You’re tired. you’re hungry. You’ve just traveled 2,504 miles to New York City for a revealing peek into the prime-time quiz-show sensation Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. After signing through security, you proceed past airy offices and hallways full of friendly faces. And then suddenly you spot it: the imposing wood door (complete with menacing push-button combination lock) that blocks passage to The Room — the mysterious place where writers and researchers hole up like Santa’s helpers, crafting those brain-taxing questions that separate the wimps from the winners. The possibilities race through your greedy little brain: A good swift power kick here, a picked door handle there, and you could be just a couple of ill-gotten answers away from winning (place your pinkie on your bottom lip) one meeellion dollars.
”No one’s allowed back there,” announces the show’s no-nonsense supervising producer, Ann Miller, who’ll kindly give you a tour of everywhere but The Room. ”Look, I wouldn’t even let the phone-company guys in there until they signed agreements. And even that makes me very, very uncomfortable….” C’mon, any chance of making a one-time exception for a financially strapped, puppy-dog-eyed journalist? ”Sorry.”
Alas, that was indeed her final answer. Don’t worry, though: There’s a far more enriching story to tell here than of some poor bloke’s take-the-money-and-run scheme. In one of the most surprising successes of the year — an imported British quiz show? in prime time? hosted by Regis Philbin? — Millionaire stirred up a cross-demographic phenomenon rarely seen since the days of three-network TV. When the ABC series debuted on Aug. 16, it started cashing in viewers the way Trump blows through 20s (averaging over 14 million people in a two-week run, including a grand finale that netted 22.4 million). The miracles don’t stop there: Millionaire also dramatically hipped up the game-show genre (Wink Martindale, we have some lovely parting gifts for you) and single-handedly put a spring back in the step of the third-place network. ”I don’t know if Regis saved the network,” says ABC Entertainment cochairman Stu Bloomberg, ”but he saved my paycheck.”
But was it true love or just a summer fling? That big-money question will be answered when the show returns for another two-week engagement on Nov. 7. And though sweeps month will present more formidable competition than August’s Veronica’s Closet reruns, all the (dollar) signs look promising. Weaned on a strict diet of sitcoms, dramas, newsmags, and low-rent reality specials, viewers have been energized by Millionaire’s tasty slice of nonfiction high jinks. New yet nostalgic, high-tech yet minimalist, foreboding yet friendly, Millionaire is hardly your uncle’s Jeopardy. ”The calling card is that you can win a million,” says Millionaire cocreator Paul Smith. ”But the primary attraction is the drama taking place on a nightly basis. It’s seeing people wrestle with some of the most important decisions that they will ever make in their lives. You see them sweating, terrified, biting their nails, their pulse rates high — yet all that’s going to happen is they might not go away with as much money as they’d hoped.”