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Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (US game show)

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Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (US game show)

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
Genre Game show
Created by David Briggs
Mike Whitehill
Steven Knight
Directed by Mark Gentile (1999–2002)
Matthew Cohen (2002–10)
Rob George (2010–13)
Brian McAloon (2013–present)
Presented by Regis Philbin (ABC versions; 1999–2002, 2004, 2009)
Meredith Vieira (syndicated version; 2002–13)
Cedric the Entertainer (syndicated version; 2013–present)
Composer(s) Keith Strachan (1999–2010)
Matthew Strachan (1999–2010)
Jeff Lippencott (2010–present)
Mark T. Williams (2010–present)
Country of origin United States
No. of seasons 15 (3 on ABC, 12 in syndication)
No. of episodes ABC (Original): 363[1]
Syndicated: 1,995 (as of November 1, 2013)
ABC (Super Millionaire): 12
ABC (10th Anniversary Special): 11
Total: 2,381
Executive producer(s) Michael Davies (1999–2010)
Paul Smith (1999–2007)
Leigh Hampton (2004–10)
Rich Sirop (2010–present)
Running time 39–48 minutes (ABC)
22–26 minutes (Syndicated)
Production companies Valleycrest Productions (1999–present)
Celador (1999–2007)
2waytraffic (2007–present)
Distributor USA:
Buena Vista Television (1999–2007)
Disney-ABC Domestic Television (2007–present)
Sony Pictures Television
Original channel ABC (1999–2002, 2004, 2009)
Syndication (2002–present)
Picture format 480i (SDTV) (1999–2011)
720p/1080i (HDTV) (2011–present)
Audio format Stereo
Original run ABC
August 16, 1999 (1999-08-16) – June 27, 2002 (2002-06-27)
September 16, 2002 (2002-09-16) – present
External links

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (sometimes informally called Millionaire) is an American television quiz show based upon the British program of the same title, which offers a maximum prize of $1,000,000 for correctly answering a series of consecutive multiple choice questions. Originally, as in the UK edition, contestants were required to correctly answer 15 questions of increasing difficulty,[2] but in 2010, the format was modified so that the contestants are now faced with 14 questions of random difficulty.[3] The program follows the same general premise as its original UK counterpart, and is one of many international variants in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? franchise.

The original U.S. version aired on ABC from August 16, 1999 to June 27, 2002, and was hosted by Regis Philbin.[4] The current syndicated version of the show began airing on September 16, 2002, and was launched by Meredith Vieira,[5] who remained host for 11 seasons, with her final first-run episodes airing in May 2013.[6] Vieira was succeeded by Cedric the Entertainer beginning with the premiere of season 12 on September 2, 2013.[7][8]

As the first U.S. network game show to offer a million-dollar top prize,[1] the show made television history by becoming one of the highest-rated game shows in the history of American television.[1] The U.S. Millionaire has gone on to win seven Daytime Emmy Awards, and TV Guide and GSN have ranked it #7 and #5 on their respective lists of the 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time. In 2013, TV Guide ranked it #6 in its list of the 60 greatest game shows ever.[9]


The main game is a quiz competition whose goal is to correctly answer a series of consecutive multiple-choice questions. Originally the contestants were faced with 15 questions of increasing difficulty, but since the format was overhauled in 2010, the contestants are faced with 14 questions of random difficulty, distributed into two rounds.[3] Each question is worth a specified amount of money; the amounts are cumulative in the first round, but not in the second. If the contestant gives a wrong answer to any question, their game is over and their winnings drop down, to $1,000 if they incorrectly answer a Round 1 question, and $25,000 if they incorrectly answer a Round 2 question.[10] However, the contestant has the option of "walking away" without giving an answer after being presented with a question, in which case the game ends and the contestant is guaranteed a certain amount of money: in Round 1 they are guaranteed to walk away with half their cumulative total, but in Round 2 and the previous formats, they may walk away with all the money they have previously received.[3] Before 2010, upon correctly answering questions five and ten, the contestants were guaranteed at least the amount of prize money associated with that level. If the contestant gave an incorrect answer, their winnings dropped down to the last milestone achieved. If the contestant answered a question incorrectly before reaching question five, they left with nothing.

On the ABC versions, ten contestants competed in a preliminary "Fastest Finger" round for the right to play the main game on each episode.[11] The contestants were presented with a question and a list of four answers which needed to be put in a specific order. Using keys on their podiums, each of the contestants attempted to enter the correct order in the shortest amount of time, with a maximum time limit of 20 seconds. If the main game ended and there was still time available for another game, the remaining contestants would play another Fastest Finger round for a chance to play the main game. In the event of a tie between two or more contestants, those contestants would play an additional Fastest Finger question to break the tie. If all contestants answered the question incorrectly, the round was repeated with another question.[12] Fastest Finger was eliminated from the gameplay when the syndicated version premiered in 2002.[13]

From 2008 to 2010, time limits were used for each question.[14] Contestants were given up to 15 seconds each for questions 1–5, 30 seconds each for questions 6–10, and 45 seconds each for questions 11–14. Unused time was banked, and if the contestant were to reach question 15, they had 45 seconds plus however much time they had banked. If the clock reached zero before a contestant could provide a final answer, they were forced to walk away with the winnings they had at that point. During the clock format era, a "Millionaire Menu" was introduced, in which categories are revealed for each question at the beginning of the game, and are made visible to the contestant for their future reference. Some of the prize levels also changed at the start of season eight; this took effect after the ninth contestant from the 2009 primetime run played.[15] Most of the episodes in season eight (from the "Million Dollar Tournament of 10" onward) featured special "Celebrity Questions" that were mid-level in monetary value, and were provided by notable individuals whose identities were not revealed until the contestant reached their special questions.[16]

