Instead of asking “Who wants to be a millionaire?,” a better question in these trying economic times would be “Who wants to make a mortgage payment?.” The current recession and the popularity of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire has spurred ABC to bring the popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game show back to primetime for a limited run.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire first appeared in the United Kingdom in 1998. A US version was quickly acquired by ABC and it debuted here on August 16, 1999 — with TV veteran Regis Philbin as host. Once a contestant makes it to the hot seat, he/she must answer a series of multiple choice questions with three opportunities to ask for help throughout the game. The questions get more difficult as the prize money increases and, with one wrong answer, the player is tossed out. The show brought “Can I use a lifeline?” and “Is that your final answer?” into our every day vernacular.
ABC, who was seriously struggling at the time, found such tremendous success with Millionaire that they ended up scheduling it multiple times per week. Celebrities clamored for their own shot at Millionaire and stars like Sean “Diddy” Combs, Queen Latifah, and Ben Stiller took their turn in the hot seat to raise money for their favorite charities. Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell and Norm Macdonald all became big winners, winning $500,000 each for their various causes.
Millionaire opened up the TV schedule to more unscripted TV, including reality series like Survivor and American Idol. But the network ultimately overdid the Millionaire fad, airing it as much as six times a week, and the public grew tired of the show. It was eventually cancelled in 2002. A daytime version, hosted by one-time celebrity contestant Meredith Vieira, began that same year and continues to be very popular.
In 2004, Philbin brought the show back to primetime for a dozen episodes of Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire. The grand prize was upped to $10 million but this version wasn’t popular enough for the primetime show to be revived on a permanent basis.
With the current economic climate and most Americans needing some extra money, the timing of a Millionaire return seems right. Vieira was quoted in the NY Times as saying that more and more contestants are coming on the daytime show, not because they want extra pocket change, but “because they really need the money, for things like house payments, food, kids’ educations.”
Most recently, a fictionalized story of a young contestant brought increased interest in reviving the game show. Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of a young male from the Mumbai slums who competes on the Indian version of the show. The small film ended up landing on the top 10 list for a number of weeks and ultimately won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
TV Week reports that ABC execs have actually been thinking about reviving Millionaire in primetime for awhile. The final piece of the puzzle was securing a deal with Philbin to return as the host. Now that he’s agreed to return, the network is ready to move forward.
Billed as a 10th anniversary special event, Millionaire will return for two weeks and a total of 11 episodes. The ABC game show will air Sunday through Thursday beginning August 9th. The grand finale will be seen on Sunday, August 23rd.
The format of the game will remain mostly the same but will include elements of the half-hour version that airs during daytime.
The special revival is seen as a low-risk event for the network and could end up being a great opportunity for ABC to promote their upcoming Fall schedule. If the ratings warrant it, ABC execs haven’t ruled out bringing Millionaire back on a regular basis, though they’ll make sure they don’t repeat the overexposure problem of the past.