Briefcases packed for 'Deal' tour

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With the strong-performing "Million Dollar Mission" episodes of "Deal or No Deal" concluding Monday night, NBC is brewing the next attention-getting stunt for its stalwart game show: an around-the-world tour.

There are 40 versions of "Deal" produced worldwide, and most have variations in their rules, staging and gameplay. For the May sweep, the show will visit foreign-based "Deal" production sets in Estonia, the Philippines and South Africa. Host Howie Mandel and contestants from the U.S. will play the game according to the foreign set's rules. And yes, the "Deal" girls will be locals.

"We're constantly trying to come up with new ideas to keep the show fresh, to tweak and make the gameplay different," executive producer Scott St. John said. "It's been a fun internal thing when we watch clips from the foreign versions, so we decided we're going to explore the way they do it."

The plan comes at the close of the 19 Million Dollar Mission episodes that have aired this season and re-energized the show's ratings since the start of the year. NBC's alternative programming chief Craig Plestis said he plans to repeat the stunt in the fall and make the episodes a staple of the series. (No official "Deal" renewal has been announced, but Plestis said another season can be assumed.)

In "Deal," contestants open 26 briefcases containing values ranging from 1 cent and $1 million, gradually paring down the board and constantly shifting the odds of how much they'll take home. Nobody has won the $1 million.

For the Million Dollar Mission (or MDM, as they call it at the network), every time a contestant failed to win the top prize, producers added another $1 million case to the lineup, increasing the likelihood of somebody winning the top prize. On Monday night, a California couple had the board stocked with 13 of the $1 million cases, giving them a 50-50 chance of winning, but they still came up short.

The MDM temporarily turned "Deal" into a serialized program — much like "Jeopardy" during Ken Jennings' famed ratings-boosting winning streak in 2004.

Yet MDM wasn't always a ratings driver. When NBC first tried the MDM last year, it was during a shorter period of time and only resulted in a modest performance increase. In September, NBC tried again, for six episodes. MDM episodes were on par, or even underperformed, regular editions.

Since the start of the year, and aided by less competition because of the writers strike, the stunt took off. "Deal" has become NBC's top-rated series and has been the highest-rated show on the past five Monday nights. Last week's MDM episode hit a 5.2 rating — the show's best in nearly a year.

The only downside to creating so much excitement around a series of special episodes is that regular episodes start to seem, well, not so special.

Two days after that season-high rating, a non-MDM episode hit a season-low 2.1. That episode was a Wednesday edition, when "Deal" airs against Fox's behemoth "American Idol." But recent MDM episodes facing the same competition averaged a 3.1.

So why stop the stunt?

One reason might have to do with the MDM episodes paying out increasingly higher cash prizes, on average, than regular episodes.

"(NBC is) ultimately responsible for the prize money, so maybe they had more a calendar in mind for how long it goes," St. John said.

Plestis said the rising average payouts were not a factor. "We really didn't calculate out what it's going to cost us more for the cash prizes than the other games," he said.

"What's important," added St. John, "is you show that they get up to a 50-50 shot at winning $1 million — that justifies the mission. We are legitimately giving people the most incredible odds. Certain versions of the show may be more exciting to some people, but it's always going to be 'win it all, or lose it all.' "
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