When season 9 began on September 13, 2010, the format was overhauled into its current iteration. Ten questions are asked in round one, each assigned one of ten different money amounts: $100, $500, $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, $5,000, $7,000, $10,000, $15,000, or $25,000. The dollar values are randomized at the beginning of the game. The contestant is then shown the original order of difficulty for the ten questions as well as their categories, and those are then randomized as well. This means that the difficulty of the question is not tied to its value, and may be worth as little as $100 or up to $25,000. The dollar values for each question remain hidden until a contestant either provides a correct answer or chooses to "jump" their question. In this format, the value of each question answered correctly is added to the contestant's bank, for a maximum total of $68,600. A contestant who completes the round successfully can walk at any subsequent point with all the money in their bank, or can walk before the round is completed with half that amount (e.g., a contestant who banked $30,000 would leave with $15,000). Contestants who give an incorrect answer at any point in the round leave with $1,000.[10] After completing round one, the contestant moves on to a second round of gameplay, termed "Classic Millionaire" because of its resemblance to the previous formats utilized by the show. The final four questions are played for set non-cumulative values ($100,000, $250,000, $500,000, and $1,000,000) and a correct answer augments the contestant's winnings to that point, as in the older formats.[10] The contestant is now allowed to walk away with all the money in their bank; an incorrect answer drops their winnings to $25,000.

Since the beginning of season ten, certain weeks of the show have been designated as "Double Your Money" weeks. In those, a certain question in round one is designated the "Double Money Question." When a contestant answers such a question correctly, the monetary value behind the question is doubled and added to his or her bank, giving him or her the possibility of adding up to a maximum of $50,000 to his or her bank on a single question; under these special rules, it is possible for a contestant to finish Round 1 with a maximum total of $93,600 in their bank. However, when a contestant "jumps" the question, they forfeit the doubled money.[17]

In the event that a contestant leaves and very little time remains, a randomly selected audience member is given one chance to win $1,000 by answering the next question intended for the previous contestant (or $2,000 if the next question was on a Double Money episode). Regardless of the outcome, the audience member receives a special prize. In seasons nine and ten, the prize was copy of a video game based on Millionaire (see "Merchandise" below); as of season 11, audience members now receive 20 free playings for a Facebook game based on the show's format.

Payout structure

Question number Question value
1999–2004 2004–09 2009–10 2010–present[18]
1 $100 $500 Random value
($100, $500, $1,000, $2,000, $3,000, $5,000, $7,000, $10,000, $15,000, $25,000)
2 $200 $1,000
3 $300 $2,000
4 $500 $3,000
5 $1,000 $5,000
6 $2,000 $7,500
7 $4,000 $10,000
8 $8,000 $12,500
9 $16,000 $15,000
10 $32,000 $25,000
11 $64,000 $50,000 $100,000
12 $125,000 $100,000 $250,000
13 $250,000 $500,000
14 $500,000 $1,000,000
15 $1,000,000

The $500,000 & $1 million prizes were initially lump-sum payments, but were changed to annuities in September 2002 when the series moved to syndication. Contestants winning either of these prizes receive $250,000 thirty days after their show broadcasts and the remainder paid in equal annual payments. The $500,000 prize consists of $25,000 per year for 10 years, while the $1,000,000 prize consists of $37,500 per year for 20 years.


Contestants are given a series of lifelines to aid them with difficult questions. They can use as many lifelines as desired per question, but each lifeline (with the exception of Jump the Question) can only be used once per game. Three lifelines are available from the start of the game. Depending on the format of the show, additional lifelines may become available after the contestant correctly answers the fifth or tenth question. In the clock format, usage of lifelines temporarily paused the clock while the lifelines were played.

The show's original three lifelines were Fifty-Fifty, in which the computer eliminated two of the incorrect answers; Phone-a-Friend, which allowed the contestant to make a thirty-second call to one of a number of friends (who provided their phone numbers in advance) and read them the question and answer choices to the friend, who would then provide input; and Ask the Audience, in which audience members use touch pads to designate what they believe the correct answer to be, after which the percentage of the audience choosing each specific option is displayed to the contestant. Ask the Audience is the only remaining one of the original lifelines; Fifty-Fifty was eliminated at the beginning of the clock format era, and Phone-a-Friend was removed beginning with the episode that aired on January 11, 2010, after it was determined that there was an increasing trend of contestants' friends using search engines and other Internet resources to assist those unfairly privileged individuals who had computer access over those who did not, and that it was contrary to the original intent of the lifeline, by which friends were supposed to provide assistance based on what they already knew.[19] From 2004 to 2008, there was a fourth lifeline called Switch the Question,[14] earned upon answering question ten, in which the computer replaced, at the contestant's request, one question with another of the same monetary value.

During the Super Millionaire spin-off, two new lifelines were introduced: Double Dip, which allowed the contestant to make two guesses at a question, but required them to play out the question, forbidding them to walk away or use any further lifelines; and Three Wise Men, in which the contestant was allowed to ask a sequestered panel of three people chosen by the producers, appearing via face-to-face audio and video feeds, which answer they believed was correct, within a time limit of thirty seconds. When the clock format was implemented, Double Dip replaced the 50/50 lifeline,[14] and the show also introduced a new lifeline called Ask the Expert, which was like Three Wise Men but had one person (usually a celebrity or a former Millionaire contestant) functioning as an expert instead of a panel of three people, lacked the time limit of its predecessor, and allowed the contestant and expert to discuss the question. Ask the Expert was originally available after the tenth question, but was moved to the beginning of the game after Phone-a-Friend was removed.

