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A live chat with Regis

On a visit to Orlando, 68-year-old dynamo Regis Philbin talks about the uncertain future of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 6, 2001

ORLANDO -- When we first meet, less than 15 minutes have passed since he faced a screaming crowd, in full suit and tie, inaugurating the first-ever road trip for ABC-TV's landmark prime time game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

But by the time this curious journalist gets to his dressing room Sunday, Regis Philbin is in offstage mode -- his trademark designer suit traded in for a tan polo shirt, brown pants and gray shoes -- looking more like one of the curious tourists packed in for the afternoon videotaping than the Man Who Saved ABC.

You'd never know it from his laid-back demeanor and measured answers, but there's a lot riding on the slim 68-year-old's shoulders. This week, Millionaire made the first road trip in its two-year history, taping an Olympic Champions edition Sunday and Monday at Disney/MGM Studios' Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It! attraction in a show that included athletes Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Jenner and Oscar De La Hoya.

Scheduled to help publicize Walt Disney World's yearlong celebration of what would be founder Walt Disney's 100th birthday, the Millionaire tapings were only part of Philbin's workload.

His syndicated show, Live With Regis and Kelly -- produced by Disney-owned Buena Vista Television, of course -- also telecast from Disney/MGM this week, going live at 9 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and taping episodes at 11 a.m. each day to air today and Friday.

On top of that, Philbin and Live co-host Kelly Ripa will also host Disney's prime time TV Christmas special, to be taped today. Philbin will then fly back to the East Coast in time to headline a weekend gig at an Atlantic City casino.

At a age when many people are contemplating which golf course they'd like to spend their golden years exploring, Philbin's career keeps moving at warp speed -- just the way he likes it.

"Well, you say yes to things six months in advance, never thinking what else might come up," he said, a trademark energy creeping into his voice. "All of a sudden, you're here in Disney World for a week, doing seven shows and a parade! But that's show business."

Of course, it's a particularly prickly time in Philbin's show biz universe these days. ABC executives said last week that they were unsure whether Millionaire -- a show that has reportedly earned the network about $1-billion in revenue, or $800,000 to $1.3-million per show -- would be on ABC's fall schedule next year.

It was a curious statement, given that this year's TV season has barely begun, fueling speculation that the network has already decided to cancel or extensively revamp the show and was preparing fans for the inevitable. Philbin told Live viewers last Thursday that he found out about ABC's comments the same way many fans did: by reading the newspaper.

Still, the host said Sunday that he wasn't surprised by ABC's latest statements.

"Given the way they've managed the show so far . . . no, I wasn't surprised," he said. "When we started the show, because it wasn't on every week, you had an audience that loved it, and, boy, they couldn't wait for it to come back on. Putting it on four times a week (last year) . . . we may have diluted some of that appetite."

Indeed, last year, Millionaire aired on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, and often landed in the Top 10 rated shows. These days, its Sunday and Monday editions have fallen out of the Top 40, leading to speculation that ABC is pushing Philbin to leave the prime time show and host a daytime, syndicated version sold to individual TV stations nationwide next year.

Buena Vista's syndicated version of Millionaire would air half-hour episodes five days a week (Tampa's ABC affiliate, WFTS-Ch. 28, has announced plans to air the show at 4 p.m. weekdays), freeing ABC to hire a younger comedian for the nighttime show.

"They (ABC executives) have completely killed the golden goose," said media analyst Marc Berman, who writes a regular column on TV ratings for "They had a show that could have lasted many years and completely overexposed it. It's a classic example of how not to treat a program."

When ABC finally decided to cut the number of weekly episodes for this season, it scheduled the show at 9 p.m. Thursdays -- against CBS' popular C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation and NBC's Will & Grace -- and 8 p.m. Mondays before Monday Night Football.

In the Central and Pacific time zones, that means Monday's Millionaire airs at 10 p.m., after the football game and a locally produced show, which varies from market to market. It still draws a crowd -- this week's Monday Millionaire beat NBC's Weakest Link -- but not the younger viewers ABC craves.

"At 9:30 at night, are you going to sit there and watch some local production? You lose a lot of audience there," Philbin noted. "I've always felt 8 p.m. was the best time slot for the show; the whole family can watch it together, and in some markets, where we follow Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, the audience just comes naturally."

But the biggest criticism of Millionaire's evolution -- one echoed by the Reege himself -- can be summed up in a single word.


