Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (US game show)

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (US game show) (Courtesy Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

In the United States, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (also known simply as Millionaire) is a television game show which offers a maximum cash prize of one million dollars for correctly answering successive multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty. The show is based on and follows the same general format of the original version of the show from the United Kingdom, and is now part of the international Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? franchise.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire debuted in the United States on August 16, 1999 on the ABC television network, and was hosted by Regis Philbin. The first contestant was David Korotkin, who won $1,000.

The network version, whose episodes were originally shown just a day after their taping in New York, became explosively popular in 1999, and at its peak was airing in prime time four nights a week on ABC. The show was popular enough to find rival networks creating or reincarnating game shows of their own, and created a brief renaissance of sorts for United States based game shows (e.g. Greed, Twenty One, etc.) as well as a flurry of American versions of UK originals such as The Weakest Link.

ABC used Who Wants to be a Millionaire in so many prime time slots that when the show's popularity faded by the fall of 2001, it was left with a dearth of original programs. ABC's overall Nielsen Ratings suffered as a result of the show's decline in popularity. Michael Eisner, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company (ABC's parent), was formerly a page at Jeopardy! and The Price Is Right and thought that the show would survive as a successful game show did in daytime television. But he realized too late that a "hot" show like Millionaire would tire quicker in prime time than in daytime.

Millionaire's place as a daytime show was granted when ABC's sister company, Buena Vista Television, revived the show as a daily syndicated offering with Meredith Vieira in 2002. This version, also taped in New York, began airing its fifth season episodes on September 11, 2006, and has already earned Vieira an Emmy for best game show host.

Specific U.S. format

Before the million dollar question, past millionaires sit in the audience and get interviewed by the presenter to give advice on the best way to face the final question. If the person wins the million dollars, confetti comes down from the studio ceiling. At the bottom of the screen; the person's name comes up on the screen labeled "millionaire." Sometimes the host does a small follow-up with the contestant and guest, if applicable. Afterwards, the game continues normally, except with confetti remaining on the floor.

The show has had various special editions such as: Celebrity Edition (where winnings go to a charity), Champions Edition (where big winners come back and split their winnings with a charity), and Family Edition where, for example, a father may be with his son who face the questions together. Also notable is an edition aired in February 2001 in which H&R Block calculated the taxes of winnings so the contestants could earn their stated winnings after taxes, called Tax-Free Edition. In recent years, special contestant episodes such as Play to Pay for Your Wedding Edition (featuring engaged couples), College Edition (featuring undergraduate college students), Teacher Edition (featuring schoolteachers), and Walk In & Win Edition (featuring audience members who haven't taken the audition test) have aired annually.

Themed question shows featuring questions concerning professional football (Super Bowl Edition), celebrity gossip (Celebrity Scoop Edition), and the movies (Netflix Million Dollar Movie Edition; Academy Awards Edition) have aired on occasion as well.

The prime time show began as a half-hour show aired over several consecutive nights, but was made into a multi-weekly hour-long show when it was added permanently to the schedule in January 2000, allowing more Fastest Finger contestants to reach the Hot Seat in each episode. In special events it may be extended from half an hour to an hour. Episodes of the syndicated show run 30 minutes in length every weekday.

Rule changes

By January 2001, the U.S. edition of the show struggled from not having a $1 million winner for over five months, so producers instituted a one-time "skins game" type bonus of $10,000 per episode retroactive from the last episode the top prize was awarded. The bonus started at $1,710,000 and increasing by $10,000 in the next hour show that was not won. With this bonus instituted, the top prize grew to $2 million (over 100 shows), making the first attempt at the million dollar question (by Gary Gambino in February 2001) actually worth twice its value. Eventually, the bonus grew to $2.18 million, when Kevin Olmstead won the eventual prize on April 10, 2001. However, two such prizes were awarded due to a error in a question during the time the bonus was in place, when Ed Toutant won the top prize and the bonus was at $860,000 on January 31, 2001. When he continued in an episode not aired until September 7, 2001, he also answered all 15 of his questions correctly, and was given $1 million and the $860,000 bonus. It has not been reinstituted since.

In 2001, contestants (from previous primetime episodes) who missed a question in the first tier and left with no winnings were invited back for a special edition of "Millionaire". This was repeated in 2003 for contestants from the first season of the syndicated program.

In the 2004-2005 season of the syndicated program, the format of the game was changed in the United States edition. The $32,000 lock-in was decreased to $25,000, and the prize pattern changed to $50,000 (down from $64,000); $100,000 (down from $125,000); $250,000. This is meant to encourage contestants to continue playing. This rule change met to much criticisms from longtime fans who thought that the cash decrease was a disadvantage to contestants, providing a greater risk at the $250,000, $500,000, and $1,000,000 levels, which may prevent a player from wanting to risk their money.

