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The real deal?

The promise of an easy million bucks, a stage crowded with sexy models and the smoothly calibrated charm of host Howie Mandel made Deal or No Deal an unexpected hit in television's December dead zone.

Now the NBC game show, returning tonight for five consecutive days, is getting the chance to prove it's the real deal and can compete in the thick of the TV season.

Based on a series that debuted in Holland in 2002 and became an international hit, Deal or No Deal is about luck and playing the odds.

Contestants are faced with 26 briefcases held by 26 models, each case with a hidden value ranging from a penny to the top prize that will escalate by week's end to $3-million.

As the game progresses and cases are eliminated, a contestant weighs the chance of snaring a big prize against lesser but still tempting offers made by the show's "bank," represented by an anonymous, silhouetted figure.

The toughest part, Mandel said, is "to not scream, "You idiot, please take the money and go home now.' When I see a person make the wrong decision, it really depresses me."

The concept is simple but executed to within an inch of its life. The models, identically dressed and carefully posed, bring to mind the robotic babes in Robert Palmer's classic Addicted to Love video, but in platoon strength.

The set is bright and shiny, like a bucketful of silver dollars, the atmosphere charged with money lust. Mandel, an actor (St. Elsewhere) and comedian, is a natural-born host, offering gentle jokes and encouragement, and skillfully juicing the drama as he utters the "Deal, or no deal?" catch phrase.

"For this show to play in prime time, it needed to be big, glossy, exciting and sexy - very much in the American tradition," said David Goldberg, president of series producer Endemol USA.

In other countries, the prizes are smaller (Albanians shoot for $50,000) and the models either a minor part of the show or nonexistent. In the Italian series, its version of imposing silver briefcases is amusingly modest shoeboxes.

But the spirit is the same, Goldberg said.

"I think the simplicity of the game is what makes it successful," he said. "It taps into the most basic human emotions: greed, a desire to improve one's situation, often in a very sort of get-rich-quick scenario. It's something we can all relate to."

When Deal or No Deal aired the week of Dec. 19, it nabbed five of the top 20 spots in the Nielsen ratings and drew an audience that reached 14.1-million. That's not American Idol territory (which closes in on 30-million viewers), but struggling NBC will take it.

Coming off a mediocre Winter Olympics and ranking third in total viewers for the season, the network needs a jolt.

Airing the series for a week in various time slots will test where it can best be used in the future, perhaps twice weekly, said Mitch Metcalf, executive vice president, program planning and scheduling, for NBC Universal.

The trick is to avoid what ABC did to TV's last hit prime-time game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which died from massive overexposure.

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