It's been 10 years since a late summer entry named "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" unexpectedly opened to hit ratings and became a worldwide phenomenon. To honor said anniversary of the show, host Regis Philbin is returning for an 11-night primetime special event this Sunday featuring esteemed experts like Connie Chung and Sam Donaldson as well as celebrity contestants like Lauren Conrad, Rachael Ray and rapper Snoop Dog. Also making appearances are some of the biggest winners in the game show's past as they cheer on the new crop of contestants. To commemorate this event," Philbin and executive producer Michael Davies talked recently about this weekend's "Millionaire" return and reminisced about the first wave of popularity not to mention who would be their dream celebrity guests to take the chair and compete for a million dollars.
The gargantuan ratings 10 years ago may have been a surprise but do Philbin and Davies think lightning will strike twice? "To tell you the truth," Philbin said, "I don't think they can ever duplicate what we got the first time because it was a brand new show and it was the talk of the country and everybody was tuning in to see what the talk was all about. Now everybody knows what the show is and those who will remember it and loved it I'm sure we'll get them and I think it will do a good rating. I don't think it could be as high as the first one." Davies added, "10 years ago we had no expectation about the ratings... and I think this time also we're just having such a great time in the studio making such a great show. We're just celebrating the tenth anniversary of this program. That's what we're focused on doing. The ratings will come. That's not up to us; that's up to the American viewing public. We're just really focusing on having a great time."
All modesty aside, the fact that the initial popularity of the series had an impact on the genre is not lost on Philbin. "I think it reinvented television game shows for sure. I mean just the million dollars and the lifelines. It was a very, very special show and I don't know if you can ever get another show quite like it. I mean it just covered everything, every possibility and I think we've even improved it with this version."
The changes that have come to the show over the years will also be reflected in the tenth anniversary edition. "We have time limits on the answers from the questions and we have added an expert to the show, a well-known person, probably mostly from the news area. And so we have a celebrity at the end of the show for one question and get the correct answer and your charity wins $50,000. So from all the points of view it's just an outstanding, informative, entertaining show."
Davies shared that there definitely has been quite a buzz from everyone involved during the filming of the current episodes. "Regis and I have really just [been] tickled pink the last few days, the atmosphere in the studio and the atmosphere with our contestants and our celebrity guests and our experts. It's been very magical and we'll see what happens."
While the primetime edition of "Millionaire" hasn't been seen in prime time for some time (the daytime edition is still going strong in syndication), there has always been talk about bringing the show back. "Ever since we did 'Super Millionaire' in 2004," Davies shared, "the conversations with ABC have been ongoing about bringing the show back [and] I haven't bothered Regis with every conversation I've had with the network about bringing him in primetime. But, it's been ongoing and I think this year with 'Slumdog Millionaire' coming out with the tenth anniversary that being celebrated and frankly the need for break out shows over the summer."
Besides "Millionaire," games shows such as NBC's "Deal Or No Deal" and Fox's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" bring in solid ratings. Why the renaissance now? "Shows like 'Millionaire,' game shows, are so much cheaper to produce and dramas, comedies, news magazines and other reality shows," Davies explained. "They're all so interactive. They have extensions. They have sort of quality to them. They do really good jobs in lots of different time periods across television at a sort of at a great price point. The point that we're now seeing great vertical pressure on show budgets and on time periods up and down the dial. Game shows are back and we're making apart from 'Millionaire' coming back in primetime, we're making a lot of games."
Turning 78 years old later this month and showing no signs of slowing down, Philbin doesn't see his busy work schedule as anything out of the ordinary. "Well, you know, the morning show ["Live With Regis & Kelly"] is pretty simple. I don't get there until around 8:25 in the morning, look at the papers... but that is such a spontaneous show and I've been doing it so long that I don't consider it work. I kind of look forward to it every day, going in and shooting the breeze with Kelly [Ripa] and then interviewing the people and it's over; it couldn't be simpler." His reasons for returning to "Millionaire" come across as more sentimental than anything else. "It's very special to me with a highlight in my career and in my life and I loved every minute of the five years that we did it and it's a thrill to be back. So that's frankly why I'm doing it."
Since the returning show will have a different celebrity appear in each episode, do Philbin and Davies have a dream celebrity they'd like to see on the show? "We've never discussed it," Philbin said, "[but] I think just because you never see him anywhere but on his own show, I'd love to have David Letterman come on the show." Davies said his choice would be comedian Norm MacDonald, who had appeared on a celebrity edition of the show in the past. "Norm is the only celebrity we've ever had on the show who got all the way to the million dollar question. I still think he's bearing a little bit of a grudge against Regis because he thinks Regis talked him out of the right answer, which is rubbish, of course. But I know he really wants to come back and sit in that chair opposite Regis and I'd love to see Norm back again."
Despite the few celebrities that won't be appearing on the tenth anniversary edition, they've had no problem getting many others. "We have been really blown away by the response of both celebrities and experts to coming back on this show," Davies said. "Sam Donaldson, George Stephanopoulos, Wolf Blitzer, Cokie Roberts... we just got really great interesting people and everybody comes to the show and brings something kind of new and different."
The big question for Philbin and Davies - will the show come back full-time if the ratings are strong? "Both of us would love for this to come back as an event once every year in the summer," Davies said. "I think if this works it's a great thing for ABC in August. It's a great way for them to promote their fall schedule. It's a great time. It's when 'Millionaire' first went on the air. It's when we woke up the idea of summer programming. And I think what's so great for us is that after the whole 363 episodes in three years, Millionaire has really gone back to its roots with this run. The eleven nights over two weeks, the phone game being back, fastest finger being back, lots of elements about the original that just made it so special and I think we'd like it to remain special."
"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" returns to ABC this Sunday at 8:00/7:00c and will then air for 11 nights (Sunday � Thursday) at 8:00/700c with the finale on Sunday, August 23.