Tempting contestants with lots of zeroes
August 19, 1999
From Bill Tush
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Regis Philbin is moonlighting. Philbin, who hosts a talk show with Kathy Lee Gifford in the daytime, is playing master of ceremonies on the new game show "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" for the next several nights.
The premise of the show is simple. If a contestant keeps answering questions correctly, the amount of money grows up to a million bucks. The contestant can also choose to walk away with a hefty sum. The competition, shown on ABC at 8:30 p.m. ET, is to run for 13 consecutive nights. Its United States premiere on Monday drew almost 10 million viewers, making it the best performance for a summer debut this year.
Nine other countries have similar shows. But to give this one a more American flavor, producers added a space-age set and cast a popular TV personality as host.
So how do you sign up?
"Well, people get on the phone and call our 900 number (900-933-9391, $1.50 for the call) and go through a little battery of tests," Philbin says. "And if they're up in the upper percentile of the people who called in, we'll fly them into New York. Ten different people every night."
The questions are general-interest. But in this high-tech setting, even the simplest question can get tricky. Luckily, contestants can get some help answering questions.
Audience members have key pads, on which they can vote for what they think the real answer should be. The results show up instantaneously on a big screen. Philbin says a contestant can even make a 30-second call to anyone in the country to ask advice.
Asked if he understands all the technical aspects of the show, Philbin says, "No, I really don't. I have no idea."
Hopefully, he's had more luck programming his VCR.
Has anyone ever walked away a millionaire?
In other countries, no one has won the grand prize yet. "I think the most is 500,000 Australian dollars (US $323,700) and Dutch gilders ($239,051)," says Michael Davies, executive producer. "In Britain, somebody went for 500,000 pounds (sterling), which is more than $800,000 -- and got it wrong."
With the big bucks at stake, the show's producers say they're hoping to revive the popularity of game shows in prime time.
"Well, this show I think brings back the excitement and the drama of those quiz shows of the '50s," says producer Vincent Rubino, "but with the best use of all of the technology in television today."
And what if luck runs with the contestants and the millions start flowing in their direction? -- can the producers hold out for all 13 nights?
"God bless insurance," Rubino says. "That's all I can say."
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