The show's lifelines sometimes used corporate sponsorship. The Phone-a-Friend lifeline was sponsored by the original AT&T throughout the run of the ABC primetime show and in the first season of the syndicated version, then by the current AT&T for the 2009 primetime episodes. From 2004 to 2006, Ask the Audience was sponsored by AOL, which allowed users of its Instant Messenger to add the screen name MillionaireIM to their buddy list and receive an instant message with the question and the four possible answers, to which the users would reply with their choices.[20] Ask the Expert used Skype for its live audio and video feeds; however, during instances when a video link to the expert was unavailable, the expert would join the show via telephone instead.[15]

During the shuffle format era, the show introduced a new lifeline, Jump the Question, which can be used twice in a single game. At any point prior to selecting a final answer, a contestant could use Jump the Question to skip the current question and move on to the next one, thus reducing the number of questions they had to correctly answer. However, if the contestant uses Jump the Question, they do not gain any money from the question they choose to skip (for example, a contestant with a bank of $68,100 may jump the $100,000 question, but will still have only $68,100 instead of the typical $100,000 when they face the $250,000 question). Unlike other lifelines throughout the show's history, this lifeline cannot be used on the $1 million question, since it is the final question in the game. On occasional specially designated weeks, starting with a Halloween-themed week that aired from October 29–November 2, 2012, the shuffle format uses a special lifeline called Crystal Ball, which allows the contestant to see the money value of a Round 1 question prior to giving an answer.[21]



The original network version of the U.S. Millionaire, as well as the subsequent primetime specials (see below), were hosted by Regis Philbin.[4] When the syndicated version was being developed, the production team felt that it was not feasible for Philbin to continue hosting, as the show recorded four episodes in a single day, and that the team was looking for qualities in a new host: it had to be somebody who would love the contestants and be willing to root for them.[1] Rosie O'Donnell was initially offered a hosting position on this new edition, but declined the opportunity almost immediately.[22] Eventually Meredith Vieira, who had previously competed in a celebrity charity event on the original network version, was named host of the new syndicated edition.[5]

ABC originally offered Vieira hosting duties on the syndicated Millionaire to sweeten one of her re-negotiations for the network's daytime talk show The View, which she was moderating at the time.[23] When the show was honored by GSN on its Gameshow Hall of Fame special, Vieira herself further explained her motivation for hosting the syndicated version as follows: Template:Cquote

From 2007 to 2011, when Vieira was concurrently working as a co-host of Today, guest hosts appeared in the second half of each season of the syndicated version. The guest hosts included Al Roker, Tom Bergeron, Tim Vincent, Dave Price, Billy Bush, Leeza Gibbons, Cat Deeley, Samantha Harris, Shaun Robinson, Steve Harvey, John Henson, Sherri Shepherd, Tim Gunn, D. L. Hughley, and even Philbin, whose episodes as guest host were aired out of order to coincide with his 2009 hip replacement surgery. Of those contestants that appeared on weeks featuring guest hosts, almost none carried over to the following week.

On January 10, 2013, Vieira announced that after eleven seasons with the syndicated Millionaire, throughout which she had hosted more than 1,900 episodes and offered a vast multitude of contestants a combined total of over $70,000,000,[24] she would be leaving the show as part of an effort to focus on other projects in her career. She finalized taping of her last episodes with the show in November 2012.[23] Her successor as host of the syndicated Millionaire, Cedric the Entertainer, was introduced to the show when season twelve premiered on September 2, 2013.[7]

Production staff

The original executive producers of the U.S. Millionaire were British television producers Michael Davies and Paul Smith,[25] the latter of whom undertook the responsibility of licensing Millionaire to American airwaves as part of his effort to transform the UK program into a global franchise.[26] Smith served until 2007 and Davies until 2010; additionally, Leigh Hampton (previously co-executive producer in the later days of the network version and in the syndicated version's first two seasons) served as an executive producer from 2004–10. Since 2010, the duties of executive producer have been handled by Rich Sirop. Vincent A. Rubino, who had previously been the syndicated Millionaire's supervising producer for its first two seasons,[25] served as that version's co-executive producer for the 2004–05 season,[27] after which he was succeeded by Vieira herself, who continued to hold the title until her departure in 2013 (sharing her position with Sirop for the 2009–10 season). The executives in charge of production have included Theresa Moore King (1999), Priscilla Taussig (2000–02), Mona D. Kligman (2002–10), and Shirley Abraham (2010–present).[25]

Producers of the network version included Hampton, Rubino, Leslie Fuller, Nikki Webber, and Terrence McDonnell. For its first two seasons the syndicated version had Deirdre Cossman for its managing producer, then Dennis F. McMahon became producer for the next two seasons (joined by Dominique Bruballa as his line producer), after which Jennifer Weeks produced the next four seasons of syndicated Millionaire shows, initially accompanied by Amanda Zucker as her line producer, but later joined for the 2008–09 season by Tommy Cody (who became sole producer in the 2009–10 season). The first 65 "shuffle format" episodes were produced by McPaul Smith, and as of 2011, the title of producer is held by Bryan Lasseter. The network version had Ann Miller and Tiffany Trigg for its supervising producers; they were joined by Wendy Roth in the first two seasons, and by Michael Binkow in the third and final season. After Rubino's promotion to co-executive producer, the syndicated version's later supervising producers included Sirop (2004–09), Geena Gintzig (2009–10), Brent Burnette (2010–12), and Geoff Rosen (2012–present).[25]

The original network version of Millionaire was directed by Mark Gentile, who later served as the syndicated version's consulting producer for its first two seasons. The syndicated version has been directed by Matthew Cohen from 2002–2010, by Rob George from 2010–2013, and by Brian McAloon since 2013. Associate directors for the syndicated version have included Dawn Kiernan, Brooke Sessions, Annalisa De Meo, Christopher Cullen, and Stacie Saugen.[25]

The original primetime version's writers were Ben Gruber, Jack Helmuth, and Allison Silverman. At different points in the syndicated series' history, that version's writing has been supervised by Stan Hsue, Robert Patton, and Doug Abeles. Other individuals who have written for the syndicated version throughout its existence have included Hampton, Sirop, Bruballa, Zucker, Jonathan Chase, Art Chung, Nate Clark, Doug Gordon, Sherri Langsam, Jon Morgenthau, Amy Ozols, Craig Rowin, Eben Russell, Sara Schafer, Brenda Schait, Daniel Schofield, Andrew Tavani, Danielle Thomson, Adam Tobin, David Levinson Wilk, and Rena Zager.[25]


