Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a television game show which offers very large cash prizes for correctly answering successive multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty. The format is owned and licensed by the Japanese production company Sony Pictures Television. The maximum cash prize (in the original British version) is one million pounds. Most international versions offer a top prize of one million units of the local currency, though the actual value of the prize varies widely, depending on the currency's exchange rate. In the United States the top cash prizes have been changed to annuities.
The programme originated in the United Kingdom, where it is hosted by Chris Tarrant. It is based on a format devised by David Briggs, who, along with Steve Knight and Mike Whitehill, devised a number of the promotional games for Chris Tarrant's breakfast show on Capital FM radio. The original working title for the show was Cash Mountain.
When it first aired in the UK on September 4, 1998, it was a surprising twist on the game show genre. Only one contestant plays at a time (similar to some radio quizzes), and the emphasis is on suspense rather than speed. There is no time limit to answer questions, and contestants are given the question before they must decide whether to attempt an answer.
The show is named after Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a 1956 song by Cole Porter from the film High Society which emphasised the desirability of love over material possessions: "Who wants to be a millionaire? I don't. ... And I don't 'cause all I want is you."
In 2000, a board game based on the hit television series of the same name was released by Pressman Toy Corp.
In March 2006, Celador announced that it was seeking to sell the worldwide rights to the show, together with the UK programme library, as the first phase of a sell-off of the company's format and production divisions. Dutch company 2waytraffic acquired Millionaire and the rest of Celador's programme library. Two years later, Sony Pictures Entertainment purchased 2waytraffic for £137.5m.
The Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? franchise is the most internationally popular television franchise of all time, having aired in over 100 countries worldwide. As of now no other franchise has ever reached this milestone.
The show is filmed in front of a studio audience who are arranged in circular tiers around a pit in which the action takes place. At the beginning of each show, the host introduces a group of ten contestants (5 in the Taiwanese
version, 6 in the Portuguese
versions and 8 in the Armenian
versions), giving their names and where they are from. Each contestant brings along a friend, lover or relative (not to be confused with the phone-a-friend explained later), who sits in the audience and, if the contestant progresses, is periodically shown on camera looking pleased, excited, nervous etc. The UK show is recorded at the Elstree Studios
This format is not used in the US version since 2002, replaced by a qualifying test contestants take before being named to the programme.
The contestants first have to undergo a preliminary round, called "Fastest Finger First", where they are all given a question and four answers from the host, and are asked to put those four answers into a particular order. (In the very first series of the British version, and until the end of the 2003 season in the Australian version, "Fastest Finger First" required the contestants to answer one multiple choice question correctly as quickly as possible.) The contestant who does this correctly and in the fastest time goes on to sit in the chair (the "hot seat") and play for the maximum possible prize (often a million in the local currency, though this depends on its value).
In the US version, this round was called "Fastest Finger", and was eliminated when the show moved to syndicated distribution in 2002.
Now contestants are required to pass a standard game show qualifying test at contestant auditions (usually 100 questions), and these contestants have passed a more difficult qualifying test than in the UK format.
Once in the hot seat, the contestant is asked increasingly difficult general knowledge questions by the host. Questions are multiple choice: four possible answers are given and the contestant must choose the correct one. On answering the first question correctly, the contestant wins £500 (in the UK – other countries vary the currency but have the same basic format).
Subsequent questions are played for increasingly large sums (roughly doubling at each turn). On the first few questions, some choices often have joke answers. The complete sequence of prizes for the UK version of the programme is as follows:
- £1 million
- £1 million
These prizes are not cumulative; for example, for answering the first three questions correctly the contestant wins £2,000, not £500 + £1,000 + £2,000 = £3,500.
After viewing a question, the contestant can "take the money" (or rather "get the cheque" or "walk away" in some versions) that they have already won, rather than attempting an answer. If the contestant answers a question incorrectly, then they lose all the money they have won, except that the £1,000 and £50,000 prizes are guaranteed: if a player gets a question wrong above these levels, then they drop down only to the previous guaranteed prize. This means that the player can always attempt the £2,000 and £75,000 questions without fear, since they are guaranteed the previous amount even if they get the answer wrong.
The game ends when the contestant answers a question incorrectly, decides not to answer a question, or answers all twelve questions correctly, thus usually letting the host rip the check for £500,000 apart and winning the top prize of £1 million.
