Mr Positive's millionaire touch
When Michael Davies took Britain's top TV game show and offered it to the US networks, he could hardly foresee that it would herald a new British invasion
Tuesday 12 September 2000
Michael Davies sits in the TV control room, like the captain of an intergalactic starship, an array of monitors before him. He's plugged into his production crew for yet another taping of the US version of
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the phenomenally successful British game show. The show starts and soon the questions are coming fast and furious. "We're moving at the speed of light," says Davies, the British-born executive producer, as he cross-checks the running time. "That's how I like it."
Michael Davies sits in the TV control room, like the captain of an intergalactic starship, an array of monitors before him. He's plugged into his production crew for yet another taping of the US version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the phenomenally successful British game show. The show starts and soon the questions are coming fast and furious. "We're moving at the speed of light," says Davies, the British-born executive producer, as he cross-checks the running time. "That's how I like it."
Certainly this programme, a new series of which has just hit British screens, has carried him light years away from his early days in the US television business. Just 10 years ago he was a fresh-faced tour guide at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Now the success of Millionaire has catapulted him, at the age of 34, into the ranks of America's television Ã©lite.
On his watch, the US show has become the top-rated programme on TV, attracting hordes of younger viewers to the prime-time hours, an audience many had written off as a lost generation. And it has boosted the prestige and revenue of the ABC Network, owned by the Walt Disney Company. One estimate suggests that the value of the Millionaire show to the Disney Company could now be as high as $4.5bn. Its massive success was critical in providing the company with powerful leverage over its rival, Time Warner, during a dispute earlier this year over cable access.
But perhaps more importantly, the programme has opened up the TV trade routes between Britain and the United States. Davies is now one of the key players in prying open that market, a savvy entrepreneur who also had a hand in bringing over the smash hit Survivor to US screens. (That show, which achieved record ratings this summer, is produced by another Brit, a former paratrooper, Mark Burnett.) The British Invasion, as it has been dubbed, has shaken up the networks and prompted The New York Times to declare that both shows are "possibly England's most successful cultural export in the last 30 years". And it's not over; among other projects, Davies has been working on a US version of the classic British quiz show Mastermind, and has even considered a transatlantic TFI Friday, despite its recent poor performance in Britain.
Suddenly there's a huge market for British, and European-born, ideas. That wasn't the case a few years ago. "I couldn't persuade anybody that anything British would work," says Davies. "Now every major agency has people on the ground in London. I think this is the genius of British culture. Rather like The Beatles, who listened to rock'n'roll in the 1950s and sold it back to America, Millionaire is just a classic American quiz show from the 1950s, reinterpreted and sold back to America."
It's a long way from Blackheath, London, where he was raised. "I watched a ludicrous amount of television growing up," he says. "My parents and my teachers would be shocked to know the full extent of my television viewing."
At Edinburgh University, he earned the nickname Mike "Positive" Davies for his uncharacteristic British enthusiasm. Shortly after graduating, he headed to the USA, where his brother had already carved out a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter. But he went via Florida, landing his first job at Universal Studios in Orlando, where Davies showed TV bigshots around the company's production facilities. He left when Universal asked him to wear a uniform. Soon he was honing his skills writing for a classic American quiz show called Let's Make a Deal, before moving out to California to write for Merv Griffin Enterprises. By the age of 25, he joined the Walt Disney Company as a development executive brimming with ideas.
From the first, Davies was convinced that British TV could someday shake up the style and content of American viewing. "When I came out to this country I watched huge amounts of stuff on television and I noticed whole forms of television entirely missing," he says. Despite his determination, it took a few years before Davies really cracked a British import in the shape of the comedy show Whose Line is it Anyway?, which achieved solid critical and ratings success.
But his breakthrough to the major league came with a phone call from a friend in London who tipped Davies off about the Millionaire programme. He was instantly intrigued by the idea. Standing on the deck of his house in Los Angeles, Davies looked out at the city below and knew this was the game show of his dreams. "It was one of the key moments in my life," he says. "You could instinctively feel it."
The arrival of a videotape of the British programme confirmed his best hopes that the show would be a cultural crossover hit. But now he had to convince Paul Smith, the managing director of Celador, which created Millionaire to license it. "He was absolutely passionate about the show," says Smith. "He was astute enough to spot it. Nobody else in the United States approached us. Michael was a real gentleman and I really warmed to him."
Once it became clear the game show would be a huge hit, the deluge of requests began pouring in to Celador. But by then Davies was already sitting in a meeting with Michael Eisner, the Disney chairman. Eisner had always regarded him as an outsider, an offbeat Brit, certainly not someone who was going to make Disney money. But during a programming lunch with a group of producers that was going nowhere, an exasperated Eisner finally turned to Davies and said: "Well, what do you have?"
Davies replied confidently: "Four years ago you asked me to find a quiz show that would work for primetime. I've got a tape of a show from Britain and it's the best format I've ever seen."
He wasted no time distributing tapes to Eisner and Disney's top executives. Later that day, he received an e-mail from Eisner that said: "I don't know if I'm embarrassed to say this, but I really, really like this." That was the green light he needed.
Once the deal went through, Davies left his job as vice president of Alternative Programmes (CK) to become the executive producer of Millionaire, which became a runaway success in more than 70 countries, and the top-rated show in the US until another British import, Survivor, came along this summer and toppled its crown.
Michael Davies has positioned himself as the Brian Epstein of the game show. "It's amazing that this show, created by people in Britain, is really all about the American Dream," he says.
Now, he wants to be "Britain's foreign office for television".
With this goal in mind, Davies is launching his own production company, Diplomatic, which will develop other formats beyond the game show, including dramas and documentaries. "My great fear is that the first five words of my obituary will be "Game show producer Michael Davies" - a terrifying thought, because I never saw myself as a game show producer."
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