(Note: This article was originally written over the course of a few weeks in the spring of 2015, when the future of the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire looked bleak - and that was the optimistic assessment. However, in the process of finalizing the article, breaking news made it evident that the show still had a pulse. Because I don't want all of the work put into researching this article to go completely to waste, and because the long-term outlook for the show is still very tenuous, I have decided to keep this article's perspective as though the show is on the brink of cancellation, even as the show closes in on a new season next week. All of my opinions on the decision to bring Chris Harrison and bring the format back to its original rules will appear in the epilogue. Most of the opinions and analysis on the show are still accurate even with the new developments. Enjoy!)
In September of 1998, the British television network ITV debuted a series that would forever revolutionize the game show genre. It was constructed on a very simple premise: the creators wanted to put a close-up camera on people making life-changing decisions. The show was simply titled Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and every episode of the show featured contestants who all came to the studio hoping to walk away with that designation.
The show became an instant smash hit, and the following summer an enterprising producer from the UK imported the show to American audiences with much the same result. In the months that followed, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (or WWTBAM as it was quickly referred to by fans) turned ABC from the third-place network into a ratings juggernaut. It made household names out of memorable contestants and catchphrases out of the oft-repeated lines spoken on the show. It turned Regis Philbin into one of the most ubiquitous personalities on television. And most importantly, it legitimized the game show as a viable option for prime time.
Other networks would try to emulate ABC's success with their own game show offerings, each of them going different routes. NBC turned back the clock to revive the infamous quizzer Twenty One. CBS turned to the same British packager to bring Winning Lines across the pond. Fox decided to blaze their own trail and produced the uniquely cutthroat Greed. None of them were able to last long; in fact, one of ABC's favorite strategies after converting the show to air three times a week was to drop an extra episode directly against one of the other network games to undercut their ratings and sink the competition before any of them could gather any momentum.
Sadly, their own momentum wouldn't last forever. By the summer of 2002, after having as many as four hour-long episodes air each week, the show had burned itself out and ended up getting canceled. Fortunately, the show moved to syndication, and even though it never reclaimed the glory that it had once enjoyed in terms of ratings, it fought valiantly and managed to endure several format tweaks and two hosting changes to last for thirteen years on the syndicated market. But even that time seems to be running out; despite a surprise announcement that the show will go forward with another season this fall, it's tough to imagine WWTBAM making it out of 2016 alive.
Without question, WWTBAM was one of my all-time favorite shows. It captivated my attention from the word go, and I was among the throngs of people calling the show's toll-free number every opportunity I got, hoping to get the call that would give me the opportunity at a big win. I even constructed a fansite for the show, doing my best to chronicle the exploits of each contestant before the constant waves of new contestants got to be overwhelming.
And even though my passion for the show has waned in the ensuing years, I felt it only fitting to give WWTBAM one last tribute before it vanishes meekly from the airwaves this autumn. In this article, we'll be walking through the timeline of the show, from its humble beginnings on ABC's summer schedule to the Terry Crews era where the show seemed destined to come to a halt. Along the way, we'll highlight some of the more significant moments in the show's history - both the good and the bad. (Sadly, as the timeline progresses, there will be much more bad than good.)
And so, let's begin where it makes the most sense.
On Monday, August 16th, in an 8:30 timeslot that directly followed a one-off special entitled "Drew's Dance Party", WWTBAM made its American debut.
Two contestants played: a Mensa member named David Korotkin and a music professor named Hillary Daw. Neither did especially well - Korotkin got tripped up at the $4000 question and Hillary made music professors across the country look bad when she proved to be hopelessly ignorant about things like the capital of Iraq and the Bill of Rights. But even though the gameplay may not have been tremendously skilled, all of the trappings that we would come to expect from the show were there - the elaborate light show that swirled and flashed with each question, the heartbeat-flavored music that ratcheted up as the money amounts got bigger and bigger, and the just-long-enough pauses that Regis would employ to heighten the tension before revealing an answer to be right or wrong.
The bigger wins soon followed. Two nights later, marathon runner David Honea gutted his way to a $32,000 win despite having to burn all three of his Lifelines on a tricky question about fly-fishing. Two nights after that, fiddler Doug Van Gundy became only the second person in network history to win $250,000. That record would only last two nights itself, as Michael Shutterly managed a $500,000 win before stopping on a trick question about heavy metal Grammy winners.
By the end of the first week, WWTBAM had become the biggest show in the country - both in terms of ratings and water cooler talk. A second flight of episodes was quickly ordered by ABC to air during the November sweeps, and when the final episode aired - featuring an emotional $32,000 win by a pastor who was looking for funds to aid in the process of an adoption - it was clear that something very special had just happened on television.
After three months of rest, WWTBAM returned to the ABC schedule on November 7th. The one major change that had been made to the rules from the previous run involved the qualifying quiz. Previously, most contestants had to call a 1-900 number to take the qualifying test; however some states equated the 1-900 number with gambling and required the show to give residents in those states a 1-800 number to call instead. Obviously, this resulted in a lot of contestants hailing from states that used the toll-free number (namely Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Florida). To level the playing field, and to account for the fact the show didn't really need the revenue anymore, they opted to roll out the 1-800 number nationwide.
The run got off to a rather sleepy start - two of the first three contestants crashed in the middle tier, and it wasn't until the sixth contestant of the run that someone managed to get past the 11th question. But eventually we began to see some pretty big winners. Gary Levine was the first November inductee of the "13 Club", and Toby Moore could've been a half-millionaire if he had known anything about Pokémon. But it wasn't until tax collector John Carpenter took the hot seat that the show had its first millionaire - and its first controversy.
Carpenter sat down in the hot seat with a pair of wire-frame glasses, a cocky smile, and a sense of impatience that we hadn't yet seen on the show. He blew through question after question, hardly even considering the Lifelines he had at his disposal. Before anyone had a chance to understand the gravity of the moment, John was at the million-dollar question. He looked at the choices, chuckled, then announced he was finally ready to use his Phone-a-Friend Lifeline to call his dad. It was only when the call officially started that viewers would discover that Carpenter wasn't looking for help - he was looking to gloat. Moments later, John Carpenter became the first person on the globe to finish a 15-question stack and win the show's top prize.
