The death of Regis Philbin brought back memories of one of the greatest blunders in TV history. It remains a cautionary tale for networks about the perils of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
The miscalculation involved “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,‘' the ABC game show on which Philbin served as host. A surprise hit when it premiered for a two-week run in the dog days of summer in 1999, “Millionaire'' landed a permanent prime-time slot in January 2000. It quickly became a must-see, even for people who didn’t care for game shows, and even though (or because?) its questions were not all that challenging.
Philbin’s trademark query to contestants, “Is that your final answer?‘' turned into a national catchphrase, and the show’s “lifelines'' also became part of everyday parlance. Regularly drawing up to 30 million viewers, “Millionaire'' rose to the top of the Nielsen ratings and generated more than $1 billion in profits for ABC.
But the network was determined to wring even more money out of the show. So in the spring of 2000, ABC started airing “Millionaire'' four nights a week. At one point, “Millionaire'' was on as often as five times a week, while ABC executives blithely dismissed warnings about overexposure.
Sure enough, though, viewership began to fall. With ratings in a downward spiral, ABC canceled “Millionaire'' in 2002. (Later, there was a syndicated daytime version, initially featuring Meredith Vieira as host). The prime-time version of “Millionaire'' had gone from cultural phenomenon to bust in less than three years, thanks largely to the network’s shortsightedness. Philbin lamented the way ABC had used the show as “cannon fodder,‘' and later told the Associated Press: “When it went off, I thought, that’s what you get for giving too much of it away to the audience.”
He got it. But then Philbin always had an innate understanding of the medium. You don’t sustain a television career as long and varied as his without that kind of understanding, and without forging an appealing persona that also seems to be more or less your real self.
Philbin’s shtick as a comically beleaguered Everyman on “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee'' and “Live! With Regis and Kelly'' was often the most entertaining part of the programs. He appeared 150 times on David Letterman’s late-night shows, more than any other guest. I recall Letterman saying once of him (on a night when he was not a guest) that Philbin was one of the rare TV naturals.
After Philbin died last Friday at age 88, Letterman issued a statement that put him in very lofty company — and that was devoid of Letterman’s usual ironic detachment. “In the same category as Carson. Superlative,‘' Letterman said of Philbin. “He was on our show a million times, always the best guest we ever had, charming, lovable and could take a punch. When he retired I lost interest in television. I love him.‘'