Since its inception, the U.S. Millionaire has been distributed in the United States by Disney-ABC Domestic Television (originally known as Buena Vista Television), a unit of ABC. It retained its association with Disney even after Sony Pictures Entertainment's 2008 acquisition of the show's production company, Dutch-based 2waytraffic[28] (which itself had acquired original production company Celador International two years prior).[29][30] In addition, the show's sponsor and copyright holder, Valleycrest Productions, Ltd., is owned by DADT, and thus also has Disney for its ultimate corporate parent.[31]

The U.S. Millionaire was originally taped at the ABC Studios at 30 West 67th Street, New York, from 1999 to 2012. In 2012, for the 2012–13 season (Vieira's last with the show), show tapings were moved to a new studio at 320 West 66th Street, just past Eleventh Avenue. When Cedric took over as host, the show's taping facilities were relocated again, this time to the Metropolis Studios at 105 East 106th Street. Taping sessions for the syndicated version typically consist of four episodes taped in a single day.[1]


When the U.S. version of Millionaire was first conceived in 1998, Michael Davies was a young television producer of British origin who was serving as the head of ABC's little-noticed reality programming division (at a time when reality television had not yet become a phenomenon in America).[1] At that time, ABC was lingering in third place in the ratings indexes among U.S. broadcast networks, and was on the verge of losing its status as one of the "Big Three television networks."[32] Meanwhile, the popularity of game shows was at an all-time nadir, as with the exception of The Price Is Right, the genre was absent from networks' daytime lineups at that point. Having earlier created Debt for Lifetime Television and participated with Al Burton and Donnie Brainard in the creation of Win Ben Stein's Money for Comedy Central,[1] Davies decided to create a primetime game show that would save the network from collapse and revive interest in game shows.[1] He heard about the development of the British Millionaire, got his friends and family members in the UK to record the show, and subsequently ended up receiving about eight FedEx packages from different family members, each containing a copy of Millionaire's first episode. Davies was so captivated by everything that he had seen and heard, from host Chris Tarrant's intimate involvement with the contestant to the show's lighting system and music tracks, that he chose to consider the idea of introducing the hit quiz show to American airwaves, convinced that it would become extraordinarily popular.[1]

When Davies presented his ideas for the U.S. Millionaire to ABC, the network's executives initially rejected them, so he resigned his position there and became an independent producer.[1] Determined to bring his idea for the show to fruition, Davies decided that he was betting his whole career on Millionaire's production, and the first move that he made was planning to attach a celebrity host to the show. Besides Philbin, a number of other popular television personalities were considered for hosting positions on the U.S. Millionaire during its development, among them Peter Jennings,[1] Bob Costas, Phil Donahue, and Montel Williams, but among those considered, it was Philbin who wanted the job the most, and when he saw an episode of the British Millionaire and was blown away by his content, Davies and his team ultimately settled on having him host the American show.[32] When Davies approached ABC again after having hired Philbin, the network finally agreed to accept the U.S. Millionaire.[1] With production now ready to begin, the team had only five months to finish developing the show and get it launched, with Davies demanding perfection in every element of Millionaire's production.[1]

Audition process

With few exceptions, any legal resident of the United States who is 18 years of age or older has the potential of becoming a contestant through Millionaire's audition process. Those ineligible include employees, immediate family or household members, and close acquaintances of Sony Corporation, The Walt Disney Company, or any of their respective affiliates or subsidiaries; television stations that broadcast the syndicated version; or any advertising agency or other firm or entity engaged in the production, administration, or judging of the show. Also ineligible are current candidates for political office and individuals who have appeared on a different game show, outside of cable, that has been (or is intended to be) broadcast within the past year, or played the main game on any of the U.S. versions of Millionaire itself.[3]

Potential contestants of the original primetime version had to compete in a telephone contest which had them dial a toll-free number and answer three questions by putting objects or events in order. Callers had ten seconds to enter the order on a keypad, with any incorrect answer ending the game/call. The 10,000–20,000 candidates who answered all three questions correctly were selected into a random drawing in which approximately 300 contestants would compete for ten spots on the show using the same phone quiz method.[33] Accommodations for contestants outside the New York City area included round trip airfare (or other transportation) and hotel accommodations.

The syndicated version's potential contestants, depending on touring tryouts or tryouts held at ABC's New York studio center, are required to pass an electronically scored test[34] comprising a set of thirty general knowledge quiz questions which must be answered within a time limit of ten minutes. Contestants who fail the test are eliminated, while those who pass are then interviewed for an audition by the production staff,[35] and those who impress the staff the most are then notified by postal mail that they have been placed into a pool for possible selection as contestants. At the producers' discretion, contestants from said pool are selected to appear on actual episodes of the syndicated program; these contestants are given a phone call from a staff member (which ends up being recorded), and then asked to confirm the information on their initial application form and verify that they meet all of the eligibility requirements. Afterwards, they are given a date to travel to New York to participate in a scheduled taping of the show.[34] Unlike its ABC counterpart, the syndicated version does not offer transportation or hotel accommodations to contestants at the production company's expense; that version's contestants are instead required to provide transportation and accommodations of their own.[3]

The syndicated Millionaire also conducts open casting calls in various locations across the United States to search for potential contestants. These are held in late spring or early summer, with all dates and locations posted on the show's official website. The producers make no guarantee on how many applicants will be tested at each particular venue;[34] however, the show will not test any more than 2,500 individuals per audition day.[3]

In cases when the show features themed episodes with two people playing as a team, auditions for these episodes' contestants are announced on the show's website. Both members of the team must pass the written test and the audition interview successfully in order to be considered for selection. If only one member of the team passes, he or she is placed into the contestant pool alone and must continue the audition process as an individual in order to proceed.[34]


