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What's the Final Answer to 'Millionaire's' Rampage?

Television: The game show is cutting the audience of competing comedies and dramas, frustrating producers.

March 17, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has put millions of dollars in the pockets of the white middle-aged males who have primarily filled its contestant rolls, the show has become a source of consternation to another group with similar demographics: the producers responsible for programs scheduled against it.

Currently airing three times per week, the ABC quiz show has increased viewing of the major networks; still, its phenomenal ratings have to some degree come at the expense of more traditional comedies and dramas caught in its tornado-like path.

Steve Levitan, who experienced facing "Millionaire" on two fronts as creator of the NBC comedies "Stark Raving Mad" and "Just Shoot Me" (the latter recently moved into a later time slot), has joked about slipping subliminal messages into episodes warning that watching game shows causes impotence.

On a more serious note, Levitan said, "After spending hours crafting a single moment or a joke, it's a bit disheartening to learn so many people would rather see some guy guess the color of a Smurf. It gets to you."

A case study of "Millionaire's" impact can be seen in the topsy-turvy fortunes of "Chicago Hope," which looked promising when the season began, holding its own opposite NBC's "Frasier." After "Millionaire" invaded the 9 p.m. Thursday slot in January, encouraging numbers for the medical drama came to a screeching halt, with its audience falling 22%, a drop of roughly 2.5 million viewers.

The CBS series has thus become a borderline candidate in terms of being renewed for a sixth year, which once seemed likely. The producers are hoping for a boost from the arrival of James Garner, who joins the cast beginning April 13.

"For us producers and makers of shows, I think ultimately storytelling will prevail," said executive producer Michael Pressman.

"We've seen these kind of phases before. . . . In the long run, I have to believe in what I do as being the answer. In the short run, the tragedy will be that it kills good dramatic television."

Even as they rush on their own quiz clones, rival network executives have lamented "Millionaire" mania, with one likening the ratings high the show provides ABC to the effects of crack cocaine.

Actors have joined the chorus as well. David Duchovny, star of "The X-Files," lashed out against the trend backstage at the Grammy Awards, telling "Entertainment Tonight," "We work our butts off every week to make an entertaining show, and then these game shows come on and they kick our butts in the ratings, and it's really embarrassing. . . . We really work hard to entertain people and tell a well-made story, and then they just throw $1 million at people and half the country tunes in."

Joking about the quiz show phenomena has also become a favorite sport among comedy writers, who lampoon everything from the contestants to the ease of the questions.

Yet for everyone in Hollywood poking fun at "Millionaire," rest assured, the quiz show is poking back. The number of sitcoms on the air is already down this season, and more could disappear--taking jobs with them--as the networks test alternative forms of programming, which are perceived to be more viable in the wake of "Millionaire's" success.

The sole benefit in this, veteran writers say, is that young writers won't be lured away from existing series to create new ones as quickly because the demand has ebbed. In that respect, writers will serve longer apprenticeships, adding some much-needed depth to a talent pool stretched thin a few years ago, when more than 60 sitcoms saturated prime time.

"Millionaire" producer Michael Davies has dismissed snide comments about his show as elitism--the inference being that game shows somehow aren't worthy of viewers' time, whereas sitcoms and dramas are.

Most comedy and drama producers view this latest craze with a sense of resignation.

"You can't get mad," said Christopher Lloyd, executive producer of the Emmy-winning "Frasier." "People watch what they want to watch. There have always been trends in television. You can't fight that or take it personally."

What Lloyd does take personally is greater desperation, in his view, within NBC's promotions department--"already a hysteria-prone group," he noted, which has ratcheted up its tendency to inflate minor events in the Niles-Daphne relationship as a come-on to viewers.

The creative teams behind "ER" and "Frasier" have complained before about NBC giving away plot points or over-hyping in its promos, with the latter retaliating last year by withholding an episode until air time, denying NBC footage. Thinking quickly, the network ran promos saying the episode was so funny, they couldn't show it to you.

"It's moved beyond teasing into downright lying about what's in the shows," Lloyd maintained. "I love the cute euphemisms they use. 'Misleading.' They're lies."

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