PASADENA, Calif. --It's the game show that saved a network. And then some.
Last Wednesday's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" was watched by more than 33 million viewers, beating its all-time best ratings and becoming the most-watched episode of any TV show this season.
On Thursday, "Millionaire" trounced "Frasier" and "Stark Raving Mad," giving the network "our greatest ratings performance in [the] time period in over 17 years," according to ABC Entertainment Group co-chairman Stu Bloomberg.
The "Millionaire" juggernaut shows no signs of abating. Plans for Super Bowl and Oscar-themed segments are in the works and a celebrity "Millionaire" may happen, too. A play-off between past winners -- or possibly losers -- may take place at the end of the season.
While some have derided the questions on the game show as too easy, several winners say that's not the case.
"They're only easy if you know them," said John Carpenter, the first contestant to win $1 million.
"It's much easier to play the game sitting in an easy chair at home than sitting across from Regis in the studio," said Doug Van Gundy, the bearded fiddler from Marlinton, W.Va., whose hands-up exultation after winning $250,000 was replayed many times.
Van Gundy, whose father grew up in Mt. Lebanon and whose mother is from Belle Vernon, said he is now recognized by strangers.
"It's very strange to be approached on the street," Van Gundy said. "When my wife and I went back to New York to do 'Good Morning America' with Regis the Monday after I won in August, people recognized us in the airport. I was just bowled over."
John Carpenter, the first contestant to become a millionaire, caught flak after his win for using a Lifeline to call his father to tell him he was about to become a millionaire.
"After reading the message boards on ABC.com the other night, I definitely regret the way I may have come across as arrogant," Carpenter said. "But I think sometimes self-confidence can be mistaken for arrogance. From reading the message boards, I think it all stems from the fact that I didn't really show the kind of emotion that would have been expected. But I'm just not an excitable person. You can ask my wife."
Carpenter, who works for the I.R.S., said paying taxes on $1 million hasn't changed his opinion of his employer. "It's a thrill to be able to pay the $360,000 or whatever and still have $650,000 left."
Host Regis Philbin said he didn't know if the success of "Millionaire" would lead him to leave "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" when his contract expires in August 2001.
"I would miss her terribly. I really would," Philbin said. "And I love the freedom of having the first 20 minutes to talk about whatever we want to talk about. ... I really haven't made up my mind. I just want to see where this one goes or how many nights they're going to need it, and then I'll have to weigh what that workload would be against what we're doing in the morning."
ABC executives defended their decision to give so much of their prime-time schedule over to the game show. Last week NBC Entertainment president Garth Ancier compared "Millionaire" to being on crack, saying it was a short-term fix that would hurt ABC in the long-term. Bloomberg said "Millionaire" is more like Vitamin B-12.
"I don't believe that we are mortgaging our future at all," he said. "Our development [for next season] is as strong as ever."
ABC Entertainment Television Group co-chairman Lloyd Braun said he's heard no complaints from local stations about the ratings of programs that lead into 11 p.m. local newscasts (he must not have talked to anyone at WTAE). Despite its high ratings, Bloomberg said he wouldn't want to air "Millionaire" at 10 p.m. because it's "strong family programming."
Bloomberg defended the network's decision to delay the season premiere of "NYPD Blue," citing its season premiere last week, which he said was the show's best performance since 1996.
Despite reports last year that "The Wonderful World of Disney" may be canceled next season , Bloomberg said there are no plans to change the show's time slot or to cut it back to a series of specials.
ABC executives are considering changes to the weakened TGIF lineup, but whatever happens, Bloomberg said "Friday will remain a haven for family viewing."
Braun announced Stephen King will write an original six-hour mini-series for the network, titled "Rose Red." No broadcast date has been scheduled, but it won't be until the 2000-2001 season at the earliest.
ABC's midseason show, none of which have air dates, include:
"Clerks" -- Based on the 1994 movie, this animated series features the same characters in cartoon form, including Silent Bob (voice of Kevin Smith) and Jay (Jason Mewes). No tape was available for preview.