The arguments started almost immediately. Not only did a smarmy IRS tax collector storm through the game and win the top prize after the litany of feel-good contestants we'd seen to that point all fell short, but he did it with what everyone considered to be a noticeably easier stack than we'd come to expect. His $32,000 question asked which month on the calendar had no federal holidays - a cinch for a government worker. For $125,000, he had to identify the developer of the first polio vaccine - and as luck would have it, he attended Rutgers University, home of the Salk Institute. For a quarter-million, he had to pick the one religion from the four choices that wasn't monotheistic. And the kicker - John's million-dollar question asked which president had made a cameo on the comedy show Laugh-In. The way people talked about it, you would think they taught kindergarteners this stuff.
A second controversy had also started to creep up. When the November series wrapped, 58 contestants had taken their turn at the hot seat. Only seven of them were women. The show seemed to be attracting an awful lot of middle-aged white men as contestants. Maybe because that's the sort of person who might be inclined to call in and audition, but in any event the lack of diversity in the contestant pool would be an issue that would hound the show going forward, and ultimately serve as a factor to the show's eventual decline.
But nonetheless, the November run totally dominated the ratings yet again. Even as the copycats started to offer WWTBAM some competition - the Fox quiz show Greed debuted in November as well, and even stole a few headlines when a contestant had a chance at a $2.2 million jackpot (but fell one Tuna short) - there was no stopping the Millionaire freight train.
Audiences were still clamoring for more, and as a result the network obliged, giving WWTBAM a one-month break before it would return once again.
And this is the point in the show's lifespan where one could argue that the first grave mistake was made.
WWTBAM returned on January 9th, once again to much fanfare. But instead of giving the show its normal flight of two to three weeks of consecutive nights, the network decided on a more conventional approach: after getting another full week of episodes to celebrate the show's third arrival, three hours a week would be carved out for the show on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights.
As everyone expected, the show was just as popular as ever. By the time it had settled into its permanent timeslot, a second million-dollar winner had been found. (And even though the last question in the stack was one every TMBG fan should know, Dan Blonsky's win was considered much more legitimate of an accomplishment.) They managed to even find a way to build specific themes around the show - just before Super Bowl XXXIV, a group of football fans were invited to play on an episode devoted entirely to football trivia.
By this point, every other network was either trying, or had already tried, to siphon some of the momentum by producing a big-money game show of their own. Fox had similarly turned Greed into a series, and the show survived into the summer when it served as collateral damage after a second Fox quiz show, It's Your Chance of a Lifetime, flopped hard. NBC went to its roots and brought back a show that nearly killed off the genre due to its rigging scandal: but even though Twenty One crowned what was the biggest game show winner on national television to that point, it didn't last beyond the May sweeps period. CBS had imported another British game show from the same production company in December of the previous year, and although Winning Lines got high marks from game show fans for having one of the best endgames ever created, it didn't even complete its 13 episode order, and had difficulties paying out its winners (including Catherine Rahm, the first episode's champion who won $500,000, but had to wait months to finally see the check).
A lot of this had to do with the fact that WWTBAM had become a potent weapon in ABC's arsenal. Whenever one of the other networks wanted to do something special with one of its own game shows, ABC would respond by dropping an extra episode of Millionaire on against it, sucking all the oxygen out of the timeslot. By the time the new fall season had begun, only Millionaire remained.
But the deployment of WWTBAM as a thrice-weekly show cost one of the elements that made the show so popular when it was on the air, and so hotly anticipated when it was gone. Instead of leaving the viewing audience wanting more, the folks watching at home could conceivably miss an episode safe in the knowledge that another one was never more than 72 hours away. Serial comedies and dramas thrive on their episodic nature: missing a show meant missing the story arc for the week, and watching a show rewarded you with plot and character developments that would entice you to tune in for the next installment. Game shows - at least of the in-studio variety (more on that later) - are fixed entities. The game is played with the same rules every time; the only thing that really changes is who's playing it. With WWTBAM now getting three hours of exposure every week, it opened up a vulnerability to viewer fatigue that it didn't have to worry about in 1999. And even though the effects of the schedule change weren't felt immediately, one could certainly argue that it diminished the show's shelf life in prime time.
The May sweeps period rolled around, and those in charge of the production of WWTBAM were now faced with the predicament of making a sweeps event for a show that previously was an event all by itself.
Their first move was de rigeur for the genre: create a week's worth of episodes where celebrities would be invited to play the game for charity. The roster included celebrity superchef Emeril Lagasse, talk show host and the show's most visible fan Rosie O'Donnell, and even Regis' previous daytime co-host Kathy Lee Gifford. The rules were relaxed to allow for outside help from the other stars in the Fastest Finger circle through the first 10 questions, as $32,000 was the guaranteed payout for everyone in attendance. The week crowned two $500,000 winners - both O'Donnell and Drew Carey answered 14 of their 15 questions - and it ended up being one of the more entertaining weeks the show had put out.
Two weeks later, the show invited back its biggest winners to play a second time, splitting half of their winnings on their second visit with charity. All three players who had previously won the million-dollar prize managed to win their way back into the hot seat; ironically, it was the player who had earned the most scorn for his easy path to the million that fared the best with markedly tougher material. John Carpenter won $250,000 on his second time out; neither Dan Blonsky nor Joe Trela (whose million-dollar win was easily the most dramatic of the three) could get out of the middle tier.
Ratings for both theme weeks were strong, although the level of domination that was there in the past had dissipated some. And by the end of the month, a new kid on the block was about to turn some heads.
On May 31st, CBS premiered the first episode of their own summer competition series. It featured 16 contestants - or castaways, as they were called on the show - marooned on an island off the coast of Borneo and forced to live off the land, with one person being voted out of the game each week, the last one remaining walking away with a check for a million dollars. The show was named Survivor, and by the time the premiere episode finished, America had a new TV phenomenon.
