Millionaire TV Phenomenon

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 10, 2000

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 10, 2000

Millionaire TV Phenomenon

OK, contestants: how many Americans have tuned in to at least one episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Is it A) one in four; B) a third; C) a half; or D) three-quarters?

And how much will ABC television pay Regis Philbin to bring his trademark combination of smarminess and sarcasm to the runaway hit show next season? A) $1 million; B) $5 million; C) $10 million; or D) $20 million?

Want to poll the audience? Phone a friend? Is that your (pause) final answer?

More to the point, how sick are you of people who still think "final answer" is a clever thing to say a good five months after Millionaire vaulted from surprise summer-replacement success to landmark television phenomenon, with a host of even cheesier imitations cluttering up prime time? For the record, the answer to both questions is D - a staggering 74 per cent of Americans have watched the show, and ABC has reportedly agreed to pony up $20 million (U.S.) for the services of the man universally known as "Reege."

He's cheap at the price. An astonishing 29 million U.S. viewers on average tune in to Millionaire on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights, with another three million catching it on CTV in Canada. Other landmark shows have remade the television landscape: think MASH in the 1970s, Cheers in the '80s, Seinfeld in the '90s. But Millionaire took only weeks to transform ABC from a perennial ratings also-ran into the No. 1 American network. ABC has used it both to boost weaker shows in its lineup and to destroy its rivals' potential hits by scheduling it opposite them. And the revenue windfall from its success - as much as $200 million this season alone - is a big factor in a sharp rebound in the stock price of The Walt Disney Co., ABC's parent company. No wonder that during a recent taping of Millionaire at network headquarters in Manhattan, executive producer Michael Davies went down on one knee in front of Reege and introduced him to the audience as "the man who single-handedly saved ABC."

For the severely media-deprived, here's a quick primer on the show. ABC imported the concept from Britain, copying everything from a set that looks like a stripped-down version of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to the crazily flashing lights that separate segments and the insistent thump-thump sound track that plays as contestants agonize over their answers. Starting with a dead-easy $100 query, they must answer 15 increasingly difficult questions to reach the grand prize of $1 million. Of the 178 contestants who have made it into the "hot seat" opposite Reege, only three have gone all the way.

That's the whole show - simplicity itself. And it's cheap to produce. Aside from prize money - just over $14 million so far - and Philbin's increasingly hefty paycheque, costs are low (an estimated $500,000 an hour), making it far less expensive than a top prime-time drama like ER or The Sopranos, which can cost as much as $13 million per episode. So what's the appeal?

It's not just the prize money, insist the legions of Millionaire devotees, though that obviously helps. A staggering 250,000 people call a special ABC hotline every day, trying to get on the show (no Canadians, please; only U.S. residents are eligible). You have to really want to do it. Art Kraus called almost every night from November until February, when he was selected as a contestant. He finally made it onto Millionaire in March. A 42-year-old meteorologist from Princeton, N.J., Kraus won $32,000 before stumbling on this head-scratcher: what is Mpule Kwelagobe best known for? (The correct answer? Winning the 1999 Miss Universe contest. Philbin even apologized for that one.)

The money will come in very handy, Kraus agreed a few days after his appearance, but that isn't all that propelled him onto the show: "You sit there watching on your couch, and you think, 'I could do that, too.' It doesn't look so hard." And in fact the questions - most of them, anyway - are the kind of things that any reasonably aware person might know. Certainly they're easier than those on the British version of Millionaire, where no one has yet won the top prize. There, contestants are asked things like "what is the title of the third part of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land?" (Answer: "The Fire Sermon.") The dumbed-down American show poses puzzlers like "how many full bags of wool are there in Baa Baa Black Sheep?" (If you need to ask ...) The British company that insures both programs against paying out big prize money even filed a lawsuit against ABC, complaining that the questions are too easy - prompting predictable barbs about the average IQ of Americans.

But that's just part of the program's attraction. It's the only prime-time show that features average folks, and makes them stars, no less, for a few minutes. Davies, its producer, says that "in a lot of ways, Millionaire is like a real people soap opera." The audience roots for the contestants and identifies with them, hence the easy questions. But, says Kraus, it's not nearly as simple as it looks at home. Sitting under the lights, arm's length from Reege, was an ordeal: "I was hyperventilating. I couldn't breath, couldn't talk. I had to reach for the water before I could say anything."

He's not alone. Bill Ferguson, a 31-year-old contractor from Chicago, also won $32,000 on the night Kraus was a contestant (he was eliminated when he guessed that zinc is the main ingredient in a U.S. five-cent piece; it's copper). Ferguson, too, recalled it as something of a trial: "Sitting in that chair, your mind isn't as nimble. You don't have the comfort level you have at home." Why do so many watch? "It's sitting back and watching people miss," he ventures. "They like to say, 'Look at that idiot. I could have answered that'."

Another guess: it's not so much what people are watching, but who they're watching it with. Producers are finding that game shows are one of the few genres that can get the whole family to gather in front of the TV, as they did decades ago to watch The Ed Sullivan Show or Bonanza. For years, television executives have aimed their shows at ever-smaller demographic groups (preteens, teens, women 25 to 40, and so on). Fans of Millionaire say everyone from the kids to grandma can enjoy an hour of good clean fun. Rene Lutz, attending the taping during a visit to New York City from her home in Memphis, Tenn., calls the show's success a sign that "we're not as far gone as I thought. Most of the other shows are so horrible. This helps keep the whole family together."

That translates into the holy grail for advertisers - a huge mass-audience hit of the kind the networks used to be able to deliver regularly before the days of at least 50 cable channels in every home. And it may be a hopeful sign for those concerned about declining cultural standards that Millionaire's more vulgar imitators have not done nearly as well. Fox TV's knockoff, unsubtly titled Greed, has languished in the ratings. Another Fox effort, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, embarrassed even the network that pioneered reality-based trash like When Animals Attack.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in contrast, has achieved what few shows do - it has permeated the consciousness of its audience. How far has it gone? So far that a witness in a federal court case in Los Angeles recently seemed to think he was a contestant on the show. The witness turned to a former colleague for help in answering a question, prompting a lawyer to remind him that only he could answer. This exchange followed:

Witness: "Can't ask?"

Lawyer: "No, you can't ask him."

Witness: "It's not like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

Now that's success.

Maclean's April 10, 2000