Also, after reaching the $25,000 level, contestants are given a new lifeline, Switch the Question (also known as a Flip), which appeared in the UK program in a number of celebrity editions, and most recently in its 300th episode in 2002, which was broadcast live to mark that landmark. The idea seemed to have been taken from the UK show The People Versus, also produced by Celador. It allows them to dismiss the current question, see the answer, and to play a new one worth the same dollar amount. However, they will not have any lifelines used on the discarded question returned to them.

Finally, the Ask the Audience lifeline was expanded. Instead of just the studio audience giving answers, users of the AOL Instant Messenger (sometimes referred to as AIM) can participate too. If they have asked the screenname MillionaireIM to allow his or her participation, then they will receive an instant message if a contestant uses his or her Ask the Audience lifeline. The message will contain the question, and four possible answers, and they will send their answer back. This is the first time in history that the public has been able to interact with a game show while it is being taped. When the tape is shown, the results of the poll will first show the studio audience's response, then the IM users' response. The AIM side of the lifeline has failed to work at times. In these instances, the game show's policy is to allow the contestant to only rely on the studio audience's response. The AOL Instant Messenger Ask the Audience lifeline has been suspended as of the fifth season of the syndicated version of the show, due to the withdrawal of sponsorship of the program by AOL.

In 2003, officials announced on the U.S. version the $500,000 and $1 million bonuses would be paid by an annuity.


The show initially drew in up to 30 million viewers a day three times a week, an unheard-of number in modern network television. In the 1999-2000 season, it averaged #1 in the ratings against all other television shows. The next year (2000-2001), it also frequently placed within the top three or top five programs. However, the show's ratings began to fall during the 2000-2001 season, and by the start of the 2001-2002 season, the ratings were only a fraction of what they had been one year ago. ABC's reliance on Millionaire's popularity led to the network's falling quickly from its former spot as the nation's most-watched network.

The show was immensely popular in that one could qualify for the show by competing in a telephone contest with hopefuls across the country by dialing a toll free number and answering three questions by putting things or events in order by using your telephone keypad. The 10,000-20,000 people who answered all three questions correctly were entered into a random drawing in which approximately 300 people would compete for 10 spots on the show using the same phone quiz method. Using this method, most of the contestants winning spots on the show were middle-aged white males. Women represented about 10-15% of the contestants and black contestants were virtually non-existent. Only one African-American player in almost a thousand contestants ever made it to the famed hot seat in the year and a half that this contestant selection process was used. People came up with unproven theories on why women had a hard time making the cut, from their "long fingernails" making it difficult to compete with men on phone contests, to men's experience with video game controllers giving them a competitive advantage. In the syndicated version, however, without the Fastest Finger, women enter the hotseat as frequently as men.

Episodes of the ABC version have been rerun on GSN since September 2003. Prime time Who Wants to be a Millionaire is still the highest-rated program on GSN.


Celebrity versions

The show began to dabble in celebrity versions of the game in mid-2000, at the height of its popularity. The first version featured stars such as Drew Carey, Rosie O'Donnell, Sean "Puffy" Combs, Ray Romano, Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS, and Lance Bass of 'N Sync. Talk-show host/actress Ricki Lake's father, Barry, also appeared on the program, as did Meredith Vieira, the future host of the syndicated version. The show was a huge hit in the ratings, and since they were playing for charity, and for fear that celebrities would be too embarrassed to miss an early question, all players were allowed to receive help from their fellow players to attain the $32,000 level, resulting in some humorous exchanges when a celebrity player got stumped. However, this quickly got old, as ABC started to rely heavily on celebrity episodes to the point where the network resorted to "B-List" celebrities, further annoying the show's hardcore fans, who complained that these minor public figures were taking up spots in the hot seat that they were trying to win for themselves.

By the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks most of the celebrity episodes had already been aired two or even three times. The network had to resort again to celebrity show repeats due to difficulties in air travel when the network finally got around to inviting regular people on the show again. The excessive use of the celebrity format is blamed for the cancellation of the prime time show in 2002.

It was announced in 2005 that the syndicated show would bring back celebrities for a special edition to air in November 2005, but the show did not air at that time and has not yet aired.


In 2002, Disney's Buena Vista Television started selling a new version of the show for daily syndication, with a new host, Meredith Vieira. It was initially proposed and developed under the assumption that the prime time show would still be airing on ABC, but the prime time show was cancelled a few months before the syndicated show premiered. The syndicated version does not include the Fastest Finger competition; contestants are brought out individually during each half-hour show after passing contestant auditions, which are similar to most game show auditions.

As of September 2004, questions 10, 11, and 12 have decreased to $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000, in order for the show to add an additional lifeline, Switch the Question, once a player reaches the $25,000 level.

Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire

See Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire for more information

In February 2004, Regis Philbin returned to ABC for five episodes of Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire (aka Super Millionaire), which offered a $10,000,000 top prize; the series returned for seven additional episodes in May. The series may return again in 2006, however it seems unlikely, as ABC has removed all Millionaire references from its website, and the deadline to renew the contract draws near; in all likelihood, it may expire altogether. The $10,000,000 prize offered by Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire is the largest prize offered by any game show worldwide, although unlike in the original program, the top prize is not paid in one lump sum but paid over 20 years.