WWTBAM and Survivor never competed directly against each other; CBS smartly put their show on Wednesday nights, safely out of the range of the Millionaire sledge hammer. Fifteen million people had tuned in for the premiere; by the end of the season, that figure had nearly doubled, culminating in a two-hour finale that was watched by a staggering 51 million viewers - good enough for a ridiculous 22.8 rating. There was no way that WWTBAM was going to amass that kind of audience ever again - especially when they started to engage in a rather counterproductive practice.
On June 13th, Bob House reached the 15th question of his stack with his 50:50 and Phone-a-Friend still in his arsenal. Minutes later, he was the show's fourth millionaire.
On June 20th, Kim Hunt gutted out a $500,000 question about who provided the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" and quickly found himself dropping the confetti for the fifth time in the show's history.
On June 25th, David Goodman had duplicated the amazing feat of getting to the end with all of his Lifelines, and even though he burned them all to answer a question about the origin of Paddington Bear, he walked away as the sixth person to win a million dollars on the show.
This should have been used as a huge promotional vehicle for the show to emphasize the fact that you never knew when lightning would strike and someone was going to win the top prize. But instead, viewers knew exactly when the lightning would strike - because ABC told everyone when it would happen. In a press release given out shortly before House's trip to the hot seat, the network told all who were willing to listen that three million-dollar winners were going to appear in the next two weeks.
Obviously the strategy here was to drive as much interest to the show during this wave of big winners. But much like a movie whose twist ending was being given away a week before it made it into theaters, the show had forfeited one of its biggest assets - the element of surprise. If a big announcement was going to be made whenever someone won the big money, it wouldn't just alert viewers to the fact that a big win was imminent, it also gave them the OK to move on to other shows in the meantime. Don't worry, they'll let us know when to tune in again.
Granted, three millionaires in two weeks was an anomaly that I'm sure the network executives wanted to make sure had as many eyeballs on it as possible. And even though it might be looked at as a bit cynical to think that people only wanted to watch for the big wins, the fact of the matter was that wins of $32,000-$125,000 were so commonplace on the show that they had almost become interchangeable - particularly when you considered that the show still had an inordinate number of middle-aged white guys working in IT or management filling the hot seat time and time again. (It took until April 20th that they had their first African-American contestant; he was the 200th person to play. And of those same 200 contestants, 26 were female, buoyed by a special "Ladies Night" episode in February where all the finalists were women.)
But even though cracks had begun to show in WWTBAM's once impenetrable ratings, the show was still doing quite well. Unfortunately, ABC wasn't done overworking its golden goose.
I think if you rounded up Lloyd Braun and the rest of the folks at the top of the ABC food chain in the early 2000s and asked what one move they made with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire that they regret the most, it would likely be the decision to add a fourth night of the show to the schedule.
The 2000 Summer Olympics pushed the start of the fall season to October, and ABC decided to bolster a weak Wednesday night schedule with another hour of Millionaire. This alone didn't seem to injure the show's popularity; in fact, the Wednesday night episodes consistently pulled the best ratings of the week for the show. But in December, the decision was made to move WWTBAM out of Wednesday nights and over to Friday nights, and that's when the wear was finally starting to show. By the end of the 2000-2001 season, WWTBAM went from having three hours all ranking in the top 10 in the Neilsen ratings to having four hours ranked as low as #19. Still successful from an objective standpoint, but it was obvious that the magic was swiftly fading from what was once considered a wrecking ball on the schedule.
Although October had seen another theme week come and go when several Olympic gold medalists of the past and present had been invited to play the game (most notably Rulon Gardner, the Greco-Roman wrestler who had won the gold medal in upset fashion just a week prior), the show went to the celebrity well yet again for November sweeps. This event brought in a comparable level of star power to the game, if not more; celebrities who took part included Alec Baldwin, Tyra Banks, Charlie Sheen, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Drew Carey getting a second crack at the hot seat. Easily the most memorable part of the week was the very end, when Norm MacDonald - the last player left on the outskirts - was essentially talked out of playing the million-dollar question after seemingly wandering his way through the stack, only to find he would've been right.
Ratings were still good for the show's second foray into celebrity contestants, but it had been six months since the last time they tried it. There wouldn't be that wide of a gap between all-star episodes for the rest of the show's prime-time tenure.
The start of the new year found WWTBAM in a bit of a predicament. Two of them, in fact.
For one thing, after the monsoon of million-dollar winners that had taken place the previous summer, the show had gone into a six-month dry spell. In an effort to combat the perceived impatience of the audience for having had the longest drought of millionaires since the show began in the US, the producers decided to spice things up by adding a progressive jackpot to the game. For every non-themed episode where the top prize wasn't won, $10,000 would be added to it. The new jackpot would also be retroactive to the last time the million was won, thus when the first episode of the new year aired, it suddenly had a top prize of $1,710,000. This is was probably one of the few tweaks made to the game that actually helped it, as the jackpot eventually eclipsed the $2M dollar mark and got people buzzing about when the jackpot would be hit and how much would be in it when it was.
The other move, which came two weeks later, was decidedly more defensive. After hearing complaints from numerous places (including the NAACP) that the show wasn't getting enough minority contestants into the hot seat – never mind whether or not minorities were actively trying to participate in the phone quiz that was, by its very nature, completely egalitarian – the show began holding contestant auditions across the country, and began using contestants selected by this process in conjunction with the phone qualifier. The obvious result was a more diverse group of players. And it didn't seem to result in lower payouts, at least immediately – in fact, on the very first night of auditioned contestants, someone won $250,000 – but now that getting on the show relied more on impressing contestant coordinators and less on calling a phone number and answering a series of questions, there was certainly a sense that the show was beginning to consider looks and energy just as much as they considered knowledge.
Only nine months after the first celebrity edition of WWTBAM, the show's fourth week of high-profile players began, this time exhibiting more of a sense of desperation than we'd seen in previous gimmick weeks. Musicians including Smokey Robinson, Mark McGrath, and Gladys Knight all took the hot seat for "Rock Star Week", and ignoble history was made when KISS frontman Gene Simmons became the first celebrity player to crash before the $32,000 question - bearing in mind that such amount was already guaranteed and the stars were encouraged to seek help from their fellow stars in lieu of burning Lifelines before venturing into the upper tier.
