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'Millionaire' enriches ABC in sweeps race

Wednesday, December 01, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" rocked the TV landscape during November sweeps, propelling ABC to an expected first-place finish, the network's first November sweeps win since 1994.

Questions asked on "Millionaire" may be too easy, contestants are overwhelmingly white and male and the music/lighting may drive you nuts, but darn if the show didn't draw millions of viewers. "Millionaire" even beat an episode of "Frasier," the first time ABC beat an original NBC sitcom on Thursday night since 1983, according to Daily Variety.

In a teleconference yesterday, ABC executives promised "Millionaire" would return. They just didn't have a final answer about when that might be.

Trade reports indicate "Millionaire" will come back as a weekly series, airing Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights beginning in January. ABC executives refused to comment on whether the show will remain a sweeps-only event or become part of the network's regular programming, but they promised to release a new midseason schedule by the end of this week. They're probably still in the process of notifying producers whose shows will be displaced by "Millionaire" (yes, that means you, "Snoops").

"It's wonderful to know this game show has become a cultural phenomenon," ABC Entertainment co-chairman Stu Bloomberg said. "We have made the water cooler noisy and crowded once again."

Executives at rival networks congratulated ABC.

"It really shows broadcast networks have the ability to create shows the public will find if they capture the imagination of the entire nation," said NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa. NBC is expected to rank second in household ratings for the November sweeps period, which concludes tonight. CBS will likely tie NBC or come in a close third.

"We do want to congratulate ABC on their victory, it is well-earned," said CBS President Leslie Moonves. "However, without one show in there it would be quite a different story. Once again this points out why we feel sweeps are a ridiculous measurement, since without 'Millionaire' their numbers would be considerably lower."

Moonves said he realized "Millionaire" would be a hit when a CBS executive played the East Coast ABC feed on several evenings.

"All the secretaries were in Kelly Kahl's office answering questions," Moonves said. "I knew we were in trouble."

Moonves said CBS would be "jumping on the bandwagon," introducing the game show "Winning Lines" early in 2000. Based on a British quiz show from the producers of "Millionaire," "Winning Lines" requires contestants to answer general knowledge questions with numerical answers. CBS also has a remake of "The $64,000 Question" in the works, probably for next summer.

NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier said his network's remake of "Twenty-One" remains in development and will premiere within the next couple of months. He speculated "Millionaire" will become "more humdrum as it goes along, as it has in England where it originated."

ABC's Bloomberg said that won't happen.

"There is something inherent in this show that makes it fun and exciting to watch," he said. "The human drama of it celebrates what is great about Americans."

To combat "Millionaire" fatigue, Bloomberg said stunts are being planned, possibly a week of "Millionaire" with celebrity contestants.

For NBC's part, the network announced it will air only the first half of its 10-hour February mini-series "The 10th Kingdom" during sweeps. This comes after "The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns" drew lower ratings in November than the network's previous fantasy mini-series.

NBC executives also explained the seeming increase in commercial time on some of its dramas at the beginning of the season.

"'The West Wing,' 'Third Watch' and 'ER' have much higher page counts [than other dramas], and during the first few weeks they were coming in up to a minute short," Ancier said. "But that was unusual and they've gotten back time since then."

Ancier acknowledged comedy is in a down-cycle in prime time, while dramas are performing well. He conceded network executives bear much of the blame for the laughter drought.

"Could it be because none of us did a good job developing [comedies] this season?" he asked rhetorically. "It's an industry-wide problem, and we're spending two-thirds of our development budget on comedies, a disproportionate amount compared to the past. I hope that yields some good shows, but I can't promise it."

CBS's Moonves also said sitcoms were a problem area, but he's happy with the performance of freshmen dramas "Judging Amy" and "Family Law" and the demographic improvements brought about by the Friday drama "Now and Again." But success also creates new headaches: Where to put Steven Bochco's midseason medical drama "City of Angels"?

"That's one we're wrestling with as we speak," Moonves said, adding the drama would not replace "Amy" or "Law." "There are other days in the week it could work."

ABC executives confirmed the Kevin Williamson twentysomething drama "Wasteland" will not return.

WTAE PRE-EMPTS: WTAE will pre-empt ABC programming tomorrow so it can broadcast the Steelers game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. A pre-game show hosted by Andrew Stockey, Pat Parris and Sally Wiggin will air at 7 p.m.

The pre-empted "20/20 Downtown" will air late Thursday at 2 a.m. in place of "Roseanne," and an hour of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" will air late night Friday at 3 a.m. The one-time ABC special "Totally Out of Control Vehicles" will not air.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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