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'Millionaire's' soaring ratings mean more airings, more Regis

Monday, November 22, 1999

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a tiny room at the Theta Xi fraternity house, three Carnegie Mellon University students fix their gaze on a computer screen rigged to display TV channels.

Regis Philbin is host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," ABC Television's summer hit. (Maria Melin - ABC Television) 

"All right! Shut up! Here we go!" shouts one student.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" host Regis Philbin poses the question:

Which of the following characters is not considered a Pokémon?

A: Jigglypuff

B: Frodo

C: Squirtle

D: Pikachu

The guys groan over what they consider to be a simple question. However, the contestant doesn't know the answer. He opts not to guess and takes his $250,000 in winnings rather than guess at the answer in hopes of doubling his money.

"Nooooooo!!!!" yells one student.

"You idiot!" screams another.

"It's Frodo!" says another. (And he's right.)

The air is thick with condescension, but that's half the fun of watching ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- feeling superior to the TV contestant who didn't get the answer.

It's the prime-time game show that has become a national pastime.

Morning talks around the water cooler the past two weeks have been a rehashing of the triumphs and trials of the previous night's contestants.

"I know that Charley in 'Travels with Charley' was a dog!"

"Queen of Soul? He didn't know the Queen of Soul?"

"It's Grandma Moses! How could he not know that?"

"It's the cultural equivalent of crack cocaine," says Richard Thompson, director of Syracuse's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "You get two minutes of it and you can't stop."

    'Is that your final answer?'

Here's a sampling of questions posed on ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

1. If you churn cream, which of the following dairy products is produced?

A: soup

B: butter

C: Lactaid

D: Cheez Whiz

2. How many spaces are there on a typical tic-tac-toe board?

A: 6

B: 7

C: 8

D: 9

3. Actor Clint Eastwood was once mayor of what seaside California town?

A: Mendocino

B: Santa Cruz

C: Carmel

D: Santa Barbara

4. What state contains the easternmost point in the contiguous U.S.?

A: Florida

B: Maine

C: Massachusetts

D: North Carolina

5. Which of the following states does not contain part of Yellowstone National Park?

A: Wyoming

B: Idaho

C: Utah

D: Montana

6. What impressionist painter's style of dot-like brush strokes was considered scandalous in his time?

A: George Seurat

B: Claude Monet

C: Salvador Dali

D: Edvard Munch

1. B, 2. D, 3. C, 4. B, 5. C, 6. A


"Millionaire" has captivated an average audience of more than 22 million viewers each night since Nov. 7. More than 123 million people -- the equivalent of 47 percent of the U.S. population -- watched some portion of the program during its first eight telecasts alone. "Millionaire" was slated to run for 15 consecutive nights, but it has proved so popular, the network has extended its run three days, through Wednesday.

Almost 115 million people watched the show during its initial two-week run in August.

The show had its first million-dollar winner Friday night. John Carpenter, 31, of Hamden, Conn., won $1 million when he successfully selected Richard Nixon as the U.S. president who appeared on the television comedy-variety show "Laugh-In."

The show now is a solid part of Americana, as is Regis' trademark question to contestants: "Is that your final answer?"

"I put it on, watched it for five minutes and thought, these were the easiest questions I'd ever heard," says CMU computer engineering major Anthony Santaguida, 20. "You feel that you can go on there and become a millionaire."

Nights he doesn't have a ton of studying, his frat-house room is filled with guys watching the game show. It becomes a party. He knew he was addicted when he found himself channel switching from the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game to "Millionaire."

"I like it because of the challenge -- seeing how much pop culture trivia I know," says Beth Pedone, 29, a graphic artist from Swissvale. She watched the show five nights in a row the first week. "It just kind of sucks you in."

Pedone knew she was addicted to the show when she found herself calling her mom long distance in Meadville each night, saying, "Did you hear that question? Can you believe she missed that?"

She even has had to wean herself off playing the on-line version of the game at www.abc.go.com. She loves the show's host, Philbin, whose claim to fame used to be his day job, the day-time talk show "Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee."

"He's funny. He makes mistakes and he's not on a pedestal," Pedone says. "He's not snotty."