"Talk to Me" -- A sitcom starring Kyra Sedgwick as a radio talk-show host. Sounds like "Frasier," right? Well, this is no "Frasier."
"Then Came You" -- Delayed from its scheduled fall premiere, this sitcom looks at the romance between a thirtysomething woman and twentysomething guy. That was the original premise anyway. Evidently as the show went on it was expanded to become more of an ensemble.
"Wonderland" -- Peter Berg, who played Billy Kronk on "Chicago Hope," produces/directs/writes this series about the doctors in a hospital psychiatric ward. Michelle Forbes ("Homicide: Life on the Street," "Star Trek: The Next Generation") has a starring role in the dark drama. It's likely to be critically-acclaimed, but too depressing for mainstream success.
UPN PLANS: If a game show is ABC's addiction, UPN is mainlining reality shows, especially wrestling.
UPN successfully targeted a specific audience, creating what a press release calls "a safe haven for young male viewers." Parents of young boys will probably dispute that characterization, but what UPN lacks in respectability it's made up for in ratings success.
UPN has grown 35 percent in household ratings and 90 percent in its key demographic of men ages 18 to 34. But that growth came after UPN plunged in the ratings over the past two seasons.
"We're about 10 percent away from where we were in '97 when we suffered the loss of the Sinclair stations," said UPN president Dean Valentine. "We're gaining on that and if we have any success with our new Tuesday schedule we'll be on our way."
Though wrestling has helped create an identity for UPN and boost ratings, it's also come under fire. Valentine made no apologies for "WWF Smackdown!"
"If it's high testosterone, we'll air it," Valentine said. "When I was growing up I remember how terrible comic books are for you. Somehow in every generation what young guys seem to like is bad for you. We are dedicated to talking to the audience we said we'd talk to."
But Valentine said UPN has no intention to rely solely on reality shows.
"WWF has been great for us as an engine creating a network. As we go along, we won't feel completely comfortable and secure until we have a fictional show created out of own development that's doing huge numbers."
But in the immediate future, reality shows are definitely on UPN's horizon. UPN's new Tuesday schedule premieres tomorrow with "I Dare You! The Ultimate Challenge" at 8 p.m. The one-hour stunt show features professionals ski boarding through a flaming field and a motorcycle jump over 15 buses. Evel Knievel will be a color commentator. "I Dare You" will be followed by "Shasta" (formerly "Shasta McNasty") and "Dilbert."
UPN has high hopes for "Monster Trux 2000: The New Thrillennium" (9 p.m. Feb. 29), which airs as a special during sweeps and may become a series. In the special, 12 monster trucks and their drivers will compete in an obstacle course, with an emphasis on characters and storyline a la WWF Wrestling.
UPN executives said they had no new information on how the CBS-Viacom merger will impact UPN, which is owned by Viacom. Under current FCC rules, one company can't own two television networks.
"We are the network that talks to the broadest audience," Valentine said. "Forty-one percent of our audience is African-American and the loss of our network would be a huge loss. Whatever the outcome, I'm optimistic UPN will survive."
UPN's other midseason shows, none of which have air dates, include:
"The Beat" -- "Homicide" creator Tom Fontana targets young hot-headed guys with this buddy cop drama. The language and sexuality will shock, the cuts from film to video will annoy, but after two episodes I was hooked in spite of myself.
* "Secret Agent Man" -- Originally scheduled for fall, this adventure series about a group of agents may finally reach the air this spring. No completed pilot was available for review.
WELL, HE'S GOT MARK HAMILL'S HAIR: Add "That '70s Show" star Topher Grace to the short list of those who might -- emphasis on might -- be up for the role of Anakin Skywalker in the next "Star Wars" movie.
At a Fox press conference for "That '70s Show," Grace expressed his excitement about a "Star Wars" parody last season on his sitcom.
"I want to do as many 'Star Wars' episodes as -- that was the greatest week in my entire life," Grace said. "I got to play Luke Skywalker. It was awesome."
Later, at the Fox party, Grace was cagey about his possible involvement in the next "Star Wars" film.
"I really can't talk about that, I'm sorry," Grace said. "But thank you for thinking that I'm worthy."