On August 13
, it was announced that the UK version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
was changing its format, cutting the number of questions it takes to reach the £1 million jackpot. The prize money started at £500 rather than £100 and there is only 12 questions to replace the former 15. After reaching £1,000, the prize fund increases to £2,000, £5,000, £10,000, £20,000 and £50,000, which is the second "safe haven", previously £32,000. The first set of contestants to face the new rules were comedians Jon Culshaw
and John Thomson
in a charity special, shown on ITV
on 18 August 2007
If at any point the contestant is unsure of the answer to a question, he or she can use one or more "lifelines". After using lifelines, contestants can either answer the question, use another lifeline, or walk away and keep the money (except for the Double Dip lifeline).
- Fifty-Fifty (50/50): The contestant asks the host to have the computer randomly eliminate two of the incorrect answer choices, leaving the contestant with a choice between the correct answer and one incorrect one.
- Originally, in both the UK and U.S. versions, the answers eliminated were not random but were pre-selected as the ones the contestant was least likely to pick. This was not mentioned on the air (for example, U.S. host Regis Philbin would just explain "The computer will now take away two of the wrong answers leaving only one wrong answer and the correct one.") but was revealed in interviews. Today the selection is random (and U.S. host Meredith Vieira always says so). This lifeline will be eliminated in the upcoming seventh season of the U.S. syndicated program.
- Ask the Audience: The contestant asks the studio audience which answer they believe is correct. Members of the studio audience indicate their choices using an audience response system. The results are immediately displayed on the contestant's and host's screens. This is a popular lifeline, known for its near-perfect accuracy. Philbin once said that the audience's answer is statistically 95% of the time correct.
- For some time on the syndicated U.S. version, the question was also asked through AOL Instant Messenger to those who had signed up to answer questions for this lifeline. The contestant saw the studio-audience and AOL responses displayed separately. The AOL tie-in was discontinued beginning with the 2006-2007 season.
- Phone-A-Friend: Contestants may call one of up to five prearranged friends. The contestant must provide the five friends' names and phone numbers in advance. In countries where the show is broadcast live, the friends are alerted when their contestant reaches the hot seat, and are told to keep the phone free and to wait for three rings before answering. The contestant has thirty seconds to read the four choices to the friend, who must select an answer before the time runs out. Phone-a-friends often express their certainty as a percentage (I am 80% sure it's C). In the event that a contestant has a disability which affects his or her ability to use this lifeline without assistance, the contestant will have the option of having the host read the question and answer choices to the friend, and obtain an answer from them. Phone-a-friends may not be called on cellular phones, and individuals participating as phone-a-friends may do so only twice during any given broadcast season of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
During the show's prime time run on ABC, the Phone-A-Friend lifeline was sponsored by the old AT&T, who supposedly connected the phone calls.
In February 2004, the U.S. launched a short-lived spin-off known as Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire. On this particular version, two new lifelines were introduced, but they were only available after a contestant cleared the $100,000 question (the tenth question in this version):
- Three Wise Men: The contestant asks a sequestered panel chosen by the sponsor which answer they believe is correct. The panel, consisting of three people, one being a former million-dollar-winner of the show, has thirty seconds to select an answer but does not need to reach a consensus—each member of the panel may provide a different answer. This lifeline is also used in the Russian version of the show, though it can be used on any of the 15 questions.
- Double Dip: The contestant can give two answers for a question. However, once a contestant elects to use the Double Dip lifeline, the contestant cannot walk away from the question. The contestant must indicate and confirm that he or she intends to use this lifeline before giving a first answer. If the first answer is incorrect, the contestant gives another answer—but if the second answer is also wrong, then the contestant will leave with only $100,000. If the first answer given is correct, the lifeline is still considered to have been used.
In 2004, the syndicated U.S. version introduced another new lifeline:
- Switch the Question: This lifeline becomes available only after the contestant has correctly answered the $25,000 question. If the contestant has not chosen a final answer on the revealed question, this lifeline entitles the contestant to switch out the original question for another question of the same value. Once the contestant elects to use this lifeline, he or she cannot return to the original question, and thus the correct answer is revealed for the record. In addition, any lifelines used by the contestant while attempting to answer the original revealed question prior to the question switch will not be reinstated. This lifeline has also been used in occasional specials of the UK show, but referred to as Flip. It is now used in the American, Spanish, Australian, Arabic, Bulgarian, French, Greek, Israeli, Indonesian, Indian, Italian, Norwegian, Serbian and Turkish versions of the show. The 2008 Portugal version of the show also features this lifeline, but the difficulty level of the second question can be higher or lower than the first one's. In the 2008-2009 season, this lifeline will be eliminated and will be replaced with a new lifeline called Ask the Expert.
In 2008, the syndicated U.S. version eliminated the 50:50 and Switch the Question lifelines and announced plans to bring back the Double Dip (replacing the 50:50) and introduce another new lifeline.
