My mother knows that I’m a game show fanatic (as is my 7-year-old son), yet when she suggested over Christmas that we check out the revamped daytime version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, I was skeptical. I watched Millionaire devoutly when it debuted on ABC in the summer of 1999, and I’d checked out the daytime version a few times over the years, but since I held the show responsible for the debasement of the game show format in the ‘00s, I wasn’t sure I was ready to return to regular viewing. Why would I subject myself to the flashy lighting effects, pounding music and interminable delays between questions and answers? “Because there’s a time limit now for each question,” my mom said. And I thought, “Now that I have to see.”
The daytime Millionaire has been my family’s default dinnertime viewing for a couple of months now, and I have to say: My mom was right. The changes in the show make it much less aggravating. As soon as Meredith Viera finishes asking a question, the clock starts. The contestants have 15 seconds to answer the first-tier questions (up to $1,000); 30 seconds for the second-tier (up to $25,000); and 45 seconds for the third-tier. If anyone reaches the million-dollar question, he or she gets 45 seconds plus whatever unused time they’ve accumulated over the previous 14 questions. Gone are the days of contestants laboriously rule out answers before settling on the one that everyone watching at home had guessed five minutes ago; and gone are the drawn-out “Are you right or not?” suspense-building tactics of the host. Millionaire now moves at a zippy pace.
The show has upgraded its lifelines too, though there’s still some room for improvement. “Ask the audience” is still in effect, as is “Phone-a-friend.” The “Ask the expert” lifeline has been revived from the Who Wants To Be A Super Millionaire primetime version of the show (where it was called “Three Wise Men," and featured three choices of experts), and the “50:50” has been replaced by Super Millionaire’s “Double Dip,” which allows the contestant to take two guesses at a single question. I’m not wild about “Ask the expert,” if only because in most of the episodes I’ve seen the “expert” is often some entertainment journalist like Joel Stein (who doesn’t really help the contestant unless the question is about movies, music or TV), or some science wonk like Bill Nye (who doesn’t necessarily know much about politics or media). The best experts I’ve seen have been Quiz Bowl champions, with a broader base of trivia knowledge.
Also, although “Phone-a-friend” is a classic lifeline—now immortalized in the climax of Slumdog Millionaire—it doesn’t really work with the time restrictions. The contestant has 30 seconds to read the question and answers to their chosen friend, by which time, more often than not, time’s almost up. Plus, it’s obvious that the friends are Googling the answer as fast as they can. (On one episode I watched, the friend paused for a long time before answering, and then recited a list of facts related to the correct answer, to back up what he had found on the internet.) Either Millionaire needs to give the contestants a little more time with their friends, or the contestants need to start being more concise and targeted with how they frame the questions. (If your question is, essentially, “Who painted Nighthawks At The Diner?” then there’s no reason to bother with all the padded-out phrasing the Millionaire question-writers use, and no reason to read out the full names of every painter on the multiple choice list.) Really, what I’d like is for the show to stop being coy about the “Phone-a-friend”/Google connection and just introduce a new lifeline called “Google it.” Give the contestants 30 seconds of internet access and see what they come up with. Some questions are hard to Google; others are much easier. It would be interesting to see how the contestants strategize on when and how to use that lifeline.
Finally, though this may seem to contradict what I wrote above, I wouldn’t mind seeing Millionaire give the contestants a little more time to answer. Not a lot more time, but maybe an extra 15 seconds in the second and third tiers. Though it was annoying to watch contestants spend minutes on end second-guessing themselves under the old Millionaire format, part of the drama of the old show was watching someone puzzle something out until their faulty logic or plain ignorance ran them aground. These days, people often waste their lifelines just because they need to call a time out and think an extra quarter-minute. I’d like to see the contestants have just a little longer to think for themselves—especially if that little bit longer causes them to pontificate themselves into a classic blunder. (On one episode I watched, a youngish contestant smiled at the question, “The restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday is named for a song by what classic rock band?” and then rambled, “My parents are in the audience and they’d kill me if I didn’t know this: ‘A. The Beatles.’ Final answer.” She went home with nothing… save for my rueful chuckles echoing in her ears.)
Still, on the whole I’d say that this new take on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is worth getting behind. (My son likes it too, even though he can’t usually answer anything beyond the $1000 question.) Now if only they’d reinstitute the phone-in game and let actual smart people sit in the hot seat again, they’d have my undying gratitude. One step at a time, though. One step at a time.