Originally, the U.S. Millionaire carried over the musical score from the British version, composed by father-and-son duo Keith and Matthew Strachan. The Strachans' score provided drama and tension, and unlike older game show musical scores, Millionaire's musical score was created to feature music playing almost throughout the entire show. The Strachans' main Millionaire theme song took some inspiration from the "Mars" movement of Gustav Holst's The Planets, and their question cues from the $2,000 to the $32,000/$25,000 level, and then from the $64,000/$50,000 level onwards, took the pitch up a semitone for each subsequent question, in order to increase tension as the contestant progressed through the game.[36] On GSN's Gameshow Hall of Fame special, the narrator described the Strachan tracks as "mimicking the sound of a beating heart," and stated that as the contestant worked their way up the money ladder, the music was "perfectly in tune with their ever-increasing pulse."[1]

The original Millionaire musical score holds the distinction of being the only game show soundtrack to be acknowledged by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, as the Strachans were honored with numerous ASCAP awards for their work, the earliest of them awarded in 2000.[36] The original music cues were given minor rearrangements for the clock format in 2008; for example, the question cues were synced to the "ticking" sounds of the game clock. Even later, the Strachan score was removed from the U.S. version altogether for the introduction of the shuffle format in 2010, in favor of a new musical score with cues written by Jeff Lippencott and Mark T. Williams, co-founders of the Los Angeles-based company Ah2 Music.[37]


The U.S. Millionaire's basic set is a direct adaptation of the British version's set design, which was conceived by Andy Walmsley. Paul Smith's original licensing agreement for the U.S. Millionaire required that the show's set design, along with all other elements of the show's on-air presentation (musical score, lighting system, host's wardrobe, etc.), adhere faithfully to the way in which they were presented in the British version; this same licensing agreement applied to all other international versions of the show, making Walmsley's Millionaire set design the most reproduced scenic design in television history.[26] The original version of the U.S. Millionaire's set cost $200,000 to construct.[1] The U.S. Millionaire's major scenic design personnel originally consisted of production designer David Weller (whose successors have included Jim Fenhagen and George Allison), technical director Joseph C. Abbenda (later succeeded by Manse Sharp III, and more recently by Dave Saretsky), lighting director Bruce Ferri (later succeeded by Charles Noble, and even later by Mick Smith), and lighting designer Deke Hazirjian.[25]

Unlike most older game shows whose sets are or were designed to make the contestant(s) feel at ease, Millionaire's set was designed to make the contestant feel uncomfortable, so that the program feels more like a movie thriller than a typical quiz show.[1] The floor is made of Plexiglas[26] beneath which lies a huge dish covered in mirror paper.[1] Before the shuffle format was implemented in 2010, the main game had the contestant and host sit in chairs in the center of the stage, known as "Hot Seats"; these measured 3 feet (0.91 m) high, were modeled after chairs typically found in hair salons,[1] and each seat featured a computer monitor directly facing it to display questions and other pertinent information. Shortly after the shuffle format was introduced to Millionaire, Vieira stated in an interview with her Millionaire predecessor on his morning talk show that the Hot Seat was removed because it was decided that the seat, which was originally intended to make the contestant feel nervous, actually ended up having contestants feel so comfortable in it that it did not service the production team any longer.[38]

The lighting system is programmed to darken the set as the contestant progresses further into the game. There are also spotlights situated at the bottom of the set area that zoom down on the contestant when they answer a major question; to increase the visibility of the light beams emitted by such spotlights, oil is vaporized, creating a haze effect. Media scholar Dr. Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University, stated that the show's lighting system made the contestant feel as though they were outside of prison when an escape was in progress.[1]

When the shuffle format was introduced, the Hot Seats and corresponding monitors were replaced with a single podium, and as a result, the contestant and host stand throughout the game and are also able to walk on stage;[38] also, two video screens were installed–one that displays the current question in play, and another that displays the contestant's cumulative total and progress during the game. In September 2012, the redesigned set was improved with a modernized look and feel, in order to take into account the show's transition to high-definition broadcasting, which had just come about the previous year. The two video screens were replaced with two larger ones, having twice as many projectors as the previous screens had; the previous contestant podium was replaced with a new one; and light-emitting diode (LED) technology was integrated into the lighting system to give the lights more vivid colors and the set and gameplay experience a more intimate feel.[39]

Broadcast history


The U.S. version of Millionaire was launched by ABC as an hour-long primetime program on August 16, 1999. The network version, whose episodes were originally shown only a day after their taping in New York City, became explosively popular in 2000 and at its peak was airing in the primetime five nights a week on ABC.[40] The show was so popular during its original primetime run that rival networks created or re-incarnated game shows of their own (e.g., Greed, Twenty One, etc.), as well as importing various game shows of British and Australian origin to America (such as Winning Lines, Weakest Link, and It's Your Chance of a Lifetime).

The nighttime version 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,[41] with 28,848,000 viewers. In the next season (2000–01), three nights out of the five weekly episodes placed in the top 10.[42] However, the show's ratings began to fall during the 2000–01 season, so that at the start of the 2001–02 season, the ratings were only a fraction of what they had been one year before, and by season's end, the show was no longer even ranked among the top 20.[43] ABC's reliance on the show's popularity led the network to fall quickly from its former spot as the nation's most watched network.

As ABC's overexposure of the primetime Millionaire led the public to tire of the show, there was speculation that the show would not survive beyond the 2001-02 season. The staff planned on switching it to a format that would emphasize comedy more than the game and feature a host other than Philbin,[44] but in the end, the primetime show was cancelled, with its final episode airing on June 27, 2002.[45]

ABC has occasionally brought back the show for specials, including 2004's Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire, which raised the top prize to $10,000,000, and another in 2009 which celebrated the show's tenth anniversary.[46]


While the network edition of Millionaire was still airing on ABC, the producers decided to begin work on a new thirty-minute Millionaire series for nationwide syndication. Although the syndicated series was conceived in 2001 with the assumption that it would serve as an accompaniment to the primetime series, the cancellation of that version led to a change in plans. Nonetheless, the syndicated Millionaire was greenlit for the upcoming fall season, and premiered on September 16, 2002.[5][45] The syndicated series nearly met the same fate as its predecessor, however, due in parts to worries that stemmed from a decision made by one of its affiliates.