Not long afterward, a week of episodes advertising tax-free winnings was played, sponsored by H&R Block. Then, a week of classic TV stars playing the game. After that was a return of all the players who missed a lower-tier question and walked away with nothing. Then another week of classic Olympians. The show's standalone novelty was officially starting to wear off.
Despite the sideshows that WWTBAM had slowly given way to over the past six months, someone actually did manage to get into the hot seat during one of the show's more traditional episodes, and conquered it. The man was Kevin Olmstead, and after 118 episodes using civilian contestants (and God knows how many celebrity episodes), Olmstead nailed a question about the first mass-produced helicopter to cash in for the jackpot, which by that point had ballooned to $2,180,000.
Less than a week later, a graduate student named Bernie Cullen played one of the most unpredictable games the show had ever seen. He fought his way to the million-dollar question - also about aircraft, coincidentally - and unlike previous contestants who either quietly convinced themselves to go for it or locked in very quickly because they were already certain of the answer, Bernie's play came out of nowhere. After using his remaining Ask the Audience and 50:50 Lifelines to narrow down the search, he suddenly blurted out: "A! Final answer, Regis!" Just like that, Bernie had won the million for the second time in a week after nearly ten months of drought.
The last player to win the big money on the network came several months later. A contestant named Ed Toutant was brought back to the show when it was discovered that the $16,000 question he originally missed turned out to have multiple correct answers. Having played during the show's jackpot era, he was given the chance to win the same $1,860,000 prize that had been at stake when he first played. And sure enough, Ed took full advantage of his second chance, becoming the ninth and last person to clear the full game in the network version of the show. Sadly, the network didn't find it worthwhile to restart the jackpot after it had been hit, and the top prize reverted to the normal $1,000,000 after Olmstead's victory.
It was all downhill from there.
The wear had already started to show by the time the 2001 fall season began. WWTBAM was no longer the highly-rated show that it had been two years ago; by this point it had completely fallen out of the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings. ABC responded by cutting the show's footprint on the prime time schedule in half. The quizzing would now only take place for two hours a week.
This alone would be devastating news for Millionaire fans, but what made matters worse were the details behind the rescheduling. First of all, one hour would air on Monday nights, a night that hadn't played host to the game for a long time - and with Monday Night Football still being a network property at the time, it meant the show aired before MNF in the east and after MNF in the west, further confusing viewers. But the other big news was that only one of the two episodes would be devoted to everyday contestants - the other episode was celebrities only.
Although they hadn't completely fallen into the trap that shows like Hot Potato, Bullseye, and Whew! had been caught in the past - using the celebrities as a crutch to entice people to watch a show that civilian contestants alone couldn't keep afloat - the fact that only one hour a week was being played with normal contestants meant that the show no longer had any sense of continuity. Viewers were now flip-flopping between stars playing for charity and everyday people playing for their own sake, and the constant switching of focus eliminated whatever interest was left in the show.
(It certainly didn't help that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 not only disrupted the ratings of many prime-time shows as viewers flocked to news channels for updates of the situation, but also made many people lose their taste for anything that could be considered cutthroat or harsh. Although WWTBAM didn't fit that mold so much, other game and reality shows such as The Mole and Weakest Link saw their numbers nosedive.)
Nine months later, it was over.
There was no fanfare whatsoever when the final network show aired on June 27th. No mention was made to the fact that the once indomitable WWTBAM was about to sign off on ABC - if not for good, then certainly in the long term. No big winners were to be crowned that night; the most anybody won during the hour was $125,000. When Regis waved goodbye, there wasn't anything that suggested that this episode was any different from the rest. Just under three years after Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had exploded onto the scene, the last embers had finally burned out.
Fortunately, the show had found another outlet, and three months after the end of network Millionaire, the game was reborn.
When WWTBAM returned as a 5-a-week syndicated offering in September, it wasn't without a few tweaks. The Fastest Finger question had been phased out, deciding instead to just bring new contestants straight into the hot seat without any additional qualifying. (The phone qualifier had been retired as well, and contestants now came exclusively from auditions.) Viewers noticed a moderate bump in the question difficulty, which was to be expected: after all, when you're going from two hours of prime time to two and a half hours of a weekly syndicated strip, you can't afford to give away $32,000 or $64,000 to almost every contestant who takes the stage. But the biggest change came from the talent department, as Regis' manic showmanship gave way to Meredith Vieira's warm and soft-spoken style.
Syndicated shows don't need much in the way of ratings to stick around. With so many other choices available to viewers, all you really need to show is that there's some sort of audience for the program and you're likely to earn renewals each year. While the syndicated didn't burn up the ratings, it pulled in solid numbers. Helping matters was the fact that five months after the show debuted in 5-a-week format, its tenth millionaire was crowned: Kevin Smith – no, not the film director, but an older man who sported quite the beard – answered his 15th question about Uncle Sam and got the first confetti drop in syndication. Just three months later, Nancy Christy became the first woman to win the million, after another Americana question.
She would be the last contestant to clear a stack in the show's American lifespan.
Credit to the executives over at ABC – even though WWTBAM had run out of gas just a year and a half prior, they were still willing to give the show another opportunity to recapture some of the buzz and some of the glory it once enjoyed.
Returning for one week of episodes, the show became Super Millionaire, and with the new title came a couple of bold changes. The money ladder was given a huge new influx of cash: the first five questions were worth a grand each, the middle tier questions went $10K/$20K/$30K/$50K/$100K, and the payouts topped out at a dizzying $10,000,000. The other big rule change was the inclusion of two brand new Lifelines, which would be given to the player upon reaching the upper tier (which was given new purpose, deemed "the next dimension" of the game and given new camera angles). Three Wise Men solicited the help of three experts (generally an academic scholar, a pop culture guru, and a previous top winner) for a 30-second powwow. Double Dip gave the contestant two cracks at the right answer, with the added danger that using it forfeited the right to back out of the question. Studious fans of the show realized that if someone could hold on to their 50:50 long enough, they could use that in conjunction with the Double Dip to guarantee a right answer. Sadly, none of the contestants managed it.
