. “You’re not hearing a lot of ‘I’m really sick of ‘Millionaire.’

“You’re hearing people say, ‘It’s on three times a week, I can’t invest in three hours of it. I’m going to watch one hour of it, and then if I catch the other two, great. If not, it’s not a great tragedy.’ “

According to Larry Hyams, the Alphabet’s veep of primetime audience analysis, the average “Millionaire” viewer checks out the gameshow 1.4 times a week. Only 6% of “Millionaire” viewers catch all three episodes.

“It’s the prototypical least-objectionable program,” Hyams said. “If you’re at home at that time, you’ll watch Regis (Philbin). As it becomes a regular series you might say, ‘I can skip it if I have something else to do.’ But with multiple telecasts here, this is the best type of least-objectionable programming out there.”

Hunting stunts

As “Millionaire” graduates from big-event program to standard fare, Davies and ABC execs are investigating ways to keep the excitement alive. “Millionaire” will most likely launch in the new season with a week of specially themed episodes.

Just as with the most traditional gameshows, “Millionaire” has a number of stunts up its sleeve for this fall: another celebrity week, a college week and a teen week, among others.

“I think we absolutely have to come up with special events,” said Stu Bloomberg, ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman.

“We have to be clever and inventive in our stunts. Certainly the inclination would be to do ‘Celebrity Millionaire’ weekly, or once a month. But you don’t want to dilute the specialness of that concept.”

Although “Millionaire” mania settles down, concern over some of the show’s more controversial elements have somewhat subsided as well.

Producers continue to look into ways to improve representation of women and minorities on the show, although as of yet there are no plans to replace the show’s blind casting process.

Also, early complaints that the show’s questions were too easy seem to have quieted down. Even as the show awarded its sixth millionaire earlier this month, another contestant answered a $100 question incorrectly and went home with empty pockets.

“We’ve had 250 contestants make it into the hot seat,” Davies said. “Of those 250, only six have become millionaires, or 2.5%. That’s a tiny percentage.”

Syndie cash looms

Davies still sees a great deal of afterlife for “Millionaire.” While the show’s repeats performed respectably last month with viewers, the real cash infusion will come when Disney makes the (probably) inevitable decision to create a first-run syndicated version of “Millionaire.”

“We all talk about first-run sometime in the future, but it’s not like we’ve picked out a date,” Davies said.

The show’s immediate back-end has been driven by elaborate online and enhanced TV components.

“This is truly the most successfully converged program out there,” said WMA’s Silverman.

Keeping the show fresh has been less of a problem in “Millionaire’s” country of origin. U.K. network ITV only trots out the gamer four times a year, maintaining a special event quality to the program. But even in Britain, Celador’s Paul Smith believes that the “Millionaire” mobile will eventually run out of gas.

“Think of Pogo Sticks and yo-yos and Hula Hoops,” Smith said. “The simple fact is every craze has its period of time when it touches the public, and I’m quite certain that this show won’t last.

“Surely logic would dictate that the more times you allow the public to see the show, the quicker they’re going to tire of it,” he said. “But when that will be, we don’t know.”

Even if viewers tire of Regis and friends, you probably won’t see producers tinkering with the format. Celador has final say on whether “Millionaire’s” basic structure can be changed — even in the U.S. — but Smith would just as soon rest the show than alter its winning formula.

“I think the format is as perfect as we can make it, and it would be a disaster to attempt to tweak it,” Smith said.

“If the program begins to falter, what we’ll suggest is take it off, rest it for a while. Then bring it back when there’s a fresh audience who wants to watch it.”

Spread too thin?

Despite criticism that ABC has spread “Millionaire” too thin, ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chair Lloyd Braun dismisses concerns that the Alphabet web is “mortgaging” its future.

“We can’t give you a finite date as to how long it will be four nights, three nights a week, one night or two,” he said. “It might function as an accordion during the course of the year, depending on what we want to do on the shows and how we want to launch them.

“There really are no rules for us on this, but we do believe the show is going to perform very well for quite a while.”

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