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Will the wildly successful "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" return to ABC-TV? The answer is a no-brainer.

The Million-Dollar Question


It all started with "$64,000 Question" on CBS-TV back in the summer of 1955. It ended three years later — or at least we thought it did — with one of the biggest scandals ever to hit TV, on "Dotto" on NBC in August 1958. Megabucks quiz scandals hit the wall when Edward Hilgemeier Jr. — who never actually appeared on "Dotto" — spilled the beans: the show was rigged.

Hilgemeier was backstage waiting to appear on "Dotto" — whose contestants were challenged to connect the dots to make a picture and then identify the person depicted — when he found a notebook belonging to a woman contestant. The notebook contained answers to the show's questions. Hilgemeier squealed to the contestant the woman had defeated and then confronted the show's producers, who paid them both off. But when Hilgemeier found out the defeated contestant had been given a bigger payoff than he had, he brought on the whole quiz-show scandal by protesting to the New York State attorney general's office — and the networks dropped their prime-time quiz shows faster than a bad actor's option. The scandal rocked a na‹ve nation of viewers.

Now, 41 years later, the big-bucks quiz show is back in prime-time, and the ratings are once again through the roof. And the premise and the questions are still just as dumb as ever. This time, it's ABC-TV and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" — but don't make any foolish bets that the other networks will have too much taste to follow along.

With a techno-Gregorian soundtrack that sounds as if it was created by a mad medieval monk on speed and with a flashy set reminiscent of the bridge of a futuristic spaceship, "Millionaire" debuted Aug. 16 with a scheduled 13-show run spread over 14 days. But don't expect it to end there. As the show's frenetic host, Regis Philbin, exclaimed last week, "We're a hit. A big hit!"

The premise is simple. Contestants start with a $100 question and move on up to the big $1 million question in stages. The questions begin at the simple-minded level and work their way up to nearly impossible. What's a $100 question like? "What vegetable gave Popeye his strength?" At the upper levels, they get a bit tougher: "In 'Romeo and Juliet,' what was Juliet's family name?"

To make things more complicated, contestants have three "lifelines" available when they're stumped, but each can be used only once: they can telephone a friend, they can ask the audience for help, or they can take the 50/50 option and have two possible answers eliminated.

In case you haven't heard, a Richmond man walked away from a million dollars and decided to stick with what he'd already won last week after two days on "Millionaire." Michael Shutterly, who is an attorney with three children, amazingly knew the answer to the half-million-dollar question: What was the real name of Pope John Paul I? (Albino Luciano) But when the $1 million question popped up ("What group won the first Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance?"), he took his 500-Gs and ran. Philbin, the show's host, told the audience "this is the biggest prize in prime-time TV history."

Just as they did 40 years ago, viewers can't get enough. And although the last program in the summer miniseries was scheduled for this past Sunday night, odds are that ABC will quickly line up more, and the other networks will no doubt follow suit with their own spins on the same ratings-grabber premise.

Will TV history repeat itself in the '90s? The answer can't be too hard. All you have to do is connect the

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