“Millionaire” returns to ABC to celebrate (belated) 20th anniversary

Jimmy Kimmel takes over with new format

Well, that didn’t take long.

Just mere months after airing its final episode in syndication, ABC announced Wednesday at the Winter TCA Tour it is bringing back Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as a series of prime-time specials starting April 8, the same night Modern Family is airing its final episode.

Handling the reins this time is ABC late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, and it will have a new format: celebrities will pick a contestant to play along with. ABC officials said celebrities can “invite a guest in the hot seat to help them answer questions. It could be a relative, a beloved teacher, or a famed trivia expert — anyone they want — to help them win as much money as they can for the charity of their choice.” Also on tap is an interactive app, where viewers can play at home and win real cash.

The last time Millionaire aired in primetime was in 2009 when the series was celebrating its 10th anniversary, which drew huge numbers locally. This new version marks the 20th anniversary, though a year late as the show premiered on August 16, 1999 with Regis Philbin as host and made the phrase “Is that your final answer?” into pop-culture lore. In November 1999, the series returned to ABC as a limited series and crowned John Carpenter as the show’s first-ever one million dollar winner.

The success of Millionaire as a limited series led ABC to run the show three times a week beginning in early 2000. But when the series was upped to four times a week in the fall of 2000, viewers became tired of the show, and left the network on June 27, 2002.

A new syndicated strip of the same name debuted as host in September of the same year with Meredith Vieira as host. After she departed in 2013, Cedric The Entertainer and Terry Crews took turns as emcees until the show settled on Bachelor host Chris Harrison in 2015. The series was canceled last spring as Millionaire wound up airing in late-night on WLS-TV for its final season, the last ABC O&O to finally clear the show (it had another clearance on the former U Too digital subchannel of WCIU.)

It’s going to be interesting to see how viewers would react to Kimmel’s new version as he is not only host, but also executive producer. One of the problems with Millionaire in its original ABC run were the over-reliance of celebrity versions to begin with, but having them along regular contestants strikes as a workable compromise. It also remains to be seen where the series would be shot; the last version was taped in Las Vegas (which is coincidentally where Kimmel lived for several years.) Millionaire was taped in New York City and in Stamford, Conn. in the past.

Also undecided is how many nights ABC is committing to Millionaire.

This move is surprising given Millionaire ended just last September. But ABC is investing further into unscripted projects and it’s evidenced by the decent ratings of their summer game shows with successful revivals of Press Your Luck, Card Sharks, and Match Game – and all of this as the multi-night Jeopardy! The Greatest Of All Time multi-night event scored nearly 15 million viewers on its first night. And to top it off, numerous ABC-owned stations and affiliates already air Jeopardy! and Wheel Of Fortune, including WLS here. It also doesn’t hurt to be in business with Kimmel, who already produced two successful editions of Live In Front Of A Studio Audience, live reworkings of Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcoms.

Even though ABC is in fourth place in the key 18-49 demo, the network has carved itself a nice place for itself as the home of unscripted series and game shows. In a world where streaming is sucking audiences away from the broadcast networks in primetime, today’s announcement proves the network knows how to stay in the game. And that’s the final answer.



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