Warbucks and cash

'Millionaire,' 'Annie' win big for Alphabet

ABC’s primetime rivals may be facing the hard-knock life for the next two weeks: “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is back, and it’s stronger than ever.

Facing as tough a slate of sweeps competition as it’s likely to see over its current 15-night run, the Regis Philbin-hosted “Millionaire” returned Sunday and answered all doubters by topping the highest numbers from its hit 13-night run last August.

ABC also scored sunny Nielsens with a new version of “Annie,” which provided a whammo lead-in for “Millionaire” and helped the Alphabet web clear away the cobwebs and the sorrow that have marked ABC’s recent sweeps performances.

Left poorer for their Sunday encounter with “Millionaire” were NBC’s first part of “The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns,” CBS’ part one of “Shake, Rattle & Roll” and, to a lesser extent, Fox’s season premiere of “The X-Files.”

Record for ABC

ABC banked its richest Sunday numbers in the last two years, putting the Alphabet in position to win the Nov. 1-7 primetime Nielsen week in adults 18-49 or possibly tie NBC for first. If either is the case when Nielsen releases those averages today, it’ll rep the first time this season that NBC has been beaten or tied in that demo.

CBS is poised to win the week in households by about a 0.2 ratings-point edge over NBC and by 0.3 over ABC.

The Alphabet’s November expectations have been “upped a notch” based on the big “Millionaire” start, according to Jeff Bader, ABC senior VP of programs, planning and scheduling.

Difficult night out of way

“I think it was the most difficult night of the sweeps, and we’ve got it behind us now,” Bader said. “We’re not going to grow every night from here, but we do expect to outperform regular programming in every case.”

Contributing to “Millionaire’s” largess Sunday was a heroic lead-in from Storyline Entertainment’s “Annie,” which belted out the second-highest “Wonderful World of Disney” rating ever, behind only the “Cinderella” tally of two years ago. Exec producer Craig Zadan said execs from ABC and Disney have already approached Storyline about another big TV musical for November 2000.

“They called and said, ‘Let’s start putting together the casting for the next one,’ ” said Zadan, who, with partner Neil Meron, also produced “Cinderella” and the 1993 CBS adaptation of “Gypsy.”

The solid “Annie” results give Disney a shot at strong videocassette sales with the two-hour kidpic, which will require strong backend revenues to cover its lavish production budget. ABC is also seriously mulling the possibility of an encore showing of “Annie” before the end of sweeps.

“Annie’s” lead-in helped “Millionaire” snub all 9-10 p.m. slot competition.

NBC’s aggressively promoted “Leprechauns, Part 1” (a preliminary 9.8 rating, 15 share in homes, 6.1/14 in adults 18-49) dropped a stunning 59% below the part-one 18-49 average for NBC’s previous four similar Robert Halmi/Hallmark Entertainment two-parters (6.1 vs. 14.7).

CBS’ “Shake, Rattle & Roll, Part 1” (a prelim 9.0/14 in homes, 4.1/9 in adults 18-49) also disappointed, beating only one of the Big Three’s 13 firstrun multiple-parters from last season in first-episode 18-49 rating.

‘X’ holds 18-49

And Fox’s seventh-season premiere of “X-Files” (a prelim 10.5/15 in homes, 9.6/20 in adults 18-49) slipped 18% below its year-ago 18-49 premiere rating. “X-Files” still won its hour over “Millionaire” in adults 18-49 and held down year-to-year losses impressively, given Sunday’s fierce competition.

From 9-10 p.m., “Millionaire” counted up a preliminary 15.2/22 in homes and a 9.2/19 in adults 18-49, beating the best ratings of its 13-episode run last August and boding well for the gameshow’s subsequent 14 consecutive airings this month.

By contrast, NBC and CBS have flopped with their first big sweeps stunts and appear to be in for more disappointing numbers with concluding segs of “Leprechauns” and “Shake” skedded.

The surprisingly prosperous return of “Millionaire” reflects in part the 7-9 p.m. boost of “Annie” (a prelim 14.5/22 in homes, 7.9/18 in adults 18-49), which easily outperformed every other “Wonderful World” result since “Cinderella’s” November 1997 triumph (18.4/27 in homes, 13.0/28 in adults 18-49). “Annie” soared among kids, attracting an 18.0/46 with viewers 2-11.

All those Nielsen riches boosted ABC’s “The Practice” (13.0/21 in homes, 7.8/19 in adults 18-49) at 10 p.m. to series-record results.

ABC & game vs. NBC

ABC will now closely watch “Millionaire’s” performance over the next two weeks to determine its future role. According to Bader, continued use of the show as a sweeps stunt or a switch to regular-series status are both under consideration.

ABC’s lucrative Sunday Nielsens have catapulted the Alphabet 39% ahead of its year-ago sweeps-to-date average in adults 18-49 (with a projected 5.0 rating four nights into the sweeps versus last year’s 3.6). NBC still leads in that race (5.8, down 15%), but ABC is expected to close the gap quickly in coming nights and give NBC a strong challenge for the monthlong victory.

Fox (5.0, down 18%) could also figure in the 18-49 race. CBS (3.5, down 15%) appears to have a lock on fourth place in that demo but is likely to challenge NBC and possibly ABC for the sweeps win in homes.

For the Nov. 1-7 week, projections making use of weekend prelim data show ABC headed toward a 5.3 or a 5.4 in adults 18-49, which could mean a win over NBC’s anticipated 5.3. Fox (4.9) and CBS (3.7) are expected to trail.

An ABC win or tie would end NBC’s steak of 11 consecutive in-season weeks alone atop the 18-49 standings.

Each adults 18-49 rating point reps 1.24 million viewers, 1% of the U.S. total. The share is also a percentage, but measured against only viewers watching TV during the slot involved.