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'Millionaire': The answer for ABC?


The last time we, the jackals of the press, visited with ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, we were busy shoveling dirt on the corpse.

It was a beautiful day in June 2002, and this seemed like the right thing to do because in a few hours, the final verdict -- death by cancellation -- was to be rendered. After 363 shows, $76,821,000 in winnings, Regis Philbin's signature monochromatic look and a memorable 2 1/2 -year prime-time run that sent a hapless network soaring through the clouds and then crashing down onto the rocks, ABC's Millionaire was kaput.

That night's last telecast was seen by 7.5 million hard-core, never-say-die fans. The other 25 million hard-core, never-say-die fans had long since drifted away.

It now appears that the burial was premature. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- hyperbolically renamed Super Millionaire -- returns tonight for a full week ending Friday (weeknight airings begin at 10). "Reege" is back, but the $1 million prize has been jacked up to $10 million. Hence, the "Super."

In a statement announcing the return of Millionaire, Lloyd Braun, ABC's Entertainment chairman, said: "For months, we have been carefully monitoring the environment to determine if the time is right for a new, totally amped-up version of Millionaire. We think this is the time."

For those of you unversed in TV speak, we helpfully provide the following translation: "We are getting slaughtered by American Idol, we're deep in fourth place and have absolutely no clue what to do. But maybe the $10 million in prize money will keep couch potatoes from hitting the remote. Besides, my boss, Michael Eisner, thinks this is a good idea."

Meanwhile, the "lifeline" has added something called "Three Wise Men," in which contestants can seek help from three experts who are sequestered back in the green room. (they'll come from journalism and academia, and also include former winners.) The numbers will ratchet up to nosebleed territory pretty quickly, too -- first question worth $1,000, and by the 15th -- whooosh! -- $10 million. Can't you just hear the thumping studio music now?

"I suspect," says Michael Brockman, a veteran game show producer and consultant, "that the audience will be there for it."

And if he's right, let's hope ABC doesn't slaughter the proverbial goose once again.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

'Super Millionaire'

When: Tonight at 9; tomorrow through Friday nights at 10

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Will more money mean more viewers?

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