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Michael Davies Has the Final Answers

Nov 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

First of two columns on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

At a time when traditional game shows have all but disappeared from television, especially in daytime, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” keeps on expanding its audience. While ABC ran the wheels off the prime-time version featuring Regis Philbin in three quick years, Buena Vista’s syndicated edition hosted by Meredith Vieira is running on all cylinders. Nearly two months into its third season, the audience size is up about 15 percent over last year.

Producer Michael Davies is confident the syndie “Millionaire” will be around for many years to come. “What’s interesting is we’ve gone into time periods which aren’t as good as the time periods we had in year two, and we are still showing growth from last year,” Mr. Davies said during an interview in his mid-Manhattan offices. “And the rule of `Millionaire’ is that when you leave us in the same time period for a while, we’ll just find viewers and grow. We’ve reached the top 10 in syndicated shows this year. Had a very strong summer. I’m pretty confident that before NATPE [in January] we’ll announce some multiyear pickups for the series, for three to five more years.”

Nowhere has the show’s strength been more visible than in Los Angeles, where “Millionaire” was bumped off network affiliate KCBS-TV this season to make room for Paramount`s “The Insider.” Now airing on indie KCAL-TV, which is part of Viacom’s duopoly, “Millionaire” has improved the performance in its time period by 56 percent, and is regularly beating “The Insider” in the ratings (most recently 2.5/4 to 2.2/3, according to Buena Vista).

There are many secrets to the show’s success, beginning with the way it makes you care about the contestants in a very personal way. While most game shows concentrate on rapidly delivering questions, the “Millionaire” host is able to take time between questions to flesh out the personal stories. As the stakes rise, that creates a real emotional connection.

“Yeah, this isn’t a conveyor belt,” Mr. Davies said. “For me, it’s sort of a conversation in which a game show suddenly breaks out. And one of the qualities of both Regis and Meredith … is taking people who might be a little shy or nervous and might not have the greatest stories in the world [and making] those moments so wonderfully entertaining. … Each does it in different ways. Meredith explores and gets inside.”

Then there is the matter of “The Tease”-that moment on the show when the question has just been answered and the host knows but won’t immediately say whether the contestant is right. Regis generally refused to do it. In the British and Japanese versions, the teasing goes on so long there are fewer contestants per show. In South Africa, Mr. Davies said, the host “is never very happy until he’s reduced the contestant to tears before they’re informed.”

Mr. Davies believes no one does it better than Ms. Vieira: “It really suits Meredith because Meredith flirts with all of our contestants-male, female, young, old. She has a very flirtatious personality. That’s just a very natural thing for her. It’s wrapped within her. What she loves doing is messing with people.”

“I try not to make it cruel,” Ms. Vieira insisted after a recent taping of “The View” in New York. “When I know someone is extremely nervous, I don’t do it. But if I get to know them and I know that I can safely go there, I will. Or if they’re a real pain in the …,” she said, laughing, “I figure I might as well.”

The more she teases, the happier it makes Mr. Davies. “I desperately want her to do it,” he said. “When I’m actually producing the show in the control room, I’m a little voice in her ear. I encourage her to do it way more than anyone else, including her, wants to go and do it. I think it’s an incredibly important part of the format.”

Even when that format became a hit all over the world, initial interest in the U.S. was cool, recalled Mr. Davies, a British native who also produces “Wife Swap” on ABC.

He earned degrees in history and law and began his show business career in Florida writing for shows on Nickelodeon, Disney and PBS. He moved to L.A. to do TV development for Disney’s Buena Vista Productions.

Mr. Davies had been tracking the development of “Millionaire” in England, where it was originally to be called “Cash Mountain.” But he spent more time trying to revive “The $64,000 Question.” “When I was an executive, a very young executive, at Disney,” Mr. Davies recalled, “the only two people at the company who cared about game shows were [CEO] Michael Eisner and me. He had started his career at ABC making game shows. I’d just arrived in America and don’t ask me why, there is no family background or reason, I just loved that form of television, particularly as it was in the 1950s.”

Mr. Davies got rights to “$64,000 Question” but ran into problems. “I started to realize that it only worked when you fixed it,” he recalled. “You had to know how much the contestants know in order to be able to write for it, to go double or nothing on their bets. The genius thing about `Millionaire’ … is that they figured out a way to build that double something into a game. … The question and answer is on the screen. Then the music, the lights, just the way it was shot, the intimacy. The way the host acted. It was revealed truth to me.”

“It was only after threatening to leave,” said Mr. Davies, “that I got people interested enough to say, `Well OK, maybe we’ll make a pilot.”‘ He later left to produce the show.

Despite its success, “Millionaire” has had to compete for time slots. That has affected how much the producers can spend on what is a relatively expensive show. For this season, Mr. Davies said, they had to cut down on the cost by taping more episodes at Disney World in Florida and in other ways. They also brought in AOL not only as a sponsor, but also to operate a new lifeline that kicks in after a contestant wins $25,000. AOL executives describe it as a runaway success, with hundreds of thousands of Instant Messenger users participating.

“As a producer,” Mr. Davies said, “the thing I face is how to continue to develop the show, which is to make it feel fresh and new and at the same time not alienate the core viewers.”

Part 2 next week: Meredith’s Choice.