a Million to One

OK, it might be the only game in town. But who could have guessed that a quirky quiz show, with Regis Philbin as host, could become the hottest thing in summer TV?

August 25, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

You have to see it to believe it, and even then you want to nudge the person next to you and ask: "Have we somehow entered a parallel universe here?"

What you're watching is America's newest quiz show, ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" a campy half-hour unlike probably any other game show you've seen.

For openers, there's omnipresent music that swells so B-movie ominously you half expect Bela Lugosi to lurch across the set.

Then there's the audience, which encircles the host and contestants like an edgy fight crowd at a Vegas casino.

Finally there's that host, who dresses like Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls."

Oh, and there's something else about the host, something eerily familiar.

The host is Regis Philbin. And no matter how you try to block it out, as you watch the daytime talk show icon reading the questions, all you can picture is schlumpy Gelman lurking somewhere backstage and Kathie Lee perched nearby on a stool chirping: "Oh, Reeeeg!"

Only if they had Pat Sajak play Atticus Finch in a remake of "To Kill a Mockingbird" would a leading role seem more miscast.

And yet somehow the show, which airs locally at 8: 30 p.m. tonight through Sunday on WMAR Channel 2, has emerged as the surprise breakout hit of the summer.

Now in the second week of its two-week trial run, "Millionaire" has been drubbing the competition in its time slot, although the significance of this fact can be debated, given it's the height of the re-run season.

Still, the show is generating quite a bit of buzz and largely favorable reviews. It's even reached the exalted status of being lampooned on David Letterman's Top 10 list (No. 7 Most Common Response to the Question "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?": "No, thanks, I think I'll keep working here at Radio Shack.")

The rules

So exactly what kind of show are we dealing with here?

Each night, 10 contestants compete for a chance at an escalating series of cash prizes that could reach as high as a cool $1 million.

They answer multiple-choice questions on a variety of topics, questions that are easy at first and gradually get harder as they proceed up 15 "levels" toward the grand prize.

If the contestant feels like a dope on a particular question, he or she can ask for help by using one of three "lifelines." These include having two of the three possible wrong answers deleted before making a final guess; polling the the audience about what it thinks the correct answer is; and actually phoning a friend or family member (preferably someone on the staff of the Encyclopedia Britannica) for help.

Which begs the question: Who dreams up a game like this?

Whoever it is, he or she lives in England, where the game originated last year and became a huge hit, at times attracting more than 70 percent of the country's TV viewers.

While some might feel this only proves the Brits will watch anything, network executives on this side of the Atlantic were impressed with that enormous audience share.

As a result, the American version is "not just a knockoff," says Pat Preblich, a publicist for the show. "It's as close a copy as we can make."

So, just like his British counterpart, a man named Chris Tarrant, Regis Philbin dresses mostly in dark, mobster colors. (On a recent show, he wore a black shirt, black tie, black pants and black shoes, giving him the look of an aging Dublin pimp.)

Also, like Tarrant, Philbin -- who faces off with the contestant at a pair of high-tech computer screens -- tries to ratchet up the tension during the quiz by adding "You're sure?" and "Is that your final answer?" after a contestant answers.

But even in the all-black get-up, Philbin is about as intimidating as your parish priest reading a Bingo card.

And now, your host

On "Millionaire," what viewers see most is a perpetually smiling Regis. A mellow Regis. A genial, grandfatherly, I-feel-your-pain Regis who appears so visibly distraught when a contestant answers incorrectly that you half expect him to whip out his checkbook and cut the poor schnook a check right then and there.

And this begs another question: What in God's name is the longtime veteran of "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" doing as a quiz show host?

"The first time I saw this show, I was so excited by it," Philbin told TV critics before the show began airing. "I thought it was compelling television.

"I was so moved by it that I was the one who called [producer] Michael Davies to pitch myself for the show."

Philbin also noted that he previously had hosted not one, but two, game shows for ABC back in the 1970s.

One was called "The Neighbors." It was shot in Los Angeles and involved getting five people who lived on the same street to talk about each other in a "gossipy" way -- like an early version of the Ken Starr investigation. ("It wasn't one of my highlights -- all right?!" Philbin says.)

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