Despite that, the second contestant of the February run, Robert "Bob-O" Essig, added his name to the million-dollar honor roll, becoming the 12th to do so. He only needed 12 questions to reach the seven-digit payout, thanks to the inflated money ladder, and to date is still the last contestant in the show's history to win a million dollars solely by virtue of their question stack.
Ratings weren't massive, but they were decent enough to bring the Super Millionaire concept back in May of the same year. The numbers for that flight of episodes were also agreeable, and there were even talks about bringing the show back onto ABC. They just needed a timeslot to put it in, and that's were bad luck came in. The newest show on ABC's prime time schedule that fall was the comedic serial Desperate Housewives, and the suits were convinced that the silly premise of a gaggle of women living on Wisteria Lane fighting their suburban battles and cross-pollinating with the husbands would bomb and give Super Millionaire a plot of land to work with. Except that the show didn't bomb, in fact it wound up being one of the network's biggest hits. With nowhere to put the show anymore, Super Millionaire died a quiet death.
At the same time, the syndicated version of WWTBAM was still plugging away - although in an effort to put even less strain on the prize budget, they decided to shave some money off of the values of the most commonly attained levels of the money ladder. Instead of the prize money doubling all the way from $500 to $64,000, question #10 was reduced to $25,000, question #11 to $50,000, and question #12 to $100,000. As a trade-off, a fourth lifeline was added to the game, allowing contestants to switch the question in play with a new one.
Millionaire would hum along in syndication for several years without incident. The show would crown the odd quarter-millionaire from time to time, but nobody ever cleared a stack. (The person to come closest to such a feat was behavioral psychologist Ogi Ogas, who backed out on the last question after several tortured minutes and then had a minor tantrum when he discovered he would've been right.) Meanwhile, ratings continued to provide station managers with just enough impetus to renew the show, but nothing that could be construed as growth. After five years of status quo, producers started to fiddle with the show a little bit to generate some interest without putting their prize budget in any serious danger. Thus was born one of the clumsier rule changes the show would witness.
One of the things that separated WWTBAM from other quiz shows was that you were afforded unlimited time to study a question and decide whether or not to play it. Word got out to fans of the show how some contestants had taken full advantage of this open-ended time limit, and spent upwards of an hour struggling with a single question. Obviously, they would edit down the deliberations to only include the most pertinent parts, but having players take their sweet time on the questions started to become a drag on the show's production budget.
To remedy this in the show's sixth season, each of the questions would now be accompanied with a strict time limit, which began to count down the instant all four choices were visible. The lower-tier questions all had to be answered within 15 seconds, middle tier questions had a limit of 30 seconds, upper tier questions were limited to 45 seconds, and if you made it to the final question, any unused time from the previous 14 questions would be added to the normal time limit to give you at least a few minutes to look at the question and decide how you wanted to progress. Time was suspended if you used a Lifeline, but immediately restarted after getting its result. If time ran out, it was automatically deemed a bailout – unless in the case that a contestant had used their Double Dip (which had since supplanted the 50:50 in the syndicated version). As walking away was not allowed if you used the Double Dip and your first answer was wrong, running out of time meant getting knocked down to the last milestone. At about the same time, the Phone a Friend Lifeline had been replaced with Ask the Expert – where a celebrity with some measure of smarts (typically a newscaster or someone like Bill Nye) was given the chance to discuss the question with the contestant via Skype. This was quite the necessary change, seeing as the original call for help had long since been abused by people ready to type the keywords of a question into a computer search engine.
The main effect of the changes – particularly the time limit – was that contestants were now being rushed into making decisions that just a little more thinking time could've allowed someone to make with a clearer head. The other main issue was that the clock started immediately upon revealing the answers, meaning that either precious time would be eaten up by the host listing the answers verbally, or you would have to interrupt her to give your final answer and preserve maximum time in the event you got to the end. At least one contestant stepped over Meredith's lines on nearly every question – it ended up being a rather uncomfortable game to watch (although the personality of the contestant sitting in the hot seat didn't help much). The time limit also made using the Double Dip very clumsy; on at least one occasion, a contestant used the Double Dip so late into the clock that they didn't have a chance to do anything when time resumed, which resulted in an unsatisfying end to their game.
The one positive that could be drawn from all of this was that the new clock format gave us a new graphics and music package for the show. Nothing was fundamentally changed, but the new arrangements of each question theme and more vibrant chyron gave some energy to a show that had looked and sounded exactly the same as it did in 1999.
In the years since WWTBAM last signed off in its Super format on ABC, the notion that a game show could conceivably carry an hour on the prime time schedule was still alive, albeit not with the white-hot frenzy that had been around at the start of the decade. NBC had taken up the mantle of producing game shows for prime time, although devout fans of the genre may not have liked everything they saw. Deal or No Deal was a passable game that dragged itself out too long and descended into gimmickry by the time its one-year anniversary rolled around. 1 vs. 100 was a more solid format, but they couldn't get the details down and it eventually folded as well. Identity was a trainwreck from the word go. Other networks fell in line to produce their own efforts: ABC tried their hand at brainless games like National Bingo Night and Set for Life, CBS did Million Dollar Password and Power of 10.
It's rather unusual to see a network pay respects to a game show that isn't still on the air (like when CBS does their milestone anniversaries of The Price is Right), but ABC did decide to give Millionaire another flight of episodes in August of 2009, ten years after its original debut. Many of the elements from the initial run that had been cut out of the syndicated run were brought back. Most notably, Regis Philbin was tapped once again to serve as the host. The qualifying round was brought back (held online rather than by phone) and finalists had to answer a Fastest Finger question to make it into the hot seat. Unfortunately, some of the syndicated rules did carry over: namely, the clock and the stunted $25K/$50K/$100K money ladder.
If nothing else, the 10th Anniversary special was notable for one thing: its final contestant, Ken Basin, made dubious history. After correctly answering the first 14 questions in his stack, he was presented with a million-dollar question about President Lyndon Johnson's beverage requests in the White House. He puzzled over it for most of the 4 minutes, 39 seconds he had available to him. Then, much like the previous champ Bernie Cullen, Basin blurted out his final answer – directing the audience to start cheering in advance – but was flatly informed by Regis that he was wrong. The wrong answer cost him $475,000, and the title of first American contestant to miss the million-dollar question, resulting in a musical cue that only people who had played one of the video games or had imported the soundtrack CD from England had ever heard.
