HOLLYWOOD, California (Variety)
-- The producer who asked viewers if they wanted to be a millionaire is now plotting to make someone a billionaire.
Michael Davies' Diplomatic Prods. is close to sealing a deal with the WB to produce a two-hour live special this September in which contestants will have a shot at winning $1 billion.
Davies, who brought "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to the U.S. and turned it into a megahit for ABC, plans to partner with Pepsi for the special event, which insiders likened to a real-life "Willy Wonka."
In this case, contestants will land a spot on the show if they happen to purchase one of a few specially marked Pepsi products. (In "Willy Wonka," a handful of kids won the right to visit the Wonka chocolate factory when they found a golden ticket packaged with their candy bars.)
Given the random nature of who might end up with a winning Pepsi, the producers expect to find people from all walks of life to participate. Pepsi will promote the contest all summer, leading up to the special in September.
Given the summerlong hype and the potential $1 billion prize, WB insiders believe the special could attract the network's largest-ever audience.
Details of the game were still sketchy over the weekend, although insiders said contestants will face off in a game of nerve and "chicken."
There's no guarantee that anyone will win $1 billion. But just in case, Pepsi -- which is apparently putting up the money -- hopes to secure some hefty insurance. The soft drink company is talking to a number of companies, including Lloyds of London, about insuring the show against a possible winner.
The network and producers are still working out details, including whether there will be a celebrity component or a watch-and-win-at-home aspect. The special, to be produced in New York City, will likely be fronted by multiple hosts.
Diplomatic (which is run by Davies and Matti Leshem) has also partnered with the WB for the six-episode time buy "Live From Tomorrow" this summer. The hourlong talk/variety hybrid will incorporate sponsors into the show rather than air commercials.
Pepsi is also involved in that effort, along with Nokia. The WB is no stranger to product integration, having partnered with Ford on "No Boundaries" and Coke on "Young Americans."
Internationally, Pepsi has been known in the past for music television programming such as the "Pepsi Chart Show" on Televisa in Mexico and "La Catelera Pepsi" on Univision's U.S.-based TeleFutura. The soft drink company also sponsors "Pepsi Live" on Channel 10 in Australia, and the "Pepsi Music" show airs on 12 stations across Latin America.
The billionaire special comes as the game show mania of 1999 and 2000 upped the prize ante. According to game show scholar and Union University professor Steve Beverly, environmental engineer Kevin Olmstead still holds the all-time game show record, having won $2.18 million on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in April 2001.
IRS employee John Carpenter became TV's first game show millionaire in 1999, when he became the first contestant to make it all the way to the top of "Millionaire."
Most recently, "The Price Is Right" returned to primetime with a million-dollar gimmick. Beverly said the larger jackpots have actually declined in the game show world now that they've disappeared from primetime again.
"Does kicking up the dollars usually result in a ratings increase?" he asked. "Unless you are introducing a format and structure totally new that catches the viewers blindsided and knocks their socks off as 'Millionaire' did in 1999, the answer is no."
All told, according to Beverly, more than 150 players have won at least $200,000 from various game shows.