That has been the slam on that condescending Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy!" fame.

Potential on-air "Millionaire" contestants had to successfully answer three general-knowledge questions of increasing difficulty via the show's toll-free number. They had only 10 seconds to answer each question. If they passed that hurdle, they join a national pool of people. From that pool people are randomly selected to compete in a phone playoff for a specific air date.

The top 12 time finishers in the phone playoffs (10 finalists and two alternates) are flown to New York with a guest. The finalists appear on the show and compete in a fastest finger round for a chance in the coveted hot seat.

Jim Lokay, a radio-TV major at California University of Pennsylvania, has twice made it through the initial phone round. In his first phone playoff in August, he answered incorrectly. In his second phone playoff, he answered correctly, but not quickly enough to qualify for the show. Late Friday he was waiting to participate in his third phone playoff.

Lokay, a trivia buff who has loved game shows since he was a child, called the show's qualification telephone number twice a day, five days in a row before he even got a chance to take the first phone quiz.

"Anybody who says it's easy to get on should call in and try," says Lokay, 19, of East McKeesport.

Speed matters as much as, if not more than, knowledge for people trying to get on the show and past the on-air fastest finger competition. However, once a contestant is in the hot seat, knowledge and/or luck can lead to victory.

The contestant in the hot seat is asked 15 multiple-choice, general knowledge questions worth increasing amounts of money. Each correct answer takes the contestant one step closer to the $1 million. Contestants can receive assistance by using up to three lifelines. One lifeline allows a player to call a friend for help. One eliminates two of the wrong answers giving the player a 50-50 chance at selecting the correct answer. One allows the player to ask the audience.

"It's only easy in the beginning, but then it becomes more tricky than hard," says Gary Edgerton, co-editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

"Millionaire" is down-to-earth, almost naďve, entertainment.

"Prime-time has gotten so hip, so cynical with all the over-the-top, double entendre, and just gross-out kinds of stuff," says Edgerton, also chairman of Old Dominion University's communications and theatre arts department. "This, in a sense, is nostalgic, and entertainment that hearkens back to a maybe dumber, but cleaner, more wholesome, more basic kind of escapist entertainment."

Thompson believes "Millionaire" is such a success because it has been on for consecutive nights, the show's structure eliminates any lulls and emphasizes the drama and because of the host, Philbin, himself.

"There are very few people in the ironic, snotty, tongue-in-cheek '90s who can pull off this sincere game show," Thompson said. "Regis manages to be the ultimate square, like Wink Martindale, the good old-fashioned game show host and the ultimate hip guy."

People watch the show with the hope of seeing someone make history, but they don't know until they watch whether someone is going to make it to the top. Sure, there are the copycats, such as "Greed" on the Fox Network, but it's not just the idea of "Millionaire" that's successful, it's the execution of the idea, Thompson says.

B.J. Oros, her husband, Jim, and daughter Marianne watch the show each night.

"She's screaming the answer. We argue. 'No, way! That's not the answer. It's that one!' " says Oros, 41, of Manor, Westmoreland County. "The night that we missed it, we taped it and we all watch it together when we tape it."

Oros enjoys the show's fast pace and the questions.

"The beginning ones are easy, but as soon as you hit the $32,000 level you're on pins and needles," she says. "Once I get the question, I'm just on the edge of my seat waiting to see what the next question will be."

Sue Ann Dal Sasso, 41, of Penn Hills, knew she was becoming addicted to "Millionaire" when she started thinking about what she would wear and whom she would call as her Call-A-Friend lifeline. She likes the fast pace and the easy-to-understand rules.

"Even the show's title, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,' well, who doesn't want to be a millionaire?" says Dal Sasso, who passed the initial phone quiz but didn't get the playoff call.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and fans and experts alike doubt "Millionaire" could continue to be a ratings killer if it were on every night into perpetuity, or even if it spawned a daytime incarnation.

"People will eventually get enough of this," Thompson says. "The problem with a game show, especially one like this, is once you're tired of it, there's nothing left for you."

But for those who expect to go through withdrawal after the show ends Wednesday, there's some relief. A "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" CD-ROM, featuring a virtual Regis, is slated to go on sale tomorrow for $19.99.

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