Rosie O'Donnell and Drew Carey both walked away from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with $500,000 for charity. But ABC isn't complaining.
The network is more interested in some other figures, the ones showing record-breaking numbers of people watching this week to see how celebrities perform on the hot seat.
Monday's first celebrity edition of Millionaire drew 35.8 million viewers, the most ever to watch the game show, even though 3.5 million Time Warner subscribers were unable to get it on cable because of the company's dispute with ABC.
Indications from sample markets are that Tuesday's edition did even better, though final Nielsen Media Research numbers weren't in. For the first time, Millionaire had more viewers than all of the competing shows on CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB combined, said Marc Berman, an analyst for Mediaweek.com.
"The show is unbelievable," Berman said.
Carey was the big winner the first two nights, earning $500,000 for his charity, the Ohio Library Foundation. He declined a chance to risk his winnings on the $1 million question: Which football star was the first to film a commercial for Disney World? The answer: Phil Simms.
O'Donnell, the show's most vocal celebrity backer, matched Carey by picking up a $500,000 check for her charity, the For All Kids Foundation, on Wednesday night.
She walked a high wire, correctly guessing that Agnes de Mille was the choreographer for Oklahoma, that the Fields Medal honored excellence in mathematics and that Beethoven planned to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon.
But faced with the million-dollar question - about what degree playwright Anton Chekhov earned at the University of Moscow - she decided to pass because she didn't know the answer was medicine.
"I don't think I could risk it," she said, "because that's too much money."
Surfing the wave of popularity, ABC scheduled 17 nights of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire for the 24 nights in May's ratings sweeps. This week it added No. 18, a special behind-the-scenes peek at making the show, and audaciously scheduled it for May 18 opposite the season finale of ER.
When first approached about doing a celebrity Millionaire series, executive producer Michael Davies questioned whether it would work. He believes one reason the show is so appealing is the notion that any average American could win.
Davies went ahead with the celebrities because, with the show on at least three nights a week, he needed something to keep things fresh.
"What was very clear when we started to book the show was the enthusiasm the celebrities that said yes had for the program," he said. "I knew that enthusiasm would be infectious."
He is planning a second celebrity week for November. O'Donnell is almost certain to be back, and probably Regis Philbin impersonator Dana Carvey will, toohe said.
Philbin has also suggested a special Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with contestants who already are millionaires, he said. It would be for charity.
Written By DAVID BAUDER
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed