In 1999, the idea of putting a high-stakes game show anywhere on television, let alone on primetime, was enough to get you laughed right out of whatever room you dared make the suggestion.
Sure, stalwarts like The Price is Right, Jeopardy, and Wheel of Fortune were still kicking in their respective arenas (daytime and syndication, respectively), but they weren't exactly considered cool. And their audiences weren't thought of as the sort of demographic that prompts advertisers to throw money their way—aka the coveted 18-34 demo. They were shows your grandparents watched.
And the format over all had, by and large, long-since fallen out of favor.
In primetime, the concept of "alternative television" was relegated to newsmagazines (think 60 Minutes or Dateline) and goofy clip shows like America's Funniest Home Videos or Candid Camera. Reality TV as we know it today was merely a twinkle in some ambitious producer's eye. Scripted programming, be it drama or comedy, still ruled the airwaves.
So when the thought of adapting a slick new British quiz show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for American audiences crossed the desks of execs at ABC, they hardly knew what to do with it.