The little quiz show that could

Question: What summer TV show occupied five of the top six spots in the Nielsen ratings last week? Wait: Before you answer, do you want to consult your spouse? Or a TV-loving friend? Are you sure you're ready? The answer: "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

Got it right? OK, keep going: What was the highest-rated show on TV for the entire summer? (Hint: It wasn't the baseball All-Star Game from Boston's historic Fenway Park, or the much anticipated delayed season finale of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.") Yes, you're right again! TV's summer king was last Sunday's finale of ... "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

If "The Blair Witch Project" was the surprise movie of the warm weeks, its TV equivalent surely is "Millionaire," a limited-run quiz show that was supposed to prop up ABC's ratings a tad at the end of the summer until September brought the new season. Just as "Blair Witch" now has movie studios scared, wondering how to catch up and cash in, TV executives are quizzing themselves trying to figure out "Millionaire." The finale drew 22 million viewers Sunday, more than any show since May, and helped knock the reruns of NBC's Thursday night "must see" comedy lineup out of the week's Top 10.

So why was "Millionaire" so popular? Even though quiz shows are hardly new, the concept for "Millionaire" (borrowed from the British version, on the air there for about a year) involves some fresh twists. The contestant can ask for help from the audience, who vote from its seats. (One can only imagine in the future extending this to viewers at home who vote via phone or computer.)

The multiple-choice questions mean folks at home can always take a guess, and no one feels like a dummy.

To become a contestant, viewers call a 900 number at the end of the show and take a quiz. The on-air contestants are urged to share why they're making that choice (so we at home can say, "Oh, no, no, no" ... or "Yes!") Before revealing each answer, usually impish host Regis Philbin intones somberly, "Are you sure?" to heighten the drama.

It takes 15 straight correct answers to win $1 million. Contestants can stop any time or try to double their money by answering the next question correctly.

Many questions are easy, so there can be plenty of yelling out the right answer from the sofa. But somewhere along the way, a question will arrive that's so obscure it becomes simply a guess. Will you risk everything to double your take or wimp out?

One contestant walked away from guessing how much saliva the body produces in a day and kept his $125,000 winnings. Later Philbin had him say what he would have guessed: He would have been right (one quart).

Nobody made it all the way to millionaire - the most anyone won was $500,000. ABC says it gave out $1.4 million during the 13-episode run of "Millionaire." But that's chump change for the kind of prime-time ratings the show drew. Fox TV's drama "The X-Files," for example, costs about $3 million per episode to produce.

Now look for CBS to speed up its revival of "What's My Line," the longest-running game show in TV history (1950-67). Others are sure to follow. Though ABC hasn't yet said when "Millionaire" will return, Philbin told viewers Sunday that the show would be back in November. That'd be just in time for the ratings "sweeps" that determine how much networks can charge for commercials.

Some may see sinister undertones of gambling and glitzy "something for nothing" values in "Millionaire." But the amounts aren't really astronomical. No winner will be moving to Bill Gates's neighborhood.

After all, even $1 million isn't what it used to be when mysterious "Michael Anthony" gave it away anonymously and changed people's lives forever in the '50s drama "The Millionaire."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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