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Another Millionaire sweep? - Broadcasting & Cable

Another Millionaire sweep?

ABC goes for third straight victory in event-laden May ratings period
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The May Sweeps period hasn't officially been renamed "The Millionaire Sweeps," but the popular ABC game show is poised for another extended run next month, and rival networks are taking note.

Coming off dominant performances in both the November and February ratings periods, ABC executives were putting the final touches on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's schedule for May last week.

Millionaire headlines the final sweeps period of the 1999-2000 season, a month that will be filled with stunts, nostalgia, reality, miniseries and game shows, most notably ABC's Millionaire.

ABC executives have scheduled four nights of Celebrity Millionaire for the first four days of the month (May 1-4) and are expected to have a special Championship Millionaire tacked on to the end of the sweeps period. Celebrity Millionaire will feature stars including Rosie O'Donnell (formerly on an ABC sitcom), and Drew Carey (currently on an ABC sitcom), and the championship version of the game, sources say, will bring back past contestants for another shot with Regis Philbin. Championship Millionaire is tentatively scheduled for May 21, 23 and 24. And Millionaire will continue to air throughout the sweeps period in its three regular nights: Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Rival network executives have been trying to counter-program against Millionaire since it arrived last summer, and many are still waiting to see Millionaire's exact placement during the sweeps before making some last-minute adjustments to their own schedules.

"When you are competing against the kind of juggernaut that Millionaire is, in terms of the number of shows they can make each week and the fact that it is making [ABC] the No. 1 network, it sort of puts you in a dog fight," NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier says. "And with Millionaire, it is making it much more difficult for us to nurture a show along when that's bringing in 25, 26 million people each time it's on."

"They have a big show, and it happens to be one that is in more than one place during the week, and that makes it an extra-strong weapon," says Giles Lundberg, FOX Broadcasting's senior vice president of research and marketing. "Some days are going to be tougher than others, and you certainly need to keep your eyes and ears open, and part of this business is reacting to both competitive challenges and competitive opportunities. But we certainly can't run away from [Millionaire] and hide. We think we have strong programs that can go head-to-head with it."

But according to ABC's Jeff Bader, there is more going on at ABC in May than just Millionaire.

"Millionaire alone will make it a strong month for us, but we have so much more," says Bader, ABC's senior vice president of program planning and scheduling. "I'd say we have Robert Halmi's best miniseries in years with Arabian Nights, we have a lot of strong theatricals, and there are a number of strong season-ending finales."

In addition to ABC's Arabian Nights, major miniseries include CBS'Jesus and NBC's The '70s and Jason and the Argonauts. Marquee made-fors are Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (CBS); The Dukes of Hazzard-Hazzard in Hollywood (CBS); Geppetto (ABC); and NBC's Brady Bunch film Growing Up Brady. Big-name guest stars include Joan Collins (Will & Grace), Bruce Willis (Friends) and Garry Shandling (The X-Files). And then there's Vice President Al Gore, who will do a voiceover on Fox's Futurama.

Series finales include Fox's Party of Five and Beverly Hills 90210, CBS' Cosby and the departure of Michael J. FOX from ABC's Spin City. It could also be the end of the line for Friends, if a new contract with NBC and Warner Bros. is not brokered by the middle of May.

FOX executives promise there won't be any more Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? offerings, but there will be more reality series, including Opening the Tombs of the Golden Mummies and Ghosts: Fact or Fiction?

Arabian Nights will help ABC kick off the sweeps, airing Sunday, April 30, and Monday, May 1. Drew Carey stars in ABC's Geppetto May 7, and the network is airing an hour episode of Spin City to say goodbye to Michael J. FOX. Setting up the finale, Diane Sawyer has an exclusive 20/20 interview with FOX a week before his last hurrah. Other doings at ABC next month include The Daytime Emmy Awards, a 25th anniversary airing of Jaws, and theatricals including The Peacemaker and Con Air.

At NBC, there will be lots of stars and a lot of original productions. Willis will appear in three episodes of Friends, and Tom Selleck will be on the season finale. Julianna Margolis departs ER, and Collins drops by on Will & Grace. NBC kicks off the first sweeps weekend with its miniseries The'70s on April 30 and May 1, and the following weekend Robert Halmi's other May epic, Jason and the Argonauts, gets going. Party of Five's Jason London and Dennis Hopper star in Argonauts, which is scheduled for Sunday, May 7 and Monday, May 8. Last week, NBC taped the special 25 Years of No. 1 Hits: Arista Records' Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. The May 15 special will feature performances by Whitney Houston, Carlos Santana and many others. And on Sunday, May 21, the network will turn back the clock for Growing Up Brady, a film based on original Brady Bunch cast member Barry Williams' best-selling book about the '70s series.

Party of Five and Beverly Hills 90210 will depart the airwaves on Wednesday, May 3, and Wednesday, May 17, respectively. FOX has a handful of hit movies on tap, including Happy Gilmore (May 24) and True Lies (May 18). Téa Leoni and Garry Shandling will appear on The X-Files April 30, and the vice president will do a voiceover role on the animated series Futurama, as will Stephen Hawking and the creator of Dungeons and Dragons. Air date is for the end of sweeps, May 21.

FOX also has plenty of reality series lined up for the period, including Paranormal: Do You Believe? on May 11. Former ABC 20/20 host Hugh Downs hosts the live special Opening the Tombs from Egypt on May 23, and, for four consecutive Fridays, FOX is planning to air Police Videos. So what happened to the network's decision to cut down on reality? "As stated in recent months, our focus is on what we are calling entertainment reality, reality programming that we can be proud of putting on the network," says Fox's Lundberg.

CBS' centerpiece is the four-hour miniseries Jesus scheduled for Sunday, May 14, and Wednesday, May 17. Jeremy Sisto (The '60s, Grand Canyon) plays Jesus, and Jacqueline Bisset, Debra Messing and Armin Mueller-Stahl round out the cast. The network will feature a number of guest spots for non-CBS stars, including Kathie Lee Gifford and Naomi and Wynona Judd on Touched by an Angel. Country singer Trisha Yearwood will make an appearance on JAG, and Stone Cold Steve Austin is back on Nash Bridges. CBS movie originals include the John Denver bio (April 30), The Linda McCartney Story (May 21) and the Dukes of Hazzard update (May 19). Music is also big at CBS during May, with The 35th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards (May 3), The Judds Reunion (May 17) and a Gloria Estefan concert (May 12).

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