Lately, they've been used as a magic elixir to bring young viewers into prime time game shows such as NBC's Fear Factor and The Weakest Link. Initially, they sparked significant ratings for Millionaire, which welcomed big names such as Rosie O'Donnell and Drew Carey when it began airing such editions in May 2000.

But this season, every Monday night Millionaire is a "special edition" featuring celebrity couples or rock stars or sports stars, a process Philbin fears is leading the show away from its regular guy roots.

"That was the original design of the game -- real people with the chance of becoming a millionaire right in front of your eyes," he said. "Then we decided to put on some celebrities, some of them were comedians, and we had a lot of laughs. But the more the network saw those, the more they wanted that kind of specialty show. The way the show was originally designed is my favorite way to do it."

Steve Beverly, a professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., who maintains a Web site devoted to game show history, agreed.

For months, complaints about celebrities on Millionaire have circulated on Beverly's site, sent by the same fervent fans who watch every episode and hope to one day compete on the show.

"I think you've got a lot of angry viewers . . . (who) feel like the celebrities have been shoved down their throats," he said. "With Millionaire, it was cute at first, watching them cheat up to the $32,000 mark (celebrities, who play for charity, are guaranteed $32,000 and can get help from anyone up to that amount). Now, it's like watching an intentional walk."

Watching Philbin tape the first of three shows built around U.S. Olympic champions on Sunday -- Mia Hamm, Marion Jones, Tai Babilonia, Dan Jansen and Mike Eruzione were also featured in the episodes, scheduled to air Jan. 7, 10 and 14 -- it's easy to see the appeal of well-known names.

From Retton's million-dollar smile to Babilonia's exotic beauty and De La Hoya's movie star looks (the female comic warming up Sunday's audience called him "Oscar De La Toya" to screams from women in the crowd), the visual appeal of these athletes was immediate and striking.

Used to facing cameras and high-stress situations, they can also be charming under pressure, as when Philbin remarked after a medical question, "I've done my share of turning and coughing." Hamm retorted, "Now that's a picture you want to take home with you. Thanks, Regis."

But watching Jansen turn to his panel of athlete buddies for help on many questions grew tiresome. And the sense that these folks weren't really playing for their own money further limited the drama.

Adding to the fatigue factor: Two athletes appearing on Millionaire -- Retton and Jenner -- will also appear on NBC's Olympic edition of Weakest Link, dovetailing with the network's February broadcast of the Winter Olympics.

"Somebody once said to me, "I'm tired of watching a bunch of millionaires play for a million dollars -- even if it is for charity,' " said Beverly, who suggested that the show feature real-life New York emergency workers, rather than celebrities, playing for terrorist attack-related charities. "Once you've disenfranchised viewers like this, it's hard to bring them back."

Still, Millionaire's Florida trip proved quite an undertaking, requiring ABC to add 12 cameras, a remote truck and a computer that producers use to play the game in New York City.

TV news crews from Los Angeles, New York and Baltimore came, covering Millionaire while exploring the 100 Years of Magic celebration (of course, two of them were from affiliates of Disney-owned ABC).

The audience of 650 dwarfed the usual crowd of about 185 who squeeze into ABC's New York studio. And, like the New York tapings, Millionaire's first hourlong Orlando edition was recorded in nearly 21/2 hours over fits and starts, with the production stopping for commercial breaks or to correct mistakes.

"After a while, (the delays) can drive you nuts," said Philbin, who joked with audience members during the taping Sunday and made fun of De La Hoya for taking a too-long bathroom break. "The show demands a lot of attention. It takes time, and you've just got to be patient."

How patient ABC might be with Millionaire remains an open question. Philbin said his contract lasts until 2003, adding that no one has spoken with his agent about hosting the syndicated version.

"As I get closer to (the end), I'll know what to do," he said. "And maybe (ABC) will make up my mind for me."

The possibilities: the show could be scaled back in prime time to special event shows aired in ratings periods. Philbin advocated moving Millionaire back to the 9 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. Tuesday time slots, where it initially flourished.

But the worst thing ABC executives could do is look like they're shoving Philbin aside, Beverly said.

"The biggest (fan) anger I'm sensing is over how Regis has been treated," he said. "If anything, this is the guy who is the glue that held together what they have (on Millionaire) so far. But Regis, as fantastic a personality as he is, cannot do everything to make the show succeed, especially when he's got so many elements working against him."

- Material from Times files and Times wires was used in this report.

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