New York — In a measure of how far "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has fallen, ABC executives on Wednesday refused to guarantee that the game show that made the network a fortune two years ago will be back next fall.
Asked to characterize the show's status beyond this season, ABC Entertainment Chairman Lloyd Braun said: "Unsure."
"We cannot say with certainty that 'Millionaire' will be on our fall schedule," Braun said. "We hope it will be, but we cannot say it with certainty."
Two years ago, the game show was the hottest on television, led ABC to an unexpected first-place showing during the 1999-2000 TV season and made Regis Philbin a prime-time star.
"Is that your final answer?" became a national catch phrase.
Since it was owned by ABC and was relatively cheap to produce, "Millionaire" was considered at its peak to be the most profitable program in TV history.
ABC executives scheduled "Millionaire" four times a week last season, and the sensation began to fade from overuse. ABC cut back to two nights this fall, but the slide continued.
Through mid-November, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was averaging 10.7 million viewers per episode, down 37 percent from the 17 million watching at the same point a year earlier.
Even worse for ABC, as "Millionaire" aged, so did its audience.
"Now that we're dealing with lower household numbers, the 18-to-49 numbers are, quite frankly, not what we had hoped them to be," Braun said.
It's probably the single greatest factor behind ABC's slide this year to a distant third behind NBC and CBS. Fox has also been doing better lately among young audiences, and all of ABC's competitors are considered to have a stronger group of scripted shows.
"The frustration from an affiliate point of view is that there doesn't seem to be anything on the horizon to turn that ship around," said Jack Sanders, president of the television group at Belo Corp., which owns some ABC affiliates.
Braun said the game show's fade forced ABC to accelerate its rebuilding effort. The network has put a handful of comedies on an unusually fast development pace in hopes of having one or more on the air as early as March.
"Our challenge now is to rebuild the network without that solid foundation that we had hoped to have," he said.
One of ABC's rivals tweaked the network on Wednesday.
"I can tell you that 'Weakest Link' will be back on the NBC schedule next fall," NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said of that network's prime-time game show.
While "Millionaire" could still return as a regular series next fall, ABC executives also raised the possibility that it could be back as an occasional series of specials.
A syndicated version of the game show is expected to begin within the next year, so fans of the game show will still be able to see it even if ABC cancels it in prime time. No host has been named for the syndicated version.