Regis makes contestants, ABC rich on 'Millionaire'

by John Teti | 11/8/99 6:00am

The TV game show. Despite its obvious entertainment value, this genre has seen more ups and downs than a drunk on a roller coaster in its over fifty years on the air. But the recent success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" on ABC this summer changed all that, transforming the game show from its former status as a novelty to a high-profile network ratings-grabber.

What took so long? To find out, let's take a brief look at the history of game shows, in which scandals, attrition and Ricki Lake all contribute to the genre's troubled past.

In the '50s, game shows were at the height of their popularity as the big-money quiz show ruled the prime-time airwaves. The June 1955 introduction of "The $64,000 Question" on CBS kicked off the craze.

The producers created the show with the idea of spectacle in mind. To this end, they created a format in which contestants only answered questions in their field of expertise. This way, questions that were moderately difficult for contestants were unimaginably hard for viewers, giving them the feeling that they were watching spectacular genius.

The melodrama of "risking it all" for the bigger money was the other important component that made "The $64,000 Question" a success, but such melodrama also damaged game shows' popularity for good. "Twenty-One," a Jack Barry & Dan Enright production, was created for NBC in response to CBS's hit. But "Twenty-One" couldn't naturally create tension and spectacle as "The $64,000 Question" did.

To compensate for their mundane format, Dan Enright made one of the most historic decisions in game show history -- he rigged "Twenty-One." Enright figured that by supplying answers to certain contestants, he could make underdogs into superstars, boosting the ratings in the process.

It worked. The first celebrity Enright created was Herbert Stempel, but when better-looking, more charming and even more loveable Charles Van Doren tried out for the show, Enright got rid of Stempel in a hurry.

As Van Doren became more of a nationwide phenomenon (even making the cover of "Time" magazine), Stempel became more irate at his plight. Eventually, Stempel decided to blow the whistle by telling the press that "Twenty-One" was a sham. In late August 1958, the headlines read "Twenty-One Fixed!" By the end of the year, quiz shows had disappeared from television.

They were replaced by game shows that remained truer to that moniker by adapting board games or used similarly complex sets of rules. Visible elements of chance became more significant as shows desperately tried to demonstrate that they were not rigged. Despite these efforts, game shows would never attain their original prestige and popularity, but instead would be relegated to daytime television alongside soap operas.

It was during the '60s through '80s that the great game show producers determined the course of the industry. Mark Goodson and Bill Todman were probably the most prolific and accomplished game show producers. They created such games as "Password," "Family Feud" and the pop-culture icon "The Price is Right." Other venerable game creators included Bob Stewart ("The $10,000/$25,000/ Pyramid") and Merv Griffin ("Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy!").

The one problem with these legendary producers? They're all old men. Of the four producers above, one is dead (Todman), two are retired (Goodson, Stewart) and one is too busy attending to his hotel and media empires to think of new game shows (Griffin).

Since the late '80s, shows have gradually disappeared from the air with nothing to replace them. Nobody was creating new games. In fact, the few new games that were created were just repackaging for old games. This trend is still visible -- today's "Jeopardy!," "Hollywood Squares" and "Family Feud" are all copies of the originals.

Where were all the new producers? Didn't anybody know how to think of a game that would be fun to watch and play along with at home? Perhaps, but by the '90s, nobody cared about games.

The new craze was talk shows -- the trashier, the better. Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael gave rise to Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. Game shows were old hat; hair-trigger tempered divorces and the cheating, cross-dressing spouses they once loved were what modern audiences wanted.

By the mid-'90s, the only established game shows on television were the few that were considered American traditions: "The Price is Right," "Wheel of Fortune," and "Jeopardy!"

One TV executive was disgusted with this trend, and he decided to do something about it. Earlier this year, Michael Davies, a producer for ABC, saw a popular British game show called "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and decided that it would work just as well here in the States. ABC was not so convinced, but they gave Davies two weeks at the end of August--traditionally the time for some of the lowest TV ratings of the year. The network considered the show's limited run nothing more than an experiment.

Davies' version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" premiered with Regis Philbin as emcee, a futuristic, high-tech set and the largest jackpot in primetime history.

Viewers loved it; ABC saw August ratings higher than ever before. Some insiders said that Davies and Philbin had rescued the faltering network from a decline into irrelevance. The FOX network immediately set to work on a copycat, "Greed: The Multi-Million Dollar Challenge," which premiered last Thursday.

Has "Millionaire" restored the game show to its original prestige? No, because TV is a very different medium today. While "Millionaire" relies on spectacle to a certain degree as "The $64,000 Question" and "Twenty-One" did, the new show works because it uses "common" American citizens that viewers relate to instead of revering. The thrill of thinking, "That could be me!" as contestants climb the ladder to the million-dollar jackpot keeps people tuning in.

Will game shows ever disappear altogether from television? I doubt it. Game shows combine two things that Americans love: play and money. As long as producers keep coming up with new ways to make that combination, audiences will watch.

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