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‘Millionaire’ Gets Ratings for ABC

August 23, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ It takes place in what looks like a disco, with throbbing music to heighten the suspense. ``The music is driving me crazy!″ rants host Regis Philbin. He isn’t alone.

``Who Wants To Be a Millionaire″ has hit the halfway mark in its two-week maiden run. Slotted by ABC every night through Aug. 29 (except tonight, in deference to ``Monday Night Football″), this quiz show has won good ratings and kept viewers’ adrenaline surging.

Philbin’s, too. ``It’s so nerve-wracking,″ he erupts, ``even I have trouble watching!″

As the first serious reprise of those big-money quizzes of the 1950s, ``Who Wants To Be a Millionaire″ seems a pretty good answer to the million-dollar question plaguing networks today: How do you rally a sizable, enthusiastic audience without busting the programming budget?

So don’t be surprised to see the relatively inexpensive ``Millionaire″ return _ whether as a weekly series, as ``event″ fare during a ratings-sweeps month, or as a fill-in when another series flops. For network and audience alike, ``Millionaire″ hits the jackpot as a cheap thrill.

Just like a half-century ago, we love rooting for ordinary folks to make a score.

And we especially love it when the show, not the contestant, makes a mistake. On Thursday’s installment, David Honea from Raleigh, N.C., answered that Lake Huron is the second-largest Great Lake in area. Wrong! Hours later, the producers realized he was right. Absolved, he’ll resume his quest for $1 million on the series’ final broadcast.

But much has changed since June 7, 1956, when the pioneering ``$64,000 Question″ premiered.

In fact, it’s tempting to say that the very nature of knowing has changed. On a ’50s show like ``Question″ or ``Twenty-One,″ each contestant was left alone with his thoughts, sealed in a so-called isolation booth. Then he would summon each response from his private store of knowledge.

But on ``Millionaire,″ the contestant is wired. Networked. Logged on to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. He can solicit advice from the studio audience, or phone a friend with the question. The individuality of yesterday has given way to interconnection. Clearly, it’s no longer what you know that counts, but where you point-and-click to find out.

Here’s the $32,000 question facing contestant Norman Payne, who creates crossword puzzles for a living: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was a former math professor at what college? a) University of Washington. b) Berkeley. c) Columbia. d) Brown.

Payne isn’t sure. So he places a call to his friend Doug. He takes Doug’s suggestion: b). Right!

With ``Millionaire,″ the idea is to finesse, endure and cash in, not flaunt your erudition. These days, in an odd turnabout, it’s appliances that are ``smart,″ while people are ``plugged in.″

It was quite a different ball game on ``Twenty-One,″ where contestant Charles Van Doren was asked to identify the main Balearic Islands (huh?) and explain the process of photosynthesis (hmm). He did it!

In its February 1957 cover story on Van Doren, Time magazine marveled at the ``fascinating, suspense-taut spectacle of his highly trained mind at work.″

By then, he was a megastar and a ratings sensation. This attractive young Columbia University instructor would make 14 electrifying appearances on ``Twenty-One″ in late 1956 and early ’57, vanquishing 13 competitors and winning a then-record $129,000.

``Just by being himself,″ trilled Time, ``he has enabled a giveaway show, the crassest of lowbrow entertainments, to whip up a doting mass audience for a new kind of TV idol _ of all things, an egghead.″

Of course, it was all too good to be true. As the 1994 film ``Quiz Show″ poignantly depicted, the very smart Van Doren outsmarted himself as a TV personality. Prepped with answers to those knotty questions, he was party to a deception, as were the producers and many fellow contestants of ``Twenty-One″ and other, similarly rigged quiz shows.

By the end of 1958, all those high-stakes quizzes had been banished. Van Doren was disgraced. And the American people were disillusioned to learn that the TV champion they thought they knew had been playing a scripted role.

No danger of that on ``Who Wants To Be a Millionaire,″ where no one pretends to be a genius. Not even the series’ very first contestant, David Korotkin, a member of the high-IQ group Mensa. This would-be millionaire flubbed his seventh question. He took home $1,000.


Elsewhere in television ...

DESTINATION STARDOM: What do Sinbad, Sharon Stone, Drew Carey, Britney Spears, Rosie O’Donnell, LeAnn Rimes, Dennis Miller and Martin Lawrence have in common? They were all discovered by ``Star Search″ creator Al Masini, whose new version of the ultimate talent search, ``Destination Stardom,″ premieres tonight at 8 p.m. EDT on PAX TV. The weekly hourlong series will feature competitions in five categories: Singers (ages 16 and older), singers (5 to 15), family acts, female models, and the variety category (such as dancers, comedians, jugglers and magicians). Lisa Canning is host.


Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore ``at″ ap.org

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