How ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ Changed Game Shows Forever

How ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ Changed Game Shows Forever

In its spectacular original run on network television, 'Millionaire' reinvented the game show genre, sparking big-money imitators and bringing the format back to prime-time.
Christopher Jacobs
By

On Friday, an era in television game shows came to a sad and unheralded end. “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” aired its last original episode, as news had broken two weeks previously that the show would not return for another year in syndication.

Admittedly, the show had faded into relative obscurity in recent years. Upon hearing of its cancellation, some Twitter commenters joked that they did not know the series remained on the air. But in its spectacular original run on network television, “Millionaire” reinvented the game show genre, sparking big-money imitators and bringing the format back to prime-time.

Prime-Time Standout

Most people older than 30 know the broad outlines of “Millionaire’s” history. Imported from Britain, the show rocketed to the top of the Nielsen ratings shortly after its premiere in the fall of 1999. “Is that your final answer?” turned into an instant catchphrase, and the show’s shiny set, musical effects, and dramatic lighting—all designed to heighten tension and suspense—became instantly recognizable as well.

For good or for ill, network ABC, then struggling to create prime-time hits, milked the success for all it was worth. “Millionaire” soon appeared five nights a week in its lineup, but for ABC, too much of a good thing became a bad thing. Viewers eventually tired of the show, such that a series that had occupied the first, second, and third spots in the ratings during 1999-2000 no longer held any spots in the top 30 two years later. In the end, ABC cancelled the prime-time show in the summer 2002, moving it to syndication.

That meteoric rise, and rapid fall, colored “Millionaire’s” history. When I appeared on the show in 2013, friends and colleagues asked if Regis Philbin still hosted the program. But Philbin had departed at the end of the prime-time run. Meredith Vieira took over with the syndicated show a decade before my appearance, in 2002. Likewise, people asked for the identity of my “phone-a-friend,” but “Millionaire” had retired that lifeline years previously, when contestants began to have their lifelines Google the answers.

A Solid Syndicated Show on a Limited Budget

After the cancellation of prime-time “Millionaire,” the show continued for 17 seasons in syndication. It did so largely by producing a similar show on a much lower budget than the ABC prime-time episodes.

For instance, notwithstanding its name, only three contestants won the show’s ultimate prize on the syndicated version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”? Two of those did so in the show’s first season, 2002-03. The third one did so in 2009 (i.e., a decade ago), and won his million as part of a special tournament, in which someone was guaranteed a million-dollar payout.

Consider that in November 1999, John Carpenter became the first contestant to win the million dollars by knowing the U.S. president to appear on “Laugh-In”—a piece of trivia, but easily knowable to many Baby Boomers who lived through the period. By comparison, my $250,000 question on “Millionaire” asked for the name of turkey (the bird) in Turkey (the country)—a much more obscure piece of knowledge, at a lower-dollar value question.

That’s not to whine about my experience on “Millionaire”­—I remain incredibly thankful to have won the money I did. It simply illustrates that the syndicated “Millionaire” used much tougher material for its higher-value questions, which kept the overall prize budget in check, and made the odds of a million-dollar payout incredibly remote.

Two nuggets illustrate the cash crunch that the syndicated “Millionaire” faced. First, the official rules provided that any winnings over $250,000 would be paid in an annuity, demonstrating the show did not have the means to shell out seven-figure checks to contestants.

Second, an e-mail from January 2014, leaked as part of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, said that Disney (the producer and distributor of the show) was paying Sony Pictures (which owns the rights to the show) a licensing fee of $17,300 per episode, “which is apparently the biggest single line item” in the show’s budget. The e-mail suggests prize winnings for contestants did not average $17,300 per episode—a sum that shows like “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” easily exceed.

That said, the show’s staff did an amazing job putting on a quality show given all the challenges they faced. Unlike “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” for instance, the syndicated “Millionaire” had neither a dedicated set nor a full-time staff.

Whereas “Jeopardy!” tapes year-round (or nearly so), “Millionaire” taped an entire season’s worth of episodes in a period of 2-3 months each fall. The staff worked incredibly long and hard hours during those intense periods, even though they knew that most of them would be laid off after the series finished its tapings.

The Beginning of the End

Two decisions may have helped hasten “Millionaire’s” downfall. First, Vieira announced her departure following the 2012-13 season. Her initial replacements—Cedric the Entertainer in 2013-14, and Terry Crews in 2014-15—proved dreadful.

Cedric in particular didn’t seem to understand the rules, and seemed more interested in performing comedy bits than helping the contestants. In fall 2015, Chris Harrison of “The Bachelor” took over, and brought a more professional tone back to the program.

Another phenomenon also placed “Millionaire” in a financial vise. After I appeared on the show in 2013, I continued to watch the program, as it made a nice lunchtime diversion in its 12:30 p.m. time slot. But when the Washington affiliate decided to go to an hourlong newscast a few years ago, it moved the show to 1:30 a.m.—a time when neither I, nor most non-insomniacs, could watch.

The move to expanded local news, not just in Washington but other markets, likely helped to squeeze “Millionaire” into cancellation. Obscure time slots for shows lead to lower advertising revenue, making the program much less desirable for stations to purchase—and less profitable for Disney to produce. Even “Millionaire’s” 2016 move to Las Vegas, which generated marketing opportunities by taping the show at a Caesars Entertainment studio, couldn’t keep the show from cancellation this year.

End of an Era

“Millionaire” fans may yet see the show return. That January 2014 e-mail suggested that, if Disney stopped producing the show, Sony Pictures might let “Millionaire” lie fallow for a time, then produce it under the Sony Pictures brand instead. Time will tell whether the company will pursue this strategy.

Regardless, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” helped lay the groundwork for a resurgence of big-money game shows in prime-time network television. Following its blockbuster launch in 1999-2000, numerous imitators appeared, including “Greed,” “The Weakest Link” (another British import), and a revival of “Twenty One” (originally cancelled after its involvement in the 1950s quiz show scandals). Even “Jeopardy!” doubled its dollar amounts in November 2001, likely a direct consequence of the game show fever then sweeping across the television landscape.

Beginning next week, ABC will air revivals of the 1970s game show “Card Sharks” and the 1980s classic “Press Your Luck.” It continues the network’s “Summer of Games” theme that has in recent years seen revivals of “Match Game,” “The $100,000 Pyramid,” and “To Tell the Truth.”

That the network felt confident enough to green-light these prime-time game shows stems in part from the runaway success of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” nearly 20 years ago. And yes, that’s my final answer.

Chris Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Case Against Single Payer." He is on Twitter: @chrisjacobsHC.

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