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Queen for a Day


Obviously, it is an emotional note, and a weird one at that, that is being struck with this millionaire stuff -- certainly, it's a note way beyond reason. I mean, the millionaire notion today seems to be resonating as powerfully as it did half a century ago. But then, when Michael Anthony, on TV's The Millionaire, was handing out weekly checks to various unworthies, the value in a million dollars was 20 to 50 times greater than it is today. Even the squirrelly attachment of multi- to millionaire only, officially, ups the ante by one. The producers guaranteed that Rick Rockwell was worth at least $2 million (Larry King characterized him as a "legitimate multimillionaire"), and people were willing to fall for that. Never mind that, even if true, his $2 million would merely put him among a not-unsizable portion of California homeowners. If you feel like a failure, you believe in almost anyone else's declaration of success. That $1 million is chump change doesn't much matter when your target market is made up of chumps.

My Dad, an adman in the sixties, was a terrific fan of game shows (although I'm sure he never watched one). First, they had a formula. That was good, because they could be endlessly replicated. And then it was a formula that reinforced the advertiser message: success and failure, winning and losing, gain and loss. It was perfect: There was one person, whom you identified with, who would be a winner, and another person, whom you also identified with, who would be a loser. For some reason, the kind of anxiety this created really made people buy stuff. Which door do you choose?

When I was 13, we went on a family tour of America culminating in Los Angeles, where my dad knew Monty Hall's partner. After touring his mansion in Bel Air, we got to sit in special seats on Let's Make a Deal. We were the VIP civilians surrounded by the desperate (although energized) citizenry who came from across the land in outlandish costumes, which, if outlandish enough for Monty's taste, would get them on the show.

This, my father whispered to me, making a business point, is America. (Being an employee or family member of an employee of a network, advertiser, or agency precluded, by federal law, my being fully an American, I felt.)

But network television, or at least prime-time network television, got yuppified. The networks blithely followed the path of their own collapse. As the nation seemed to become more sexually and politically and personally adventurous, the networks tried to create programming that reflected this. Clearly, people who work in the network business, especially people who work in the prime-time business, are as upwardly mobile as anyone else. They created programming that reasonably educated people could talk reasonably about. Indeed, over the past few years, the place for writers to work has been in television. Network shows have attracted not only many of the best comedic and dramatic writers but the most well paid. A sure way to be a multimillionaire was to be a television writer. The programming theory was that if you produced higher-end, edgy shows, even though the network pie was shrinking, you'd still grab the lion's share of key demographic groups.

Obviously, there were two flaws to this logic: The lion's share got smaller and smaller, and the cost of holding this lion's share got higher and higher. (The success of ER, the most expensive television show ever produced, is a watershed moment in the failure of the networks.) Briefly, the answer was to create more newsmagazine shows with low production costs. But while news shows were relatively inexpensive, they still largely spoke to an audience that was less and less interested in, and certainly no longer dependent on, network television.

The prime-time audience just got smaller and smaller.

Year by year. Month by month. Networks were regressing. Moving back in time. Retracing their growth. Until suddenly, they were back with an audience that looked a lot like it might have looked in 1958 or '59.

You've got to wonder if anyone actually asked the question: How did they do it back when they had these kinds of numbers? How did they makes these numbers work?

Was there anyone who would even remember? (Where is Monty Hall now?)

As it happens, European television, with its smaller national audiences, resembles nothing less than U.S. television in the fifties. They don't have three-camera sitcoms and hourlong dramas (except when they're imported from the U.S.); rather, they let people who don't have to be paid very much do odd and embarrassing (or at least shameless) things -- from dancing-girl variety shows to amateur hours to the new reality-based burlesque.

Cheap is the thing. Cheap and broad. Cheap and dumb.

Hence, desperately trying to make the numbers work, Bob Iger imported the so-you-want-to-be-a-millionaire concept.

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