Two new lifelines were added in Super Millionaire: Three Wise Men and Double Dip. However, those could only be used after a contestant reached the $100,000 mark. Three Wise Men consisted of the contestant asking a panel of experts a question. The panel would then have 30 seconds to come up with the answer. The panel was kept in darkness until the player made it up to $100,000. If no player had made it up to that level within the hour show, the Three Wise Men would be revealed to the audience to see who they were. The Double Dip lifeline was a chance to guess at a question twice (meaning that if the player got a wrong answer in his first attempt, he had another chance to find the right one). Once a player chose to Double Dip, he could not back out of answering the question. An incorrect guess on the first try did not cost the player any money, but if he got it wrong again, he'd go back to the $100,000 level.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - Play It!

See Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - Play It! for more information

A version of this game named Who Wants To Be A Millionaire - Play It! was formerly an attraction at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida and at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, California. The game was very similar to the television version. On each question, the audience, using a keypad attached to the back of the seat in front, chose A, B, C, or D. When a contestant chose to stop playing, the next contestant was picked from the audience member who answered the most questions correctly and most quickly. This version was not played for cash. For every question answered correctly, the contestant received a pin, and after reaching the "safe havens", a baseball cap and polo shirt. The top prize was a three-night cruise for four aboard the Disney Cruise Line.

Million winners

The eleven winners of the major prize (all on ABC, except where otherwise noted):

  • John Carpenter, 19 November 1999
  • Dan Blonsky, 18 January 2000
  • Joe Trela, 23 March 2000
  • Bob House, 13 June 2000
  • Kim Hunt, 06 July 2000
  • David Goodman, 11 July 2000
  • Kevin Olmstead ($2.18 Million), 10 April 2001
  • Bernie Cullen, 15 April 2001
  • Ed Toutant ($1.86 Million), 07 September 2001
  • Kevin Smith (First winner of the syndicated version), 18 February 2003
  • Nancy Christy (First and only woman, to date, to win the million dollars in the U.S. version), 8 May 2003 (in syndication)
  • Dan Weisman (Youngest millionaire to date at age 19), a student at UCLA became the twelfth millionaire during a taping on October 24, 2006. An audience member leaked the news on Missouri radio station Y107. The episode is expected to air during November sweeps.
In addition, Robert Essig won $1,000,000 on Super Millionaire on 23 February 2004, but didn't win the top prize of $10,000,000.

Parodies/Pop Culture References

  • On The Simpsons episode Day of the Jackanapes, a show similar to this was "Me Wantee". The game contestant was Moe Szyslak.
  • On The Simpsons episode, HOMR, Homer (who is now smarter after getting the crayon removed from his brain) goes to see a romantic comedy where a church usher says, "Is that your final answer?", which is a popular line from the game show.
  • Saturday Night Live has done many parodies of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire when the game show was first popular. Some of them include: a Third World version called "Who Wants To Eat?" where contestants from impoverished nations compete for food (on the Christina Ricci/Beck episode), a sketch where a contestant (played by Will Ferrell) goes on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" and quits after getting the $100 question right (on the Freddie Prinze, Jr./Macy Gray episode), and a cold opening sketch featuring a celebrity edition of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" where the program gets interrupted by insulting messages to the Disney Corporation from Time Warner (on the John Goodman/Neil Young episode).
  • MADtv also had its share of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire parodies too. In one sketch that was a 3-part sketch, one person just couldn't get the first question. Another sketch had Regis himself doing a promo for a celebrity edition for celebrities. Another was a parody entitled "Who Wants To Be The President" with Regis Philbin himself hosting again. The players were people currently running for president in 2000 (Al Gore - who makes it to the Winners Circle, Jesse Ventura, and Alan Keyes.) The last parody was a parody of "Super Millionaire" entitled "Who Wants To Be A Super Duper Millionaire" with Mike Tyson playing.
  • Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman refers to the show in his hit "Live Out Loud," comparing non-evangelizing Christians to Millionaire winners who hide the money and tell no one they've won: Imagine this / I get a phone call from Regis / Says "Do you want to be a millionaire?" / They put me on the show and I win / With two lifelines to spare. ... Well, I've been given more than Regis ever gave away.
  • A skit called So You Wanna Win Five Dollars on the The Amanda Show, consisted of a contestant, who was not very bright, being asked three simple questions with four choices, with the final question being worth five dollars. Three choices normally did not have to do with anything with the question (i.e. Q: "What is electricity measured in? Choices: A-volts, B-watts, C-saliva, D-crumpets). The contestants were normally various characters from other sketches on The Amanda Show.
  • On an episode of Spin City, Paul Lassiter(Richard Kind) was on the show and won the million dollars by guessing the final question. He originally used his final lifeline to call Mike(Michael J. Fox), who hung up before he asked the question. Regis Philbin played himself.
  • The improv show Whose Line is it Anyway? (which coincidentally was also aired by ABC) frequently spoofed the game show in a skit called "The Millionaire Show".

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