Hunting big game 


It appears that every arm of the Disney empire has been trying to cash in on the success of ABC's hit game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Every arm, that is, except Walt Disney Imagineering.

So as Hyperion Press hustled to produce a "Millionaire" trivia book, Disney Records rushed out a "Millionaire"-themed album, and ABC.com quickly started selling "Millionaire" T-shirts, baseball caps and coffee mugs, the Imagineers appeared to deliberately dawdle. They didn't seem all that eager to ride on Regis' coat tails and build a "Millionaire" theme-park attraction.

Why? Because the Imagineers have very long memories. They recall all too well what a dud "Let's Make a Deal" was when that venerable old game show was briefly revived and produced at Disney/MGM Studios in July 1990.

The Walt Disney Entertainment folks had tried to create a pseudo-show for theme-park guests by taking them into the "Deal" studio on days when that NBC series wasn't taping. There, Disney/MGM visitors would take part in a mock version of the game show, where they'd compete for low-budget prizes like WDW T-shirts and Mickey Mouse plush.

The trouble was that studio visitors hated the phony "Let's Make a Deal." So much so that the Mouse quickly abandoned the idea, and NBC canceled the new version of "Let's Make a Deal" in January 1991. But the Imagineers never forgot the lesson: Fake game shows and real theme-park guests don't mix.

Here it is, 10 years later. And Disney CEO Michael Eisner is anxious to have his studio theme park cash in on the success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." How does Eisner want Disney/MGM to do this? By staging a mock version of the "Millionaire" quiz show right inside the park, where guests will accumulate points so they can win fun prizes like WDW T-shirts and Mickey Mouse plush.

Uh-oh.

The Imagineers tried to remind Eisner about the "Let's Make a Deal" debacle, but Eisner doesn't like being reminded about past failures. (It's best not to bring up the Disney Institute while dining with the Big Cheese.) He dismissed WDI's concerns, insisting that they put the quiz-show project into production.

Well, the Disney/MGM "Millionaire" project is going forward, but not at what you'd call warp speed. Though Eisner began actively campaigning for a Florida version of the game show way back in November 1999, Disney didn't get around to actually announcing the project until last month -- nearly a year later.

According to the current time table," Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!" isn't scheduled to open at Disney/MGM until spring 2001. Auditions for Regis Philbin stand-ins will be held next week in New York City.

Soundstage 3 will serve as the setting for the preshow. There, 600 WDW visitors will compete to see who can most quickly answer the Millionaire trivia challenge. Once the contestant is chosen, the audience moves to soundstage 2, where Disney/MGM visitors will encounter an exact duplicate of the "Millionaire" set. They'll watch as the pseudo-Regis -- complete with monochromatic wardrobe and annoying "Is that your final answer?" catch phrase -- puts the contestants through their paces, answering increasingly difficult questions.

The real question is: Why bother? Haven't executives at the Walt Disney Co. picked up on what the rest of the broadcast industry has already noticed: "Millionaire" is a fading phenomenon.

When "Millionaire" debuted as a special summer series in August 1999, the rating were indeed phenomenal. Networks execs hadn't seen numbers like these since back when Uncle Miltie ruled the airwaves. "Millionaire" regularly filled the top five slots for the highest-rated shows for that week.

One year later, CBS's "Survivor" arrived and quickly voted Regis off the top of the ratings heap. That's why Regis finds find himself and "Millionaire" occupying the bottom slots in TV's top 10.

And the show's slide continued once the 1999-2000 television season officially got under way. Recent ratings show that "Millionaire's" audience has dropped by as much as 30 percent in comparison to last year. ABC still has a hit show, but one with a severely eroding audience.

"Millionaire's" producers obviously know this, which is why they recently hit the road to hold their first-ever auditions for the show. Late last month, the "Millionaire" production team journeyed to Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. Next week, they hit NYC and Birmingham, Ala., in an attempt to recruit African Americans and Hispanics to appear on the show.

Will bringing in multi-ethnic contestants be enough to keep "Millionaire" in TV's top 10? Or should Disney just face facts and admit that "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is dangerously overexposed? Would the program's popularity improve if ABC were to cut back the series to two or three episodes a week?

These are interesting questions, but Disney executives don't seem to be all that concerned about "Millionaire's" slipping ratings just yet. At least not in public. For now, they seem more concerned about how big the gift shop should be in the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!" exit area.

Here's hoping that the quiz show is still a hit by the time the theme-park version opens next spring. Otherwise, "Millionaire" fans will probably be able to make a deal on unsold Regis items next summer by visiting those Disney factory outlets over at Belz.


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