How To Use A Lifeline

On a recent Wednesday night Patricia Fili-Krushel, ABC's president, lingers in the monitor-packed control room of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." The contestant, a bearded mathematician, confidently answers question after question, bearing down on the $1 million prize. As host Regis Philbin kibitzes with him, the contestant grows more assured. "This guy is going to take us for a lot of money," the show's lead producer whispers cheerfully to Fili-Krushel. Although the ABC boss needs to get back to her office for a meeting, she can hardly tear herself away. Suddenly, the mathematician is struggling with a question about the U.S. Marines and Tripoli. Fili-Krushel and the others in the control room seem to tense up. Big winners are far better for the show's ratings. When the contestant decides to play it safe and walk away with only $125,000 in winnings, the decision seems to suck the air out of the booth.

Fili-Krushel has reason to be riveted: call it the "Millionaire" effect. Rarely in the annals of television has a lone show had such a profound effect on a network. The simplistic, but addictive, game show has transformed ABC, almost singlehandedly luring enough viewers to lift the network from five years in or near the ratings basement to the industry's No. 1 spot. Now airing at least three times a week, "Millionaire" is propelling ABC to almost certain victory in the current February ratings sweeps. The financial impact has been dramatic. For the 1999-2000 television season, "Millionaire" will generate some $200 million of profits, NEWSWEEK has learned. And since late January the stock market has added almost $6 billion to the value of ABC's parent, Disney, partly on "Millionaire's" fortunes. ABC is deftly wielding the show to blow apart rivals' schedules and prop up weak links in its own. Disney has unleashed a flood of related consumer products (play the board game!).

Beyond ABC, "Millionaire" has transformed the prime-time landscape, spawning a slew of copycats, including NBC's "Twenty One" and Fox's "Greed." Also among the me-toos: the wildly popular Fox special "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" In addition to hoping for a little "Millionaire" loot of their own, rival executives privately concede sinister motives for flooding the airwaves with similar shows. The plan is to hasten "genre burnout," the inevitable negative reaction from viewers subjected to a barrage of repetitive shows. "Millionaire" also is restoring some much-needed adrenaline to the embattled network-television business. Since the 1980s the industry has steadily lost its lock on the mass audience to niche cable channels and now to the Internet. But even in today's splintered media world, a breakout show like "Millionaire" is a potent reminder that network TV remains the single best vehicle for delivering huge audiences to advertisers. A downright scary percentage of the U.S. population--194 million out of 260 million--has watched it, according to ABC. "The fact that one show can galvanize generations of people to watch is only a good sign for everyone," says Dan McDermott, DreamWorks' TV-studio boss.

ABC is gleefully using the show to wreak havoc with its rivals. Earlier this month it abruptly added three more "Millionaire" installments to the sweeps schedule. ABC is using one to try to blunt CBS's airing of the Grammy Awards, typically a ratings hog. ABC had originally planned to run the far weaker "Two Guys and a Girl" and "Norm" opposite the music awards. It has also targeted NBC's splashiest sweeps offerings--the five-part mini-series "The 10th Kingdom." Trying to take the air out of NBC's fairy-tale epic, ABC has moved the regularly scheduled Sunday "Millionaire" up an hour, to 8 p.m. (EST). That will provide a big audience leading into part one of ABC's "Beach Boys" movie, which starts at 9, when the NBC special also will be on. " 'Millionaire' can be produced cheaply and quickly, and run at any time,'' says NBC's top programmer, Garth Ancier. "We can't sit in a studio for two hours and make an episode of 'ER'." (Ancier has been critical of ABC's overreliance on the game show, comparing it to "crack cocaine" addiction.)

Meanwhile, ABC is bolstering itself by replacing costly, ratings-challenged duds such as "Wasteland" and "Snoops" on its own schedule with--you guessed it--the "ratings wrecking ball," as The Hollywood Reporter dubbed "Millionaire." "It's like having three 'ERs' in your lineup," says Larry Hyams, ABC's ratings researcher. Besides sharing its mammoth audiences with ABC shows airing before and after it, "Millionaire" also provides the network opportunities to lavishly promote the rest of its schedule. As a result, ABC series airing next to or advertised on "Millionaire," including "The Practice" and "Dharma & Greg," have enjoyed their highest ratings ever.

To keep the millions flowing, Disney marketers are rushing out a flurry of related products. A computer-game version of the show from the Disney Interactive unit has swiftly become one of the industry's top-selling titles. There's the official game book from Disney's Hyperion book-publishing unit selling at almost $11 a pop. In stores: a board-game version of the show unveiled last week at the Toy Fair in New York.

It's the kind of synergy that Disney boss Michael Eisner undoubtedly imagined would be common. But after Disney acquired ABC in 1995, the network's fortunes began a swift, sustained tailspin. It hit a nadir late last summer with the tumultuous exit of its high-profile chief programmer, Jamie Tarses. Last August ABC's Michael Davies imported "Millionaire" from England. The show became an instant sensation, leading to new episodes and the beginning of ABC's resurgence. (Davies now produces "Millionaire.") The show fueled ABC's win, its first since 1994, in the key ratings race in November.

ABC insists that its rebound is more than "Millionaire" deep. The network's daytime schedule is definitely stronger, with "Good Morning America" attracting new viewers, thanks to cohosts Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson. "The View" chat show is its fast-growing TV talk show and the company is looking at a new show in the spirit of "The View" with a single host. In prime time, ABC says, such shows as "The Practice," "Drew Carey" and "Dharma & Greg" were promising even before "Millionaire." A lot of shows were appealing enough to benefit from being hyped on "Millionaire," says Fili-Krushel, the network's president. "This is how momentum works." ABC can only hope a millionaire doesn't soon move in at its rivals up and down the TV dial.