LOS ANGELES (AP) – Michael Davies says he’s losing sleep over the prospect of a gusher of $10 million payoffs on the revamped prime-time version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“I want it to be close and I want someone to have a shot, but I don’t want too many people staring at that $10 million question,” said Davies, executive producer of “Super Millionaire.” “My heart can’t take it.”

For ABC executives, a different set of numbers – ratings – may be inducing insomnia. The Walt Disney Co.-owned network is lagging in viewership and looking to “Millionaire” once again for help.

If the British-born quiz show repeats its late 1990s prime-time success for ABC, however, network executives swear they won’t slip back into their disastrous “Millionaire” addiction.

“If it does well, I’m not going to resist bringing it back as a regular presence on the schedule, probably as a sweeps event,” said ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun, referring to the key ratings measurement periods that include February.

“But we’ve made it clear we’re going to have discipline in terms of how we schedule it,” he said. “You’re not going to see this series multiple times a week as a regular series. That’s not going to happen.”

With new rules and bigger prizes – but the same dapper host, Regis Philbin – “Super Millionaire” will air 9 p.m. EST Sunday and at 10 p.m. EST Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

(A syndicated version, with host Meredith Vieira and from Disney-owned Buena Vista Television, has aired daily since 2002.)

The huge bounce that ABC got from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” starting in 1999 was followed by a hard landing. The show was on so often that audiences tired of it and, as ratings fell, ABC had little to replace it.

The last prime-time version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” aired June 27, 2002. Braun was aware that bringing it back to ABC would again highlight the network’s much-covered misstep.

“There was no doubt in my mind it was going to do that,” he said. “But at the end of the day I didn’t care, because I felt it was the right thing to do for the network.”

Over regular golf games, Braun and Davies had been kicking around the idea of reviving “Millionaire.” But it had to bring something novel to the table, they agreed.

So, besides more money, there’s a redesigned set, different music and inventive new “lifelines,” the crutches available to players. (There will still be a version of the “Is that your final answer?” query posed by Philbin; it’s a legal issue, Davies said.)

A “three wise men” lifeline will be among those joining the old standbys of phoning a friend and seeking studio audience help.

The three-member panels, which Davies said will include women and be made up of scholars, journalists and former quiz show whizzes, will be available to help at crucial moments.

Whether “Super Millionaire” ends up bleeding millions or boring audiences with paltry winnings depends on the 15 questions each contestant faces.

“So I’m sitting here as I’m talking, holding in front of me the stacks of questions we’re working on for the show,” a stressed-sounding Davies said last week from New York.

“The secret of a good “Millionaire’ question at the higher levels is you think it’s something you probably should know, but you don’t,” he said. “They seem easier than they are.”

So far, the original and syndicated versions of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” have seen 11 people walk away with the top sum.

With “Super Millionaire” shooting 24 hours before airtime, viewers who get the urge to join in will be able to call a toll-free number and try to qualify before the short run concludes.

Responding to past criticisms that the game featured a disproportionate number of white men, Davies said he is comfortable that contestants are being screened in a “blind, fair way.”

Returning host Philbin (co-host of the syndicated talk show “Live With Regis & Kelly”) says he’s eager to help make it all work, again, for ABC.

“They’re right back where I found them five years ago, but I’ll fix it,” said an ebullient Philbin, perhaps only partly tongue-in-cheek. “They’re cutting me to a week but I can still get it done.”

Philbin believes that a serving of “Millionaire” goes a long way.

“I think the show plays better in its original form, running it a few nights consecutively, letting it rest, then (bringing) it back a few months later,” he said. “It becomes an event that way.”

The later airtimes, however, may cost Philbin and ABC a big family audience; one of the game’s early appeals, when it aired at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. EST, was as a show that parents and children could watch together.

As for that $10 million prize, Braun is aware of Davies’ money worries (“Believe me, I hear about it every hour,” the ABC executive said) but is comfortable with the network’s cost calculations.

“We concluded it’s a viable business to do this or otherwise we wouldn’t do it,” he said.

As “Super Millionaire” contestants shoot for the juicy jackpot they decide whether to risk what they’ve won so far. Will a player be willing to blow nearly $5 million to try to double his or her money?

The top prize would be paid off as annuity which, over 20 years, would be about $500,000 annually, Davies said.

“There are going to be husbands and wives going insane,” he happily predicted.



On the Net:

http://www.abc.go.com



EDITOR’S NOTE – Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber”at”ap.org

AP-ES-02-18-04 1610EST



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