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Politics 2000
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For the love of the game show

For the love of the game show
ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" hits
the jackpot; Fox's "Greed" is not good.

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By Joyce Millman

Nov. 16, 1999 | The first thing you need to know about the appeal of ABC's hit prime-time game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is this: It's not about the money. None of the best game shows are. It's about watching how other people, people just like you and me, perform under pressure.

Some of them maintain an almost eerie serenity and mental agility; others sweat and crumble and stall out. "Millionaire" is a quiz show, but it's also a seductive reality soap opera in which we, the armchair smarty-pantses, take vicarious starring roles; while the contestants in the hot seat flail, we answer questions with ease, and then trash-talk to the television. The double helix is the genetic structure of DNA! How could anybody not know that! Brian Jones was a founding member of the Rolling Stones, not Ron Wood, you idiot! A morel is a mushroom, not an eel! How did this guy even get on the show? For those of us glued to its two-week run, "Millionaire" is not about the money. It's about validation.

Not that "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" doesn't give off a (relatively refined) whiff of living large. At center stage on the floor, between the weird dentist chairs occupied by host Regis Philbin and the contestant, rests a deep glass-sided box that looks like a computer monitor; it's filled with a sheet of Franklins, bathed in golden light. Philbin's smartly tailored suits, shirts and ties are all done in the color of money -- dark greens, deep grays, rich silvers and golds. And, as on quiz shows from "The $64,000 Question" to "Jeopardy," the difficulty of the questions increases in proportion to the dollar amount. On "Millionaire," hundred-dollar questions, even thousand-dollar questions, are gimmes. In this robust economy, $100 is strictly chump change.

Adapted from British television, "Millionaire" debuted on ABC Aug. 16; in an unusual programming gambit, episodes of the show ran for 13 nights in a row. They averaged a hearty 14 million viewers a night, in the dog days of summer TV. The Nov. 7 kickoff of the show's second two-week run attracted a whopping 22 million viewers; the Nov. 11 edition racked up 25 million viewers and beat "Frasier," making it the first ABC show in almost 17 years to out-rate a first-run episode of a 9 p.m. Thursday NBC sitcom.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"
(8:30 p.m. through Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, ABC)

(9 p.m. Thursdays, Fox)


Also Today

I wanted to be a millionaire
In which our hero braves technical difficulties, arctic temperatures and too many geography questions in his quest for a fast fortune.
By Steven Scott Smith

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman's column appears every other Monday in Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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"Millionaire" (which ends its current run on Sunday) has turned out to be the TV phenomenon of the year -- to the surprise of those in the industry who thought prime-time game shows were relics of three-network, pre-cable antiquity. Instead, "Millionaire" has reinvented the genre with a blend of high-tech aesthetics (dramatic -- and just this side of campy -- laser lights, portentous New Age-druid background music) and old-fashioned human drama.

On "Millionaire," contestants face 15 multiple-choice questions that get harder as they go along. After a widely publicized gaffe in the summer series, in which one contestant's correct answer was mistakenly judged incorrect, the show's producers have tightened up the research protocol; answers are now quadruple-checked, rather than triple-checked, and the questions and answers are zealously guarded. "We take security very seriously," said executive producer Michael Davies. "One of my great nightmares is that someone somehow finds a way to expose a bunch of our material and we have to throw it all out."

To succeed at "Millionaire," contestants have to have a wide, "Jeopardy"-type range of knowledge. But more than that, contestants have to have the confidence to resist second-guessing themselves. And that's the tricky part. They have to be strong enough of mind not to waver when Philbin, messing with their heads, takes a pregnant pause, looks them in the eye and asks, "Confident? You're sure? Is that your final answer?"

And "Millionaire" is brilliantly structured to plant seeds of doubt. It boosts confidence with ridiculously easy early-round questions like, "What color is Sesame Street's Big Bird? A.) Red; B.) Yellow; C.) Blue; D.)Green." Then, at No. 9, the $16,000 mark, it subtly shifts into questions that only seem obvious. Last week, one chatty fellow named John Christensen took eons (there's no time limit, just deft editing) to ponder the $32,000 question, "Which element makes up the largest percentage of the earth's atmosphere? A.) Oxygen; B.) Hydrogen; C.) Nitrogen; D.) Carbon." He used two of his three "lifelines" -- a contestant can phone a friend for help, poll the audience or have two wrong choices deleted from the possible answers, but they can only use each lifeline once -- before deciding to quit and walk away with the $16,000 he'd already won.

Oddly, most of the contestants on "Millionaire" have opted to cash out rather than answer the riskier, more lucrative questions (you lose some of what you've won for a wrong answer), and that's another thing that's fascinating about the show -- in a culture of excess, it offers a rare TV glimpse of people deciding that what they have is enough.

Next page | Fox's "Greed": The Darth Vader of game shows

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