Jewish World ReviewMay 8, 2000/ 3 Iyar, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IT'S AS CLOSE to a national emergency as you can get in the post-Cold War world: Regis blackout.
Time Warner's pulling the plug on ABC was billed as a clash of media titans, a struggle between content creators and providers.
The reason it made the front page was not that a network was temporarily blacked out in seven media markets. Or that a few million people were deprived of "Nightline."
The reason it was "America held hostage," requiring a temporary Time Warner-Disney truce to prevent outbreaks of regional unrest, was the threat--the unbearable threat--of Regis-lessness.
Burn down the World Bank? Why not. Seize Elian? No problem. But we cannot have millions of Americans going into abrupt Regis withdrawal.
First, because the addiction is so widespread. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is so unimaginably popular that last Monday it drew more viewers than all its network competitors (CBS, NBC and Fox) combined--even with 3.5 million ABC households blacked out by the Time Warner dispute.
Second, because there is no cure.
And third, because it is a great show.
Even the detractors who love to hate "Millionaire" must admit that the formula is brilliant. It starts with Regis, the most unlikely of superstars. Regis Philbin has been toiling in the relative anonymity of daytime and talk show television since the beginning of time. (During the Jurassic period, he was Joey Bishop's sidekick.)
All of a sudden, he's carrying a whole network, an entire multinational conglomerate on his shoulders. And creating a national audience of a kind that people thought impossible in these days of infinitely fractured media (cable, pay-per-view, Internet, video).
Regis has perfect pitch for this kind of show. He is delightfully straightforward, simple and sweet, with an upbeat corniness that he keeps just this side of unctuousness.
Then there are the neckties, dark-on-dark tones of solid shimmering silk. Combined with that whiter-than-white smile, they give him the dress and manner of a friendly mid-level capo, a kind of sunny Soprano. (Not the guy who whacks people; the guy who cheerfully maintains the car pool of Lincolns.)
The contestants carry on Regis's motif of pleasing simplicity. This is one show where they are not selected on the basis of physiognomy, dress or easy conversation. They're mostly chosen by merit, such as it is, having passed through a series of elimination trivia contests to get on the show.
And then there are the questions. The show was famously sued by its British insurer, who complained that the questions were too easy.
Well, of course they are. The cheaper questions, at least. The first five or six (you need to answer 15 in a row to win the million) are ridiculously easy, but deliberately and cleverly so.
Why? Demographics. The demographics of quiz shows are traditionally skewed. Two-thirds of the audience for "Jeopardy" with its tough no-nonsense questions is over 50. "Millionaire" uniquely appeals even to children, who get a kick out of the early questions, many of which refer to nursery rhymes. (Giving rise to that great moment of ignominy when a contestant bowed out at $200 for thinking that when Little Jack Horner stuck his thumb in a pie, he pulled out a blackbird.)
Sure, Charles Van Doren could name the reigning royalty in Europe. So could you if you'd been given the question in advance.
In any case, "Millionaire" does become sweatily difficult when the stakes get high. Question for the wise guys who disdain the show: What was Richard III's final battle? And: Who did the U.S. beat to win the 1980 Olympic gold medal in hockey?
The genius of the quiz show is that, when done well, it gives full play to two very pleasurable human feelings: empathy and self-flattery. "Millionaire" very cleverly focuses on just one contestant at a time. You are not playing favorites. You pull furiously for the poor schlub on the hot seat, the piano teacher playing for four years' salary. Yet, when she flubs it--even as you are desperately trying to coax the answer to her through the television screen--you flatter yourself that, but for a bit of laziness, you could have been a millionaire.
People keep waiting for "Millionaire" to do a Nasdaq in the ratings. Not a chance. It'll be flying high five years from now.
Oh yes. The Battle of Bosworth Field. And Finland. (Yes, Finland).
Still feeling so
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