In the New York media market, Buena Vista Television sold the syndicated Millionaire to WCBS-TV. The flagship of the CBS network picked up the syndicated Millionaire as part of an effort to improve the station's ratings as the two hours between the end of As The World Turns and the beginning of their 5:00 pm newscast had seen a string of low-rated, quickly-cancelled programs over the previous several years. Millionaire was one of two series WCBS picked up as part of another overhaul of their lineup, with the syndicated series and its lead in Dr. Phil displacing Crossing Over with John Edward (which moved to another station) and the syndicated edition of The Weakest Link (which was displaced to a late-night time slot). Upon its debut Millionaire aired at 4:00 pm, a competitive timeslot in the New York market as the syndicated series would be facing off against the highly popular shows Oprah on WABC-TV and Judge Judy on WNBC-TV. After the first thirteen weeks' worth of episodes aired and WCBS saw no improvement in the ratings from where they had been with Weakest Link, the station decided to go in a different direction. In January 2003, WCBS announced that it had acquired The People's Court, which had been airing on WNBC since its 1997 return to television, for the fall season and that Millionaire, along with a 4:30 pm newscast, would be dropped from the station in order to make room.[47]

WCBS' decision led to speculation that the show's future was in doubt, so BVT executives tried to get WCBS to move Millionaire. BVT suggested the station use its Prime Time Access slot at 7:30 pm, which at the time was occupied by Hollywood Squares, to air Millionaire. Since this would require the displacement of either Hollywood Squares or Entertainment Tonight to another less desirable timeslot, WCBS passed on the idea and BVT was left with no choice but to look elsewhere for a New York affiliate.[47] At the time this was going on, a shakeup in the daytime schedule was going on at BVT's corporate sibling ABC. The network announced that it would be giving the 12:30 pm network timeslot back to its affiliates when Port Charles, a low-rated soap opera that had been airing in that timeslot since 1997, aired its final episode in October 2003. This meant that the network's flagship, WABC-TV, was in need of something to fill that slot and BVT went to them to see if they would pick up Millionaire. WABC not only agreed to do so but elected not to wait until Port Charles ended its run and began airing Millionaire at 12:30 pm when the second season debuted in September 2003, and has carried the program in that timeslot ever since.[48] (It should be noted that WABC did keep Port Charles on its schedule but moved it to a late-night airing for the remaining month of its run.)


GSN acquired the rerun rights to the U.S. Millionaire in August 2003.[49] The network initially aired only episodes from the three seasons of the original prime-time run, but additional episodes were later added, including the Super Millionaire spin-off, which aired on GSN from 2005 through 2007, and the first two seasons of the syndicated version,[50] which the network aired from November 10, 2008 through January 3, 2011.


Eleven contestants have answered the final question correctly and won the top prize (nine on the ABC version, two on the syndicated version). An additional two contestants won $1,000,000 without answering all fifteen questions: Robert "Bob-O" Essig on Super Millionaire, and Sam Murray in the Tournament of 10. Two contestants have also answered the $1,000,000 question incorrectly: Ken Basin on the 10th Anniversary Special, and Josina Reaves on Season 12 of the syndicated version.


Seven contestants correctly answered all 15 questions and won the top prize of $1,000,000 on the ABC version. Two contestants won more than $1,000,000 during a period in which the top prize grew by $10,000 on each episode until the top prize was won. A tenth contestant, Robert Essig, won $1,000,000 after answering the twelfth question during the original Super Millionaire series of episodes, but did not reach the final question for $10,000,000.

  • John Carpenter (November 19, 1999)
  • Dan Blonsky (January 18, 2000)
  • Joe Trela (March 23, 2000)
  • Bob House (June 13, 2000)
  • Kim Hunt (July 6, 2000)
  • David Goodman (July 11, 2000)
  • Kevin Olmstead (April 10, 2001; $2.18 million jackpot)[51]
  • Bernie Cullen (April 15, 2001)
  • Ed Toutant (September 7, 2001; $1.86 million jackpot)[52]
  • Robert Essig (February 23, 2004; answered 12 questions correctly on Super Millionaire)


Two contestants on the syndicated version have correctly answered all 15 questions and won the top prize of $1,000,000. During the Million Dollar Tournament of 10, Sam Murray, who had previously supplied correct responses for eleven questions, risked his winnings on a special $1,000,000 question.[53]

Special editions

Various special editions and tournaments have been conducted which feature celebrities playing the game and donating winnings to charities of their choice. During celebrity editions, contestants were allowed to receive help from their fellow players during the first ten questions. Among those individuals who competed in celebrity events on the original ABC version were Sean "Diddy" Combs, David Duchovny, Lance Bass, Ray Romano, Martin Short, Dana Carvey, Queen Latifah, Emeril Lagasse, Tyra Banks, and Ben Stiller; the most successful celebrity contestants were Drew Carey, Rosie O'Donnell, and Norm MacDonald, all of whom won $500,000 for their respective charities.[45]

There have also been special weeks featuring two or three family members or couples competing as a team, a "Champions Edition" where former big winners returned and split their winnings with their favorite charities, a "Zero Dollar Winner Edition" featuring contestants who previously missed one of the first-tier questions and left with nothing, and a "Tax-Free Edition" in which H&R Block calculated the taxes of winnings to allow contestants to earn stated winnings after taxes, and various theme weeks featuring college students, teachers, brides-to-be, etc. as contestants. Additionally, the syndicated version once featured an annual "Walk In & Win Week" with contestants who were randomly selected from the audience without having to take the audition test.

Special weeks have also included shows featuring questions concerning specific topics, such as professional football, celebrity gossip, movies, and pop culture. During a week of episodes in November 2007, to celebrate the 1,000th episode of the syndicated Millionaire, all contestants that week started with $1,000 so that they could not leave empty-handed, and only had to answer ten questions to win $1,000,000. During that week, twenty home viewers per day also won $1,000 each.

