20 Years Later, the Surprising Impact of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire

An empathetic narrative and everyman contestants were worth far more than a million bucks.
  • Regis Philbin was the host with the most (money, that is) on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (ABC)
    Regis Philbin was the host with the most (money, that is) on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (ABC)

    Who Wants to Be a Millionaire made its U.S. debut twenty years ago this week, and if the ratings for the bulk of the show's prime-time runs were any indication, the answer to the tantalizing rhetorical question in the show's title was: absolutely everybody. In the years before fast internet and Google made the point moot, the question of who you'd choose as your Phone-A-Friend was a hot topic at water coolers, and Regis Philbin's dire delivery of "Is that your final answer?" remained in the vernacular for years, even after Philbin left the show in 2002. Millionaire moved to daytime syndication shortly afterward, where it remained — sustained by a small but deeply loyal fan base — until it came to a quiet end earlier this year.

    The show's primary appeal was twofold. There was of course the sheer audacity of promising a prize of that magnitude, but there was also an everyman quality to Millionaire's gameplay that enabled viewers to easily empathize with the players at every step of the process.

    Certainly that appeal laid the groundwork for dozens of direct imitators in the realm of high-stakes prime-time game shows, ranging from the long-enduring (The Weakest Link and Deal or No Deal) to the entirely forgettable (Who's Still Standing? and 500 Questions). It didn't invent the tradition of dropping a game show into the prime-time network lineup during the fallow summer season, but it certainly cemented it. Millionaire's influence can also be felt in the fabric of nearly every competitive reality show since, starting with the early 2000's boom kicked off by Survivor and Big Brother, and continuing through to the present day.

    In some ways, Millionaire had far more in common with the everyman appeal of Survivor and Big Brother. The idea that a gigantic windfall is within the grasp of any random American lucky and brave enough to reach out for it was arguably more central to the premise of Millionaire than any notion of trivia prowess.

    Everyone knows Jeopardy! rules the trivia game show world, and has done so since the debut of its current incarnation in 1984, but Millionaire's first few weeks pulled in ratings that syndicated mainstay could only dream of, mainly because it afforded its contestants an additional dimension of humanity that its quiz-show brethren sometimes lacked. Throughout Millionaire's domination of the airwaves, would-be millionaires could simply call a toll-free number and pass a brief quiz in order to enter the contestant pool, which added to the idea that anyone really could make it to the hot seat if their fingers were fast enough. Compare this to Jeopardy!'s screening process throughout this era: Mail in a postcard and hope you're subsequently selected to take a brutal, in-person written test.

    Within the game itself, Jeopardy contestants — forced to compete with each other against a barrage of relatively arcane questions from the jump — can sometimes come off as a bunch of hyper-competitive eggheads. Millionaire contestants were only up against a single question at a time. And while there was plenty of overlap in the contestant pools (in fact, the author of this piece completed on both shows), Millionaire's players always had a little more room to chat with the host, hem and haw over questions, and generally give the audience a chance to get to know them better. Jeopardy has always been a battle, but Millionaire, in its best moments, felt like a hero quest. The longer a contestant stayed in the hot seat, the more likely viewers were to deem them deserving — or not — and root for or against them accordingly.

    The questions, too, were mostly a degree of difficulty removed from your average trivia show. It's true that once you reached the upper echelons of Millionaire's question board, the questions became nigh-impossible for the average trivia buff. But the vast majority of any given Millionaire episode was spent at the bottom half of the board, in the $100-$16,000 territory, where contestants could poll the studio audience and be reasonably assured that a plurality could help them arrive at the correct answer. A short-lived attempt to randomize the dollar values in the early 2010s — presumably to keep viewers from getting bored by the easy stuff — proved unpopular, in effect because sometimes it was the easy stuff that made for the best television. Who among us wouldn't feel a frisson of schadenfreude watching a contestant miss a $100 question? It seems churlish to say outright that so much of the entertainment value of the show was wrapped up in a viewer's ability to feel superior to the contestants, but it wouldn't be altogether inaccurate. "If that were me," viewers thought, "I would have gone all the way."

    Never mind that only twelve people in the show's history ever actually won the million, and the last one to manage it in regulation gameplay did so all the way back in 2003. The million dollars was never the point, it was merely the hook. The promise of a seemingly average American achieving a gigantic windfall may have acted as a compelling entry point, but Millionaire's true legacy rests in the narrative it crafted around those journeys.

    Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie

    TOPICS: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, ABC, Regis Philbin, Retro TV