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Now that more than a few dot-com companies have bitten the dust, the pressing business question of how you can make money on the Web is being taken a little more seriously.

Is this pursuit a shibboleth, a latter day quest for a Holy Grail that does not exist?

Before the question of making the Web a commercially viable medium is addressed, let’s step back a moment into the comparatively old-fashioned realm of television. The good ol’ boob tube has retained its currency, and the obvious major ingredient in this equation has been the regular use of advertising money. The more people are apt to watch a certain program, the more advertisers wish to flog their wares to this audience. Pretty simple math, really.

Enter the phenom-program “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

Created by Britain’s Celador productions back in 1998, the show has seen huge success worldwide.

In fact it’s the most popular program in television history. From its first showing, the show has gone on to be produced in 106 countries around the world and watched by a billion people.

The attraction of the program is blunt and direct. Anybody can strike it rich.

With simple rules and various chances for contestants to make up for what they don’t know, it’s about as democratic as a quiz show can get without completely watering down the competitive aspect. Plus, the fact that contestants face the quizzes one-on-one heightens the identification that viewers make with the program.

The global success of the show has been helped by Celador’s strong sense of marketing savvy. They were careful to develop their product with a certain amount of built-in exportability.

No matter where the program is produced, it looks the same as the original version. The studio, the graphics, the music, everything conforms to the original version. The only difference, of course, is the questions, which are adapted to each market.

Celador, realizing that they had a more than hot commodity on their hands, went on to develop an online version.

The first Internet version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” premiered in Germany in October. Launched as what Celador calls an “anytime module,” the site allowed visitors to play the game, using the same rules and questions as on televised programs, anytime they wanted.

Later on, Celador released a simultaneous version, allowing the online audience to play at the same time as those on TV. No more yelling at a deaf television. No more guessing. Play along and see where you end up.

The concept has been a huge success. In Germany, there are 500,000 registered users of the site, generating some 60 million page hits. When the same site was developed for the British market, the same kinds of numbers were reported: 500,000 registered users (with some 200,000 declaring themselves to be in “middle management”) and 65 million hits in four weeks.

Traffic volume of this kind is the stuff of advertiser fantasy. Which brings us to Celador’s coup de grace.

Using the work of an outside firm, Celador added what are called “superstitials” to the site.

Superstitials, or e-mercials, are short graphical advertising segments. Unclickable, they represent a moment when the Internet follows the TV model: Having the audience at its mercy, advertisers can once again flog their wares in a more-or-less conventional manner. And yet, surveys show that not only do these e-mercials succeed at achieving the coveted goal of brand awareness, but people actually like them.

Asked to recall what the banners were on such-and-such a page, the vast majority of users had no recollection. But users could recall every e-mercial they saw, in their exact order (Celador typically inserts three at a time, during appropriate lulls in the game) and the name of the product that was being presented.

The man behind this magic is Bruce Vandenberg, head of digital at Celador.

Credited with arranging this advertising feast, he was somewhat reticent to describe the kinds of fees that licensees of the Millionaire site have been charging. But with viewers in two countries alone numbering 1 million — Britain and Germany — one can imagine that the rewards are handsome indeed.

By simply and cleverly maximizing the interactivity of the Net and then merging that with tried-and-true passive advertising techniques, Celador may have found the golden fleece of the Web. Of course, having the brand recognition in place beforehand didn’t hurt either, but they were smart to get the most that they could out of it.

All of this glowing success is fine and merry, so long as the show retains its original premise: the idea that anybody can be a millionaire.

The Japanese version of the program has an elitist twist. Rather than casting Joe Public as contestants, established TV stars answer the questions and keep the money. And although the top prize is only 20 million yen (a far cry from 1 million British pounds or $1 million), the fact that these people probably carry this kind of money around in their change purses is downright infuriating.

In Japan, mass media is for the masses to watch, not to profit from. The Web version has not yet been adopted by Japanese broadcasters, but given the obvious elitism in the televised version, it seems doubtful that the appeal among users would be as strong as it has been elsewhere.

The case of Celador’s successful blending of known business models with new technologies is a clear lesson for Web millionaire wannabes.

Give the people what they want, pure and simple.

Equally, Japan’s handling of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” is also something of a lesson, albeit one that perhaps explains why they might not be as far ahead in the IT revolution as they might like to be.

If in TV Land only millionaires get to be millionaires, where does that leave the rest of us?