Much like Super Millionaire, the 10th Anniversary run produced decent if not Earth-shattering ratings. Sadly, they weren't enough to convince ABC to try the idea out again the following year – although outside circumstances likely had a lot to do with that decision as well (which we'll delve into a bit later). In any event, August 23rd, 2009 remains the last time that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire aired an episode on ABC.
In the seven years since Millionaire made the move to syndication, the format had undergone several rule changes. Lifelines were added, tweaked, and repurposed. Time limits were instituted. A preview list of categories were presented to the contestant at the start of the game. They even tinkered with the money ladder in the lower stages of the game, making the lower tier milestone $5000 and adding $2500 per question until the 10th question got things back to familiar territory with the $25,000 milestone.
Of course, none of these tweaks did anything to solve a problem that had been causing the show to leak viewers since Super Millionaire went off the air. After Nancy Christy's win, nobody could take the game for the million. Sure, you'd see a handful of $250,000 winners, and every so often someone would get to see the 15th question, but none of them ever managed to get it right.
The show was in a quandary. They didn't really have a prize budget to withstand multiple swings at the million, lest too many of them get it right and put the show into the red. (The $1,000,000 prize had since been converted from a lump sum to a 10-year annuity, but that still didn't mean they wanted a repeat of June 2000.) Then again, the show was called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (even though only the last word of the title was ever invoked), and the lack of people achieving that title had not gone unnoticed by viewers.
The result was one of the more controversial moves the show had made in its syndicated lifespan.
Over a period of 10 weeks, contestants were tracked by both how high they got up the ladder, and how much time they had banked when they walked away. The top ten players by winnings (and then by time) were seeded and invited back to play a makeshift tournament of champions. For the last two weeks of the tournament, one contestant was brought in at the end of the show (starting with the #10 ranked player and going up) to play a quasi-million-dollar question. I say "quasi-" because answering correctly didn't win the million; it only put you atop the leaderboard of the tournament. After everyone had taken their shot, the highest-ranked player who had answered their question correctly had their initial winnings augmented to $1,000,000. The downside was that your money was still at risk as though you had never left the game; answering wrong sent you back down to the $25,000 milestone.
You could see the result coming from a mile away: of the ten contestants who were given a crack at the tournament, nine of them chose to stand pat. The only person who played - a bartender from Philadelphia named Sam Murray - got his question right, and ended up winning the million dollars in the most anticlimactic way imaginable, sitting in the audience as the #1 ranked contestant Jehan Shamsid-Deen expended all her banked time on her own question before finally conceding.
The great miscalculation in the tournament was expecting contestants to risk money they had already won to answer a question that didn't necessarily guarantee them anything more. (And the one person who knew she'd win the million if she was right had to risk nine times as much money as Murray did.) Players may have been more willing to gamble during their initial stint in the hot seat - much like how casinos force you to play with chips so as to remove your emotional attachment to the money you're risking, when the money you've won is still just a number on your question screen it makes the gamble more enticing. Once you get the check in your hands, though, and you've had time to make plans for the money, it becomes extremely difficult to put that money on the line. Giving players a free guess at the tournament question would have resulted in a much more exciting event, rather than watching so many big-money winners get gun-shy. Of the nine players who passed on the question, seven of them would have been right if they had played.
Another thing that was unclear about the whole tournament was whether or not they would keep going with it in the event that someone swooped in and won the million in the middle of all of this. After all, the only reason for the tournament in the first place was to remedy the lack of millionaires in the past six years - if one happened on its own, that would have eliminated the need for the tournament altogether.
If there was any inclination within the ABC board room to bring Millionaire back at any point in the future, it was likely obliterated in the summer of 2010, after a judgment against the network forced them to pay $319,000,000 in damages - more than twice as much money as they had paid out to every contestant who had played on the show combined - to the British production company that had licensed out the rights of the show to ABC, Celador International. A jury had ruled that ABC was misrepresenting the profits they were getting from the show during its heyday from merchandising and other outside sources. ABC would file a motion for a retrial in 2012 that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would deny.
Safe to say, we are not likely to see WWTBAM reappear on ABC's airwaves any time soon.
Meanwhile, the syndicated version (who were owned by a separate production company and were not a party to the lawsuit) had issues of its own. They were just about to start their eighth syndicated season, and none of the moves that they had made in the previous couple of years had moved the needle in any significant way. The game was starting to grow stagnant in many people's eyes, a byproduct of being on five days a week for seven years when four hours a week had already proved to be too much Millionaire for most of us.
To figure out a way to freshen up the show, long-time game show producer Jay Wolpert was brought on as a consultant. Wolpert had a reputation for being somewhat of a mad scientist in the game show universe. As a producer for The Price is Right in the 1970s, one of his biggest contributions to the show were "Flaky Flicks" showcases that parodied various popular films of the time. His first independent production was a show called Whew!, where contestants raced the clock to correct statements that ended with punchlines rather than facts. In the '80s, he produced shows such as Hit Man, where contestants saw a short film about a subject and were then asked questions from that source material, using cartoonish soldiers to track their progress. And these were just the shows that got picked up - the ones that didn't get past the pilot phase were even more eccentric.
Nonetheless, it was Wolpert's job to turn Millionaire into something a little bit more lively. And his contribution to the game ended up polarizing the fanbase.
Rather than send a contestant up the money ladder in a smooth ascent to the top, dollar values were now randomly assigned to each of the first 10 questions, just as the questions themselves were played in random order instead of starting dirt easy and getting tougher as they progressed. Dollar amounts ranged from $100 all the way up to $25,000, and completing the first ten questions would earn a total of $68,600.
