But now, after just three years--and one spectacular collapse--it's time for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's final answer.
Millionaire ends tonight on ABC with a 90-minute farewell, one that will presumably be seen by just a fraction of the 30 million devotees who once tuned in to watch nervous Americans take their turn in the hot seat.
Of course, the show's not really gone for good--a syndicated version hosted by Meredith Vieira launches in September, and ABC insists the quizzer may return in prime-time specials next season. But tonight's regular series finale has prompted TV critics to finally publish their obituaries for the once unstoppable game show.
At its peak in 1999 and 2000, Millionaire was a juggernaut, showing up on ABC's schedule as many as seven different nights, with each one ending up in Nielsen's top 10. But by 2001, the show was airing twice a week and had lost a whopping 40 percent of its audience. And more importantly, the young-adult viewers craved by advertisers were fleeing.
What went wrong? Industry types say ABC overexposed the show and plugged it into too many timeslots, eventually leaving the network with gaping holes in its prime-time schedule. Then there were the "celebrity editions," featuring folks like Queen Latifah and Emeril Lagasse goofing around for charity. The stunts briefly boosted viewership, but they ultimately weakened a franchise built on regular people making big bucks.
New ABC Entertainment President Susan Lyne acknowledged the mistake. "People loved that anybody could come on and win a million dollars, and they weren't slick," she said. "They were nervous. They were ordinary people."
One ordinary person was 25-year-old Joe Trela, who on March 23, 2000, became one of Millionaire's millionaires. "It's an end of an era," he told Knight Ridder News Service.
"They had a good thing, and I think they wanted to make it better--for them," he added. "They added a bunch of special shows, celebrity shows, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Arbor Day, whatever. It wasn't necessarily what people wanted to see. They assumed that celebrities would translate into more ratings when they really weren't as compelling."
Phone a friend. It's over.