Can ABC’s ‘Millionaire’ lightning strike twice?

By David Bauder

NEW YORK — If it weren’t for the color of Regis Philbin’s shirt, it might seem like 10 years hadn’t flown by.

He was back on a Manhattan soundstage, sitting across from nervous contestants hoping to strike it rich, taping a prime-time version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The game show will air on ABC for 11 nights this month, starting 8 p.m. Sunday and ending two weeks later.

Philbin’s shirt was white. The dark-shirt-with-dark-tie look, a signature that enabled Philbin to launch a now-defunct clothing line, was left in the closet.

Seeing the Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” where a version of the game show played a central role, left Philbin yearning for another chance to relive the best time of his career.

“The most striking thing is how much this means to Regis and therefore how much this means to me,” said Michael Davies, who also returns as executive producer. “I’m extremely fond of Regis, and I should have guessed at how much this meant to him.”

Nostalgia aside, the game’s corporate owners saw a chance to revive the brand for another generation of viewers and electronic devices.

The syndicated version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with Meredith Vieira still airs each day. “This is a business play,” Davies said.

The game premiered modestly in August 1999 with just under 10 million viewers and caught fire, drawing 22.4 million by the end of its summer run and even more upon a November return.

“Is that your final answer?” became a national catchphrase. ABC rode the hit hard until it expired in 2002. Including a handful of “Super Millionaire” specials in 2004, the network aired 363 prime-time episodes.

“What are you going to do? You do what your boss wants,” Philbin said. “When it went off, I thought that’s what you get for giving too much of it away to the audience.”

Philbin was clearly happy to be onstage for the first taping back, bantering off-camera with a studio audience that included several big winners from the past.

He turns away from a conversation with a contestant’s girlfriend with some of his comic mock outrage: “I just said to the girlfriend ‘Drop him,’ and everybody turned on me!”

The show’s writers do him no favors. He’s hit with the words “oleophobic” and “abyssopelagic” on two questions, forcing inevitable do-overs.

There are subtle differences to the game as everyone remembered it from years ago.

The old “50-50” lifeline, where two of the wrong answer choices are wiped off the screen so a contestant has just two remaining choices, is replaced by the “double dip,” where a player can make a second choice if their first is wrong.

Along with the chance to phone a friend for advice, contestants will be able to ask a celebrity expert. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, activist Al Sharpton and “Jeopardy” ace Ken Jennings are among those who help during the two-week run.

The biggest change is the introduction of a clock. Players have 15 seconds to answer the easiest questions, up to 45 seconds for the toughest ones.

It eliminates the excruciating waits, often edited down for broadcast. One woman took 52 minutes to answer a question, and then got it wrong, Philbin recalled.

The show had to adapt to a faster- moving television world, Davies said.

“It did get a little stale, and we did need to step away from it and make it better,” he said. “By the time it went off the air, I don’t think the show was necessarily that good.”

Davies has always liked the idea of “Millionaire” appearing annually as a special event, much like ABC is doing now. He advocated that approach even when ABC was airing it four nights a week.

“I would be happy to do once a year every year for the rest of my life,” he said.

Philbin, who turns 78 on Aug. 25, wouldn’t mind such a schedule, either.

“If they wait another 10 years, I don’t know,” he said. “But I’m grateful that they thought about it [this time], and I’m enjoying the heck out of it.”

Neither man expects a rerun of the phenomenon that engulfed them a decade ago.

But in a quiet television summer, maybe fans are anxious for a lifeline.

“I think,” Davies said, “it might surprise a few people.”

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