Progressive jackpot

By January 2001, no contestant had won $1 million in the 71 shows that aired over a period of five months. The top prize was then changed from a flat $1 million to an accumulating jackpot that increased by $10,000 for each episode the top prize was not won. $710,000 was initially added to the jackpot for the previous 71 shows that produced no millionaire.

On April 10, 2001, Kevin Olmstead answered the final question correctly and won $2.18 million, making him the biggest winner in television history at the time. The top prize for answering the final question correctly returned to $1 million following Olmstead's win and has remained unchanged since. After Ed Toutant's initial appearance, in which he answered a $16,000 question containing an error, he was invited back for a second attempt to answer all 15 questions for $1.86 million, the jackpot at the time of his original appearance. Toutant completed the task and won the jackpot; his episode aired September 7, 2001.

Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire

In 2004, Philbin returned to host 12 episodes of a spin-off program titled Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire in which contestants could potentially win $10,000,000. ABC aired five episodes of this spin-off during the week of February 22, 2004, and an additional seven episodes later that year in May.

As usual, the contestants were to answer a series of 15 multiple choice questions of increasing difficulty, but the dollar values were substantially increased. The payout structure of Super Millionaire was as follows:

Question number Question value
1 $1,000
2 $2,000
3 $3,000
4 $4,000
5 $5,000
6 $10,000
7 $20,000
8 $30,000
9 $50,000
10 $100,000
11 $500,000
12 $1,000,000
13 $2,500,000
14 $5,000,000
15 $10,000,000

Contestants were given the standard three lifelines in place at the time (50/50, Ask the Audience, and Phone-a-Friend) at the beginning of the game. However, after correctly answering the $100,000 question, the contestant earned two additional lifelines: Three Wise Men and Double Dip. The Three Wise Men lifeline involved a panel of three experts, one of whom was always a former Millionaire contestant and at least one of whom was female. When this lifeline was used, the contestant and panel had 30 seconds to discuss the question and choices before the audio and video feeds were dropped.

In September 2008, four and one-quarter years after Super Millionaire ended, the Double Dip lifeline replaced 50/50 as part of a new format introduced on the syndicated version.[55] In addition, Switch the Question was also eliminated from the show and replaced with Ask the Expert, a modification of Super Millionaire's Three Wise Men lifeline that used one expert instead of three.

Super Millionaire produced only one million dollar winner, Robert "Bob-O" Essig, in February 2004. He answered 12 questions to win $1,000,000, but left the game before reaching the $10,000,000 top prize.

10th Anniversary Celebration

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Millionaire's U.S. debut, the show returned to ABC primetime for an eleven-night event hosted by Philbin, which aired from August 9–23, 2009.[56] The Academy Award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire and the 2008 economic crisis helped boost interest of renewal of the game show.[45]

The episodes featured game play based on the previous rule set of the syndicated version (including the rule changes implemented in season seven) but used the Fastest Finger round to select contestants. Various celebrity guests (among them Lauren Conrad, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Patricia Heaton, and Shawn Johnson) also made special guest appearances at the end of every episode; each guest would play one question for a chance at $50,000 for a charity of their choice, being allowed to use any one of the four lifelines in place at the time (Phone-a-Friend, Ask the Audience, Double Dip, and Ask the Expert), but would still earn a minimum of $25,000 for the charity if they answered the question incorrectly.[56]

The finale of the tenth anniversary special, which aired on August 23, 2009, featured Ken Basin, an entertainment lawyer, Harvard Law graduate, and former Jeopardy! contestant, who went on to become the first contestant to play a $1,000,000 question in the "clock format" era. With a time of 4:39 (45 seconds + 3:54 banked time), Basin was given a question involving President Lyndon Baines Johnson's fondness for Fresca. Using his one remaining lifeline, Basin asked the audience, which supported his own hunch of Yoo-hoo rather than the correct answer. He decided to answer the question and lost $475,000, becoming the first contestant in the U.S. version to answer a $1,000,000 question incorrectly. After this, the million dollar question would not be played again on a standard episode until September 25, 2013, when Josina Reaves became the second U.S. Millionaire contestant to incorrectly answer her $1,000,000 question.

The day after the finale’s broadcast, Basin posted an entry in his blog about his experience in the show, including why he went for Yoo-hoo. He explains that he remembers seeing a photo of Johnson meeting The Beatles and drinking from a bottle of Yoo-hoo, a photo which he has not been able to find since.[57]

Other than Basin, the largest winner from this series was Nik Bonaddio, who took home $100,000 in the fourth episode. Bonaddio used the money to start numberFire, a sports analytics company.

Million Dollar Tournament of Ten

Although the syndicated Millionaire had produced two millionaires in Kevin Smith and Nancy Christy in its first season, Christy's May 2003 win had stood as the last when the program began its eighth season in fall of 2009. Deciding that six-plus years had been too long since someone had won the top prize, the producers decided to conduct a tournament to find a third million dollar winner.[58] For the first nine weeks of the 2009–10 season, each episode saw contestants attempt to qualify for what was referred to as the Tournament of Ten. Contestants were seeded based on how much money they had won, with the biggest winner ranked first and the lowest ranked tenth. Ties were broken based on how much time a contestant had banked when they had walked away from the game. If two contestants banked the same amount of time, the next tiebreaker was how long it took a contestant to answer the question.