The Lifelines were altered as well: gone were the Double Dip and Ask the Expert, replaced with two Jumps that could be used to skip a question entirely, sacrificing its dollar value to move forward in the game. (Ask the Audience remained in play.) Upon completing the first 10 questions, the game changed back into what was called "Classic Millionaire", with question #11 bringing their total to $100,000 and the final three questions being the standard quarter/half/full million. What made things even more convoluted were the rules involving when a player walked away or got an answer wrong. During the first ten questions, the contestant received $1000 if they missed a question regardless of where their bank stood, and took home half their bank if they quit. After the first ten questions, the bank only remained in play if they chose to leave on question #11; a wrong answer on any of the final four questions dropped them to $25,000.
Other modifications included a significant change in the musical score used during the show - the same cues were used for each of the first 10 questions, and none of them retained any connection to the riffs that had been used since the show began. Also, the hot seat was removed, in favor of a podium where the contestant would stand for the duration of the game, facing a screen on one side of the stage which would display the question for everyone the the studio to see.
One could certainly argue the need for a show such as Millionaire to break out of the rut that 11 years on the air in some fashion had dug for it. However, for a show that still wanted to be called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, there didn't seem to be much done that would increase the odds of someone actually winning a million bucks on the show. Safe havens were nowhere to be found in this version; there was always some money at risk on every question. The bank that contestants spent such a long time meticulously amassing at the start of the game was erased from everyone's consciousness the moment an answer was locked for question #11, when logic would suggest that the bank would make a perfect landing pad for someone who went for a big-money question and missed. Not to suggest that the production company didn't have the money in the prize budget to give them the full bank, but they certainly didn't want people taking free shots at $100,000 if they could help it.
But to the show's credit, the radical format change wasn't the jump-the-shark moment that critics expected. True, the show still wasn't getting the ratings it really needed to justify the overhaul, but as mentioned before about the syndicated landscape, all that's required is that you pull a respectable audience and generate money for the stations that carry you, and it's a safe bet that you'll get a renewal at the end of the season. Such is the way things went for WWTBAM in the early 2010s, as the show hung in for three more years.
At which point came perhaps the biggest hit to the show's long-term future.
Meredith Vieira may have hosted Millionaire for ten years, but she was primarily known as a journalist. She entered the national spotlight in 1997 as the moderator for ABC's new female panel show The View, and left ABC in 2006 to become co-anchor of NBC's Today show, filling the vacancy left behind by Katie Couric when she became the new anchor of the CBS Evening News. Hosting Millionaire was never really more than a side-venture for Meredith, so it wasn't terribly surprising to hear that she would leave the show upon the completion of her contract in the fall of 2013.
What was surprising is who they decided to replace her with.
WWTBAM has always been a hard quizzer at its core. Sure, there have been plenty of humorous moments in the show's history, and when someone like Regis Philbin is at the helm you don't expect things to be taken all the way seriously. But in an attempt to match the success enjoyed by syndicated veteran Family Feud - a show that had seen its ratings skyrocket after bringing in stand-up comic Steve Harvey to host and tweaking the material to be noticeably more risqué - the decision was made to bring in Cedric the Entertainer as the new emcee.
On September 16th, Cedric walked out onto the stage decked in a suit, a pair of thick-framed glasses, and as is his trademark, a stylish hat (a trilby, in this case). His first contestant was a gregarious man from Michigan named Terrill Sanford, dressed in a flannel shirt and a glittery scarf. The two had a great rapport as Terrill worked his way up to a $44,000 bank before missing a question on the leader of the NAACP.
Cedric looked relatively comfortable in his new role. There were of course some growing pains as he felt his way through the routine – he tried coining his own catchphrase for the show when he signed off every day with the warning of "Watch your wallet!" - but he hosted the show with sincerity and flair, even if his insistence on wearing the hat made it look like he had to be somewhere else as soon as the show was over. There were also times when it felt as though he was too relaxed – like he had no concern for the game happening around him, even as a player made his way into the big-money questions.
Cedric wouldn't have to wait long before his hosting mettle was truly tested, however, Just three weeks into his stint as host, Josina Reeves came onstage to play her game, and got to the million-dollar question in just about the only way it was possible anymore, short of having a psychic link to Wikipedia directly installed into her brain: she cleared the first 10 questions without a hitch, got the $100,000 question right, and then used both Jumps to bypass both the $250,000 and $500,000 questions and have a fast-track chance at the million. To her credit, even though she had no idea what the answer was to her question – asking for the subject of one of Nostradamus' pre-prophetic writings – she gave it a shot anyway. She'd lock in the wrong answer, and lose $75,000 in the process, but to date she is the last person in the show's history to at least attempt the million-dollar question.
In the show's most recent season, there was even more hosting turnover with Cedric the Entertainer deciding to leave the show. As someone who had already built a film and television résumé long before he ever took the stage for Millionaire, it would've been a bigger surprise if he had stuck around. Replacing Cedric was another African-American actor named Terry Crews. A former player for the Rams and Redskins, Crews turned to acting after his NFL career, first latching on to an American Gladiators knock-off named Battle Dome as the thuggish T-Money. He's best known for his work as the hyperbolically macho pitchman for Old Spice and currently pulls double-duty starring in the FOX single-camera sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine as well as hosting Millionaire.
In this writer's humble opinion, Crews represents a gross miscasting of the role. While a show like Millionaire can certainly lend itself to moments of humor and excitement, those need to come out of the gameplay itself. Regis had an everyman shtick that jived perfectly with the contestants. Vieira was a fairly serious personality, but her rooting for the contestants still came across. Cedric was more of a traditional comedian, but he picked his spots well. Crews hosted the show like his Old Spice commercials – loud, spastic, and scenery-chewing. There's no doubt that his desire for the contestants to win was genuine, but his personality siphoned the spotlight away from many of the contestants that the show was originally intended to feature.
Meanwhile, yet another rule tweak was made to the show, and you'll forgive me if this change doesn't give me even less faith that the show was sincere about offering a million-dollar prize in its latter years. Perhaps in response to Ms. Reeves' blind stab at the million the year before, the show decided to switch out one of the two Jumps given to the contestant with a Lifeline called "+1". It's a throwback to the original Phone-a-Friend idea, where the player brings an acquaintance on stage with them to work out the question. While it is an improvement on what had simply become "Google a Friend" in the mid-to-late 2000s, taking away one of the two Jumps meant that contestants now had to answer no less than 12 questions to have a shot at the million, instead of the 11 they had before, and at least $225,000 would be at risk if they did decide to play, instead of when Reeves lost a third of that with her attempt.
