Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

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Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

On August 16, 1999, America was introduced to the latest game-show (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) sensation when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? made its debut on the ABC network. The show was already a hit in Great

Britain. Now, with a new American host, Regis Philbin (1933–), it became a blockbuster on the American side of the Atlantic as well. The light-hearted multiple-choice quiz program is widely credited with reviving the game-show genre (category).

Millionaire's creator was Michael P. Davies, a veteran British TV producer. The basis of the show was simple: contestants, who were selected by a telephone screening process, had to answer a series of increasingly difficult multiple-choice trivia questions, with an ever-increasing cash prize attached. To help contestants along, a variety of "lifelines" were provided, including the ability to phone a friend or to poll the live audience for answer suggestions. Its eerie space-age set and dramatic music distinguished the show from other game shows.

When Millionaire earned big ratings in Britain, Davies decided to try adapting it for American audiences. Selected as host, after an intensive search, was morning talk-show host Regis Philbin. The friendly Philbin brought a mischievous flavor to the program with his New York accent and strange vocal rhythms, most notably his curious decision to emphasize the wrong word when saying the title question (he pronounced it "Who wants to be a millionaire"). A natural showman, Philbin soon developed his own signature lines when interacting with contestants. His oft-repeated question "Is that your final answer?" (later shortened to an abrupt "Final?") quickly began appearing on T-shirts (see entry under 1910s—Fashion in volume 1) and other merchandise. The question soon entered the list of classic TV catchphrases.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'s popularity grew by strong word of mouth and was soon attracting huge audiences. At one point during the summer of 1999, it was airing six nights a week. Even after the initial appeal died down, the show remained a solid ratings winner for ABC over the next several years. Its success inspired a revival of prime-time game shows. Some, like the British import The Weakest Link, proved fruitful, while others, like the imitative Greed, did not.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

For More Information

Fisher, David. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. New York: Hyperion, 2000. Philbin, Regis. Who Wants to Be Me? New York: Hyperion, 2000.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?http://abc.abcnews.go.com/primetime/millionaire/millionaire_home.html (accessed April 9, 2002).