On November 9, 2009, the Tournament of Ten kicked off. The qualifiers and their seeds were as follows:

  • Jehan Shamsid-Dean, #1 seed (won $250,000)
  • Keilani Goggins, #2 seed (won $100,000)
  • Jeff Birt, #3 seed (won $100,000)
  • Matt Schultz, #4 seed (won $100,000)
  • Tim Janus, #5 seed (won $100,000)
  • Ralph Cambeis, #6 seed (won $50,000)
  • Robin Schwartz, #7 seed (won $50,000)
  • Sam Murray, #8 seed (won $50,000)
  • Tony Westmoreland, #9 seed (won $50,000)
  • Alex Ortiz, #10 seed (won $50,000)[59]

Playing in order from lowest to highest seed, the tournament contestants played one at a time at the end of the next ten episodes. The players would face a $1 million question without any lifelines, and as in normal play would have their winnings reduced to $25,000 if they chose to answer the question and did so incorrectly. The million dollar question was played in the same manner as it would be if someone had reached it in regular play: the contestants would receive 45 base seconds, whatever time they had banked before walking away was added to that, and they had to make a decision whether to answer or walk before the clock ran out.

A correct answer put a player at the top of the tournament leaderboard and guaranteed that said player would not lose his/her previous winnings. In order to win the $1 million prize, the player would have to not only answer the question correctly but also have the remaining players either answer incorrectly or fail to attempt their question. If one of the remaining players did answer correctly, that player supplanted the previous player as the tournament leader. At the end of the tournament, on November 20, 2009, the highest remaining seed that had correctly answered their question would be awarded the $1 million top prize.

The first two contestants, Alex Ortiz and Tony Westmoreland, both elected to pass on their questions. On November 11, 2009 Sam Murray, the last player to qualify for the tournament having won his $50,000 prize the week before, was given a question asking approximately how many people throughout history had lived on the planet Earth. Murray decided to answer it and correctly guessed 100 billion, moving him into the tournament lead. For the next two episodes of that week and the five that followed, Murray returned along with the remaining contestants to see if someone would answer their question correctly and take over as tournament leader. When the November 20, 2009 show came around, the only person remaining who could do so was top-seeded Jehan Shamsid-Dean. Her million dollar question asked her to identify what the Blorenge, cited as a rare example of a word that rhymed with orange, was. Although Shamsid-Dean considered taking the risk, believing— correctly, as it turned out— that the Blorenge was a mountain in Wales, she elected to keep her original $250,000 prize. Thus, being the only person to answer a tournament question correctly, Murray became the show's first million-dollar winner in six years.[53]


Since its introduction to the United States, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has been credited with not only single-handedly reviving the game show genre, but also breaking new ground for it.[1] It revolutionized the look and feel of game shows with its unique lighting system, dramatic music cues, and futuristic set. It became one of the highest-rated and most popular game shows in the history of American television, and is credited by some with paving the way for the phenomenon of reality programming.[1] The U.S. Millionaire also made catchphrases out of various lines used on the show; in particular, "Is that your final answer?", asked by Millionaire's hosts whenever a contestant's answer needs to be verified, was popularized by Philbin during his tenure as host.[45]

The original primetime version of the U.S. Millionaire won two Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Game/Audience Participation Show in 2000 and 2001. Philbin was honored with a Daytime Emmy in the category of Outstanding Game Show Host in 2001, while Vieira received one in 2005, and another in 2009.[60] In 2001, TV Guide ranked the U.S. Millionaire #7 on its list of the 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time.[61] In mid 2006, GSN ranked Millionaire #5 on its list of the 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time, and in the winter of 2007, it honored the show on its first, and so far only, Gameshow Hall of Fame special.[1] In 2013, TV Guide ranked it #6 in its list of the 60 greatest game shows of all time.[9]


In 2000, Pressman released three editions of Millionaire including a junior edition. Several video games based on the varying gameplay formats of Millionaire have been released throughout the course of the show's U.S. history.

Between 1999 and 2001, Jellyvision produced five video game adaptations based upon the original primetime series for personal computers and Sony's PlayStation console, all of them featuring Philbin's likeness and voice. The first of these adaptations was published by Disney Interactive, while the later four were published by Buena Vista Interactive which had just been spun off from DI when it reestablished itself in attempts to diversify its portfolio. Of the five games, three featured general trivia questions, one was sports-themed, and another was a "Kids Edition" featuring easier questions.[62]

In 2008, Imagination Games released a DVD version of the show, based on the 2004–08 format and coming complete with Vieira's likeness and voice, as well as a quiz book and a 2009 desktop calendar.

Two Millionaire video games released by Ludia have been offered on the show as prizes to audience contestants. The first, a game for Nintendo's Wii console based on the 2008–10 clock format, was offered on the show during the 2009–10 season, and the second, on Microsoft's Xbox 360, was based on the newer shuffle format and offered on the show during the next season (2010–11).

Ludia has also created a Facebook game based on Millionaire, which debuted on March 21, 2011. This game features an altered version of the shuffle format, condensing the number of questions to twelve—eight in Round 1, and four in Round 2. A player can compete against eight other Millionaire fans in Round 1, and play Round 2 alone if they make it into the top three. There is no "final answer" rule; the player's responses are automatically locked in. Answering a question correctly earns a player the value of that question, multiplied by the number of people who responded incorrectly. Players are allowed to use two of their Facebook friends as Jump the Question lifelines in Round 1, and to use the Ask the Audience lifeline in Round 2 to invite up to 50 such friends of theirs to answer a question for a portion of the prize money of the current question.[63]

Disney Parks attraction

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – Play It! was a former attraction at the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park (when it was known as Disney-MGM Studios) at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida and at Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California.

The game was very similar to the television program that inspired it—when a show started, a "Fastest Finger" question was given, and the audience was asked to put the four answers in order; the person with the fastest time was the first contestant in the Hot Seat for that show. However, the main game had some differences: for example, contestants competed for points rather than dollars, the questions were set to time limits, and the Phone-a-Friend lifeline became Phone a Complete Stranger which would connect the contestant to a Disney cast member outside the attraction's theater who would find a guest to help. After the contestant's game was over, they would be awarded anything from a collectible pin, to clothing, to a Millionaire CD game, to a 3-night Disney Cruise.[64]

Notes and references

External links

  • Official website
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Internet Movie Database
Preceded by
Win Ben Stein's Money
Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game/Audience Participation Show
Succeeded by


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