- Ask the Expert: This lifeline will replace "Switch the Question" as the fourth lifeline, and is sponsored by Skype. It is only available to the contestant after they successfully answer the $1,000 question. The contestant is able to consult with an "expert" selected by the sponsor as to what they believe the answer to the question is. It functions similar to the Three Wise Men, but only provides one person for an unspecified amount of time.
As in any quiz show where players can make choices, optimal strategy (beyond simply answering questions correctly) plays a significant part in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
Strategy for the game generally involves two key areas: Lifeline usage and the decision to take the money or continue playing.
In the Fastest Finger First Round, if the player has absolutely no knowledge of the subject, and further thought is unlikely to improve their prospects of getting it right, then the optimal strategy would be to randomly press all four buttons as quickly as possible, thus ensuring that in the unlikely event that they have randomly answered correctly, they will almost certainly have done so in the fastest time.
Where the "Double Dip" lifeline is available, using it immediately after a 50/50 essentially gives the contestant a free shot at the question. The 50/50 eliminates all but two of the choices, and the Double Dip gives two chances to select the correct answer, ensuring a correct answer. The combination of 50/50 and Double Dip was never used on the show, though.
Another example of strategy is on a question where a player is planning to use both a 50/50 and an Ask the Audience. If one uses the 50/50 first, this is much worse than asking the audience first, because in the second case scenario, the guesses will be distributed across four possibilities, rather than two, thus increasing the margin of certainty among those audience members who do know the answer.
From a pure game theory perspective, there are certain situations where a player would have a greater expected value from taking a guess rather than taking the money - e.g. if all lifelines have been used, a 50/50 has been played on the current question, and the contestant has an even money chance of reaching a milestone amount with a correct answer and a free shot at an even greater amount, even if they do not know the answer to that question either.
The game has similarities with the 1950s show The $64,000 Question
. In that show the money won would also double with each question, and if the wrong answer was given all the money was lost. Contestants would win a new car as a consolation prize if they had reached the $8,000 question.
In the 1990s, future Who Wants to be a Millionaire? executive producer Michael Davies attempted to revive Question as The $640,000 Question for ABC, before abandoning that effort in favour of the British hit.
Disputed claims of creation
Since the show launched, several individuals have claimed that they originated the format and that Celador have appropriated their copyright
Sponsored by the Daily Mail, Mike Bull, a Southampton-based journalist, took Celador to the High Court in March 2002 claiming authorship of the Lifelines. Celador settled out of court with a confidentiality clause.
In 2003 Sydney resident John J Leonard also claimed to have originated a format substantially similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (although it had no Lifelines). He has to date been unable to raise the minimum quarter of a million pounds a non-UK resident needs to finance legal action against Celador in the High Court. In an effort to finance his case he published a detailed account of how he created the show.
In 2004, Alan Melville and John Baccini sued Celador over a similar claim. On that occasion Celador reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with both men.
"Is that your final answer?"
The series also used the catchphrase
with "Is that your final answer?" This question derived from a rule requirement that the player must clearly indicate his or her choice before it would be made official (since the nature of the game allowed the player to think aloud about the options before committing to an answer). Many parodies of the game show capitalised on this phrase. (In the game, players could pre-empt the question by themselves stating "final answer" or some variant, and this is common during the early questions of each round; sometimes it is not even enforced during the early questions, although after realizing that some contestants could manage to answer even the first few questions incorrectly, the "final answer" rule is employed throughout the entire show). Another hallmark of the show is the use of dramatic pauses before the host acknowledged whether or not the answer was correct. The pauses tended to become more tense the higher the amount of money on the line. Occasionally, if it is time to go for a commercial break, the host will take the final answer but not announce if it is right until after the break.
The host of the Australian show, Eddie McGuire, popularised the catchphrase "Lock it in?" rather than "Is that your final answer?"
Coughing and cheating scandal
In April, 2003, British Army Major Charles Ingram
, his wife Diana and college lecturer Tecwen Whittock
were convicted of winning £1 million on the UK version of the show by fraudulent means when Ingram was a contestant on the show in September 2001. The allegation was that when host Chris Tarrant asked a question, Whittock, who was part of the audience, would cough in order to guide Ingram to the correct answer. Ingram won the £1 million top prize, but members of the audience raised suspicions over Whittock's coughing and the police were called in to investigate. The programme was not broadcast until after the trial. The defence claimed that Whittock simply suffered from allergies, but all three were found guilty and given suspended sentences. They maintained their innocence.
List of international variants in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Top prize winners
People who lost on the final question
Internet Movie Database pages