The only real effort that's been made to get a million-dollar winner before the show gives up the ghost was in the form of a ratings stunt. In February of 2015, the show brought former Jeopardy! mega-champ Ken Jennings on the show, ostensibly to go for the million in order to break the world record for total winnings on a game show (currently held by the other Jeopardy! Mega-champ, Brad Rutter). Ken made it to the $250,000 question before politely deciding to step down.
This was supposed to be an obituary at this point.
Indeed, for most of the season, the suspicion was rampant that Millionaire was in its death throes, with no word of renewal from any markets currently carrying the show, and ratings still languishing in the low 1.0s, a far cry from the double-digit ratings WWTBAM had enjoyed in its heyday. Two hosting changes in two years (and Crews having already indicated he was leaving after the season), no new millionaires since the new format had dropped, rules still being tweaked in ways that didn't seem very player-friendly - for all intents and purposes, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was spent.
Which is why the announcement of a new host - and a rather competent one at that - made a lot of game show fans furrow their brows. Wait, they're still going through with this?
In April, Chris Harrison was brought on to host what will be the 14th syndicated season of WWTBAM. Harrison has hosting experience; not only has he been at the helm of ABC's successful The Bachelor franchise since 2002, but he's also hosted a few shiny-floor shows as well, hosting Mall Masters for GSN in 2000 and You Deserve It for ABC in 2011. Nobody's going to confuse either of those shows for Jeopardy! in terms of pedigree or success, but at the same time nobody is laying the blame at Harrison's feet for either of those shows not catching on. Harrison's hiring signals a return to form for a show that seemed to have trouble finding an identity over the past few years since the shuffle format began.
Similarly, the announcement was made soon after Harrison was brought on board that the game was going back to its roots: 14 questions, a new money ladder, and safe havens after the fifth and tenth questions (awarding $2,000 and $50,000, respectively), with 50:50 and Ask the Audience coming back into the fold with the +1 serving as the next generation of the Phone-a-Friend. The hot seat is still absent in favor of a pair of podiums, and the graphics and music packages still have the same generic taste brought on by the shuffle rules, but the core of the game is returning to what it was for most of its lifespan.
Is there life left in the Millionaire format? Certainly these changes are a tacit admission that the past five years were a misstep - not only with the format being so discombobulated, but with hosting choices that clearly missed the mark of what the show is supposed to be about - normal people winning gobs of money, not celebrities cracking jokes or outshining their guests. There's still some nervousness about the difficulty of the questions, especially if $50,000 is guaranteed to a player who clears the middle tier; the effort is likely going to be made to limit the number of players who reach that point.
Personally, all I'm asking for is one player to break past the barrier that's been nigh unbreakable for a dozen years. If a single contestant can clear a stack and win the million bucks once again, one of two things will happen: either the buzz from the big win will rekindle some interest in the show and give it a few more years or sustainability, or it will blow out the show's budget to the point that it will be forced into permanent retirement. At least in that case, it's better to go out with a bang than a whimper.
In February of 2014, Chris Tarrant walked onstage of the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and did something that very few game show hosts of any nationality have an opportunity to do – end the show voluntarily. With clips of the premiere, interviews of winning contestants, a handful of bloopers, and even a quick retelling of the show's one significant scandal (a million-pound winner who was found to be receiving outside help with the use of several mobile phones set on vibrate and a coughing audience member), Tarrant declared that he was retiring from the show, and the show was retiring with him.
The show had managed to hang on for over 15 years in England, still relatively popular with the viewing audience (though it too was no longer the phenomenon that it had been in the early years). They had done some tinkering of their own, with many of the changes having been imported from the syndicated American series. Questions were played to a time limit, the money ladder had undergone some tinkering (though it somehow offered more money for its equivalent question in the original format), and introduced the same Lifeline of switching an upper-tier question that the US had done midway through its run.
At face value, the fact that a eulogy such as this one could even be written for a show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is rather ludicrous. After all, the show enjoyed more than two years as a prime-time supernova, and fought valiantly as a syndicated property for 14 years after that - and is still kicking. Game show or not, many television series would kill to enjoy that sort of longevity. It remains a cultural icon, with "that's my final answer" and "can I phone a friend" still being relevant catchphrases despite the show being an afterthought in my people's minds. The days of John Carpenter and Doug Van Gundy being household names are long gone, but in its place came a sense of dogged vitality that allowed the show to persevere even as things kept changing. Adding a brisk countdown clock to the game should've killed it off. Failing that, throwing all the dollar values into a blender should've done it. And even if it somehow survived that, bringing in a new, ill-fitting host would have been the death knell for many other shows. WWTBAM underwent two such personnel changes, and still managed to survive.
And yet, I can't help but see all of the missed opportunities and streaks of bad luck that the show has suffered through all these years. Maybe if they didn't work the show into exhaustion early on, maybe if they found the right rules tweak or if they had eased off a bit on the question writing just long enough to let a bright contestant make his way to the top of the mountain in the mid-2000s, maybe if some silly primetime soap starring Eva Longoria hadn't suddenly caught fire, maybe if ABC hadn't cooked the books badly enough to get sued for nine digits worth of damages and lose, maybe if Josina Reeves had a suspicion that Nostradamus might have been a big jam enthusiast, the show would still have a measure of relevance in the television landscape. It could make the odd appearance on prime time, even if it's no longer a phenomenon and looked more as a stopgap than a hotly-anticipated event. Its syndicated representation could be revered more for its consistency than its ability to cheat what looked like certain death.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has been given one last opportunity to justify its existence this year. In effect, the show is getting its own Lifeline. And much like the contestants who have populated the show's stage since 1999, that lifeline doesn't guarantee an outcome. But it does give the show one more chance to recapture some of the glory it once enjoyed. This article was written at least one year prematurely - with any luck, it'll be even more of an anachronism this time next year.
But that's not final. Not yet.
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