In Depth

Adalian Column: ‘Millionaire’ Revival a Good Answer for ABC

ABC is seriously considering bringing back one of the biggest franchises in modern TV history—and it’s about time.

If current discussions pan out, the network this summer will mount a primetime revival of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the groundbreaking game show that—along with “Survivor”—ushered in the modern era of unscripted television. Staged as a multi-night event over one or two weeks, the “Millionaire” redux likely would air in August as a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the show’s American debut.

And yes, ABC wants Regis Philbin to return as host, according to several people familiar with the network’s thinking.

Because little in television is easy, ABC has yet to make an official call on resurrecting “Millionaire.” Some insiders believe it won’t get done. But I’m betting it will happen.

For one thing, the timing couldn’t be more ideal.

No matter how quickly Congress moves to pass a stimulus package, the nation’s economy is likely to be mired in recession for most of 2009. “Millionaire,” whose very title is filled with the offer of transformation, is the ultimate wish-fulfillment show. Imagine the primetime drama that could be generated by audiences seeing a laid-off autoworker with five adorable kids walk away with $500,000.

Also, the “Millionaire” format is very much back in the cultural zeitgeist. “Slumdog Millionaire,” about a contestant on the Indian version of the show, has turned into an indie hit with serious Oscar buzz. If the movie snags a best picture nomination, ABC’s Oscar broadcast could serve as a perfect launching pad for the “Millionaire” marketing campaign.

“Millionaire” executive producer Michael Davies has made no secret of his desire to bring the show back to primetime. If he still believes it makes sense, this would be the perfect year to do it.

Then there’s the economic argument in favor of bringing back “Millionaire.”

Startup costs shouldn’t be significant, since ABC parent Disney owns the U.S. rights to “Millionaire” and already produces a successful syndicated version of the show. Sets and production crews are already in place filming the five-day-a-week edition, making a primetime effort enormously cost-effective.

A primetime “Millionaire” event, airing just before the start of the fall season, also would be a very valuable advertisement for the Meredith Vieira-hosted syndicated show. With one move, Disney would boost two divisions.

The best reason for reviving “Millionaire,” however, is this: It’s a can’t-lose proposition.

Let’s assume for a second that viewers turn out not to be interested in “Millionaire” anymore. Or even that “Millionaire” does OK, but fails to achieve the sort of monster ratings it earned during its first incarnation.

So what? By positioning “Millionaire” 2009 as an anniversary special, network executives can simply say they wanted to honor two important part of ABC’s heritage—“Millionaire” and Mr. Philbin.

After all, it’s been nearly five years since “Millionaire” aired on ABC. Nobody can accuse the network of being overly reliant on the franchise. If anything, executives at the network have shown remarkable restraint in not bringing back the show sooner.

In addition to carrying little risk, pushing the reset button on “Millionaire” also has a big upside.

Given the economic climate and the enduring appeal of “Millionaire,” there’s a real chance the show could once again do sizable numbers for ABC. While insiders at the network insist there’s no desire to bring the show back as a weekly series—even in success—it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where “Millionaire” lives on as a twice- or thrice-per-year event.

That’s how the show originally aired in the United Kingdom, and it’s how Mr. Davies had always wanted it to run in the United States.

Networks these days are always talking about the need to decrease repeats and spread original episodes throughout the season. Having “Millionaire” on the bench would add a very attractive, cost-effective weapon to the ABC programming arsenal.

So what could prevent “Millionaire” from throwing a primetime anniversary party?

For one thing, Mr. Philbin hasn’t committed to the idea. Even if he wanted to return to “Millionaire,” he’s currently going steady with another game, CBS’ reincarnation of “Password.” If that show returns for another season, his deal might prevent him from appearing elsewhere in primetime.

But Mr. Philbin’s agent, Jim Griffin of William Morris, didn’t get into the business yesterday. If Mr. Philbin wants to return to “Millionaire,” it will happen.

ABC executives might also be skittish about revisiting the past. While Disney ultimately made hundreds of millions—yes, I said hundreds—from “Millionaire,” the show’s rapid ratings flameout sort of sullied its reputation.

Rightly or wrongly, ABC’s overreliance on “Millionaire” became synonymous with network hubris.

Fox’s “American Idol” is only on once a year because executives at that network didn’t want to repeat ABC’s perceived mistakes. And when “Deal or No Deal” became a breakout hit, NBC executives pledged to learn from “Millionaire” and not run the show into the ground. (Of course, NBC went ahead and did just that anyway, but that’s another column.)

It’s a good thing that ABC executives haven’t rushed to bring back “Millionaire.” And it’s also probably wise for the network to take its time and think through the pros and cons of doing so.

But sometimes, folks in TV land can overthink things. Bringing back “Millionaire” is a no-brainer on just about every level.

And yes, that’s my final answer.