Published on Monday, March 27, 2000 by Reuters
'Millionaire' Backlash Hits Internet
by Andrew Quinn
SAN FRANCISCO - As the youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club, America's most venerable environmental group, Adam Werbach took aim at politicians, corporations and consumers he felt were trashing the world we live in.
Now that he has left the club, he has found a bigger enemy: Regis Philbin, the ubiquitous host of television's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee" and, polls show, one of the most popular men in America.
"I read that Regis has now reached 195 million Americans. That's more than could articulate the names of the candidates for president," Werbach told Reuters in an interview. "Regis represents everything that is wrong with media right now: money, greed and lack of content."
So who wants to be a millionaire? Not Werbach, at least not on Regis' terms. Instead, he and his allies want to "reclaim" television and the Internet with programming that delivers more than the bucketfuls of dollars that shower "Millionaire."
The anti-Philbin campaign has already taken to the Web, where a "Smash Regis" (www.smashregis.com) game encourages players to score points by dropping bags of cash or other objects on Regis' head.
And there is more to come: "Smash Regis" T-shirts are in vogue among certain lefty San Franciscans, Werbach has a spring speaking tour of college campuses lined up, and Regis has been lampooned in online magazine Salon by humorist Ian Shoales, who described "the fatal allure of Philbinism" thusly: "Pointless enthusiasm has become its own reward. In America confusion, giddy eagerness and success go hand in hand."
Why Regis? Why now? What has the 68-year-old chat show host done to deserve such opprobrium outside of achieving new success at an age most people contemplate retiring?
'ACT NOW, APOLOGIZE LATER'
In the funky warehouse office of his new company, Act Now Productions, Werbach resembles many other young would-be moguls who crowd San Francisco's hot "multi-media gulch."
But unlike those getting their first taste of the big time, he has been there before. In 1996, a scant four years ago, he became at the tender age of 23 the youngest person ever elected president of the Sierra Club, one of the most influential U.S. environmental advocacy groups with more than 600,000 members.
Werbach is also the author of a book on activism, "Act Now, Apologize Later," and was named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of America's most influential people under age 30.
It was a heady few years. And when Werbach decided to leave the club to form Act Now Productions it looked like the perfect opportunity to combine his commitment to environmental activism with his generation's growing fascination with the media.
Then along came Regis and -- in Werbach's mind, at least --the success of the quiz show host prevented Americans from seeing a more serious form of television: The old argument that the bad drives out the good on TV.
Act Now's main product thus far is a TV show called "The Thin Green Line" designed to bring environmental stories to the small screen. Werbach and his colleagues call it the ultimate in "reality" programming, portraying real people in real situations fighting to preserve everything from endangered coral reefs to the Louisiana Bayou.
ENVIRONMENTAL TV A TOUGH SELL
But that proved a tough sell to at least one established network. When a group from Act Now went to pitch their series to ABC, they were told the network had a very different idea of the "reality" demanded by U.S. television viewers -- "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and its genial host, Regis Philbin.
"It's interesting that that show passed the definition of reality," Werbach said. "I thought it was a stupid idea and that nobody would watch it. You can see I was right."
Now airing at least three nights a week, "Millionaire" regularly draws about 30 million viewers per episode, dwarfing the ratings of almost every show that goes up against it and transforming ABC into the season's prime-time network leader.
The show garnered five Emmy nominations, Regis himself was nominated as outstanding game show host, and his trademark query, "final answer?", has entered the pop culture lexicon.
Despite the campaign against him, Philbin remains above the fray and his publicist declined to return several phone calls seeking comment on the nascent anti-Millionaire campaign.
Meanwhile, his bosses at ABC could not be happier with the star, his program and the buzz it has created. "It's a phenomenon like nothing else I've ever seen on television," ABC president of sales Marvin Goldsmith raved to "Variety."
"This is a show that truly the whole family is watching. My advertising customers are ecstatic. The network is euphoric."
Werbach, on the other hand, is a bit depressed. While his own show has found a cable niche on the Outdoor Life Network, it has so far proved no match for Regis when it comes to penetrating the U.S. cultural consciousness. "It's like they've built the biggest megaphone in the world and nothing comes out of it," Werbach said. "Here's the most powerful medium in our lifetime ... shouldn't we be using it for something important?"
Copyright © 2000 Reuters Limited.