Before “The Bachelor,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol” or any of the other network competition shows, there was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The game show was an immediate smash when it premiered in 1999, and was a precursor to the modern unscripted boom.
Soon, “Millionaire” was a regular part of the ABC schedule, attracting up to 30 million viewers and helping skyrocket the Alphabet network to No. 1. But the execs there got greedy, airing “Millionaire” as many as five nights a week. Audiences quickly burned out and by 2002, the primetime edition was canceled. “Millionaire” returned for ABC specials in 2004 and 2009, and lived on in a syndicated daytime version until last year.
Now, with the daytime version out of the way, original executive producer Michael Davies — who first brought the U.K. format to America as an ABC exec — believes the timing is right to reintroduce audiences to “Millionaire.” He even recruited Jimmy Kimmel, whom Davies first hired on Comedy Central’s “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” to take over from Regis Philbin as host. ABC will air eight episodes of a new Celebrity edition of “Millionaire” starting April 8.
“I think ‘Millionaire’ is one of the most perfect games ever invented,” says Davies, who departed the syndicated version after he felt it moved too far away from the original game’s concept. “I didn’t want to change the format. I didn’t want to stray from the classic 15 questions. I always think games need to be adjusted and modified, but you don’t throw out the whole thing.”
In a bit of happenstance, Sony — which owns Davies’ production company, Embassy Row — also controls “Millionaire” in the rest of the world, while Disney/ABC still has the U.S. rights, thanks to Davies all those years ago. After a U.K. revival of “Millionaire” did well, Davies pitched ABC on a new, modern take on the show — as well as an app that viewers can use to play along and win at home.
“He came in and said, ‘You know, this was always supposed to be a special event that you do a few times a year,'” says ABC alternative series senior VP Rob Mills. “[ABC] wanted more, and then unfortunately burned it out. And he said, ‘Survivor’ is still on, ‘The Bachelor’ is still on, ‘Idol’ is still on — all the shows from that first unscripted wave are still there. ‘Millionaire’ should be on, and I agreed with him.”
For the revival, Davies brought back the show’s original orchestral music, updated its “spaceship” set and added an “ask the host” lifeline that was implemented on the U.K. show. And since they were playing for charities, the celebrity contestants — who include Will Arnett, Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen — were also allowed to bring along the “smartest person they know” to help with the first 10 questions.
But the biggest change is Kimmel, who had originally appeared on a celebrity edition in 2001 and has become friends with Philbin over the years. “You could easily underestimate how great he was,” Kimmel says of his predecessor. “But what he did was not easy. And he was really the perfect host at that time to bring in a huge audience.”
Davies says he has considered Kimmel the heir apparent for Philbin’s chair ever since that 2001 appearance, and Philbin — who appears in promos for the “Millionaire” revival — has given his blessing.
Kimmel says his relationship with Davies and his love of “Millionaire” made it an easy choice to take the gig. “It’s a great game,” he says. “And I know that, because I play it with my 5-year-old and my 2-year-old. We watched a cut of the show and they were glued to the television. When little kids are interested in something for adults, you’ve really got something powerful on your hands.”
“Millionaire” returns after ABC earned a ratings bump in January for its “Jeopardy: Greatest of All Time” primetime special. The network opted for an April bow in order to premiere “Millionaire” out of the “Modern Family” series finale. But the timing also now comes as audiences, stuck at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, are watching more broadcast TV.
The production of “Millionaire” came down to the wire: It was shot the weekend of March 14, without a studio audience, right before stay-at-home directives were issued. “If it had been a day later, I don’t know that we would have gotten it done,” Mills says. It’s very much of the moment: Expect to see elbow bumps and air hugs as celebrities avoid physical contact.
“We moved really fast,” Davies says. “We accelerated the schedule and delivered more than eight episodes worth of material by the end of our second shooting day, so we were able to cancel our third shooting day. That was to allow some of our crew and staff, who had traveled from the East Coast, and some of them from the U.K., to get on planes and get home to their families.”
Without the audience, it was up to the 15 or so staff and crew members situated around the set to provide reactions. “Initially that was very concerning to me, because you’re a comedian and you want to get laughs,” Kimmel says. “But about 10 minutes in, I could see that it was gonna work anyway. I did radio for a long time, and when you’re alone in a radio studio, nobody’s laughing. You just have to have some kind of confidence that what you’re saying will be funny to people watching at home. Otherwise, you wind up tap dancing and stumbling, so I kind of went with the drama and kept the jokes between myself and the players. And I think it came out well.”
As for what’s next, Davies would like to bring “Millionaire” back twice a year — once with celebrities, and once with regular contestants. Adds Kimmel: “I would love to give it a try with a studio audience. I think that it’s just the perfect formula for comedy. I’m hoping that the show is a hit and that they want to do more of them because I will say — and I rarely say this — that I genuinely enjoyed doing it.”