With ABC running Who Wants to Be a Millionaire three days a week and the other major networks airing prime-time quiz shows, professional contestants around the country are enjoying a gold rush that would make an Internet entrepreneur jealous. Daniel Avila used to have to make a phone call at least to get on a game show. Avila, who began his quiz-show career in 1974 on Joker's Wild, had since appeared on shows like Jeopardy! and Sale of the Century, so he knew the ropes. But in these contestant-needy times, he actually got a call from Greed asking him to try out. Avila, a photographer, could tell the show was put together in just three weeks. "From the time I tested on Saturday to the time I taped the show on Wednesday, the rules had actually changed," he says. "Later the writers had to change things because they didn't expect us to get so far." Even hosts are in demand. "I'm delighted to have him, but Chuck Woolery was a choice based on the speed scenario," concedes Mike Darnell, Fox executive vice president for specials. "I had a week to hire someone." Gene Rayburn died a few months too early.
The producers and network executives involved in these new shows--Millionaire, Fox's Greed, CBS' Winning Lines, NBC's Twenty One and forthcoming ones including CBS' $64,000 Question, ABC's Mastermind and You Don't Know Jack--admit they were caught short by Regis Philbin's success. But they are making up for it, piling on 6 1/2 hours of prime-time quizzing a week--as much as in the game-show heyday of the '50s. "Honestly, I had not been thinking about game shows before Millionaire," says Darnell. When offered a show by Dick Clark, he liked the idea right away. "I said, 'I love the idea of a group rather than one person. But let's go back and make it more Foxlike.'" That, of course, meant giving team members the chance to eliminate one another and renaming the show Greed. Why there are no car crashes is unclear.
Five days before the new Twenty One aired, NBC Studios president Ted Harbert and Garth Ancier, president of entertainment for the network, were still putting the show together, including the racial composition of the sequined, leggy babes who lead contestants onstage. They wanted ethnic diversity but feared that a black or Latino woman would conjure up stereotypes of subservient minorities opening doors. The show is to be a dumbed-down version of the rigged show from the '50s. But it's refreshingly unafraid of its past, choosing to copy its set design from the Robert Redford movie about the scandal. "If anything, our history helps us," says Harbert. "The joke around our show is that we didn't fix the original, we're repairing it." All publicity really is good publicity.
CBS, meanwhile, is offering Winning Lines, a British import that will test the limits of Americans' willingness to stay home Saturday nights to do math word problems.
Mind you, they're not hard math word problems. One of the keys to the success of these shows is the decision to use sub-Jeopardy! questions. "People feel 'I'm better than them,' while in the '50s you may have felt more comfortable saying you had never seen such a smart guy in your neighborhood as you saw on a quiz show," says NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa. Herb Stempel, the one who blew the whistle on the old Twenty-One, has a less upbeat take. "They want the people in the audience to pat themselves on the back and say, 'Gee, I knew the answer,'" he says. "The whole culture is getting dumbed down."
Michael Davies, the producer who brought Millionaire to America from Britain, says he may have only another two- or three-year run, but that the game-show format will always be popular. "The idea that television is being junked up is ridiculous," he says. "Compare this to all the crap sitcoms that have come on for the past 10 years." Davies argues, pretty convincingly, that his show, no matter how simple the questions may be, is more educational, dramatic and positive than the vast majority of programming. "I find it appalling every time a professor of television at Syracuse University says this is a sign of the dumbing down of America. I think it's a sign of the dumbing down of America that there are professors of television at major universities."
Davies figures that when Millionaire's ratings drop, he still has a viable property for syndication, CD-ROMS, an Internet site and whatever the next interactive medium is. Michael Fleming has been thinking the same way since 1994, when he founded Game Show Network. "We saw a huge underdelivery in the category. And this category lends itself to new technology platforms," he says.
Millionaire's interactivity is very merchandise friendly, but most people think viewers tuned in in the first place simply because of all those zeroes the show gives away. "The drama on television at this point is so pitifully synthetic that the only real drama is on the quiz show," says Ben Stein, the host of Win Ben Stein's Money, Comedy Central's second highest-rated program. "People are terribly keyed up. The people I shake hands with after each round, their hands are soaking wet. I've seen grown men, repeatedly, cry after shows. And that's only for 5,000 bucks." On Greed, one contestant fainted. That's good television.