Back in the 80’s, network game shows were a staple of our television watching experience. The mornings were plum full of zany prize winning fun like Press Your Luck, The Price Is Right, Let’s Make A Deal, and the Whatever Dollar Amount We’re Giving Away This Season Pyramid. The prizes were modest… getting a five figure jackpot was a reason to go bananas. The consolation prizes were cheesy freebies from the sponsors… Rice a Roni, Turtle Wax, Lee Press On Nails. And while they were fun to watch for most of us, the people who sponsors really cater to were not around to actually watch them. This wackiness would never cut it in prime time…
Also going against airing game shows in prime time were the reverberations from the quiz show scandals of the 1950’s, where producers essentially turned the game shows they oversaw into the WWE, pre-ordaining who would win and lose… coaching some contestants to take dives and providing answers for those they wanted to win. For the better part of 40 years, the major TV networks prime time schedule was mostly free of game shows… relegating them to the morning hours when only your grandparents were watching…
However in 1999, four decades since the scandal involving the show Twenty One which had just been rehashed for the current generation in the 1994 movie “Quiz Show”, the fledging ABC network was ready to test the idea of putting a game show in prime time again. The Michael Davies produced game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”, which offered a top prize of one million dollars that could be won on any show, was picked up by the network for a weeklong run in August of that year. The ratings and buzz generated by Millionaire were so off the charts, that ABC brought it back for a second run in November before making it a permanent part of their prime time schedule in January 2000.
What made Millionaire so successful?
Well, host Regis Philbin was certainly a factor. The likeable longtime host of a morning talk show with then co-host Kathy Lee Gifford was the perfect emcee for this big money extravaganza with his ability to get the most out of even the most moribund contestant…
And Regis needed these skills, because one of the other big draws of Millionaire was the fact that literally anyone had a chance to be on the show, and you could try out to be a contestant in your very own home. For the first full year of its life, the only way to become a contestant on the show was to call the Millionaire hotline on designated evenings and play a quick “Fastest Finger” quiz with your phone keypad. Whether you advanced to the next round was first determined by speed of answers, and later just random draw of everyone who answered all three questions correctly. This was seriously a blast to play, and I enjoyed all 37 times I waited by the phone the next afternoon for the call that never came to go on to Round 2. Oh well.
The fact that anyone in America could suddenly find themselves swooped up and brought to New York to play for one million dollars on a prime time stage was a huge draw for Millionaire’s popularity. It also led to a seemingly endless string of, as my internet brethren on my home board like to call them, MAWGS, or Middle Aged White Guys, occupying the show’s Hot Seat. Despite the fact that ratings were still booming for the show in all demographics, the producers were very nervous about the lack of diversity in its contestants, and the perceptions that would draw in an increasingly politically correct culture. Television executives have never been one to believe in the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, so the Millionaire brain trust set the wheels in motion for the show to convert from a phone game try out process to the more common audition method.
Here is an interesting fact that you can make of what you will… of the nine contestants who won Millionaire’s top prize during its original prime time run from 1999-2002, eight of those players got on the show via the phone game. Only one was an audition pick. There is no doubt from anyone who watched the show from its beginning to the bitter end that the game-playing quality of the contestants from the audition phase of Millionaire was nowhere near as high as it was during the show’s phone game phase. The contestants were more livelier and telegenic and of course, diverse, but overall they didn’t know shit from shinola when it came to trivia.
And I can say that without sounding like too much of an asshole, because I WAS one of those audition players. No, that opening picture I put leading off this post is not some clever Photoshop or cheap prop I picked up… it was a souvenir I got from my day as a contestant on the show back on January 31, 2001. I was one of 130 people who were chosen from tryouts held in seven cities back in the Fall of 2000 to fill a block of shows that aired from mid January through early February 2001, which were the first non-gimmick episodes of Millionaire to feature audition-picked players. You can make me out sitting behind Regis awaiting a chance to play during the part of this video that begins at about the 2:30 mark…
And yes, here is a screenshot of my four seconds of fame… the first and almost certainly only actual picture of me you will ever see on this blog….
I have so many stories about my Millionaire experience that I promise to someday share in its own post, but before you all start calling me up for loans or autographs, let’s make it clear right now that I didn’t win a dime. Ten finalists were chosen for each show, and those ten competed in Fastest Finger questions to earn a chance to sit in the Hot Seat. I botched both of my FF questions, and thus, two chances to leave with what almost certainly would have been at least $32,000…
Where were we? Oh yes, ABC seemed intent on killing off its golden goose.. filling Millionaire’s final season of 2001-02 with more celebrity episodes than regular contestant shows, making it inevitable that the show would be cancelled not even three full years after it had captivated the nation. The franchise lives on through the syndicated version of the show that was hosted by Meredith Vieira for 11 seasons, and now Cedric the Entertainer… however so many changes have been made to the game’s format over the last decade that it would be barely recognized as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire by anyone who had been in a coma since 2000.
And so it goes in the entertainment business… you are built up just to be torn down. Millionaire and its host Regis Philbin picked ABC up off the mat and brought the network back to respectability, and not needing the demographically unpleasing, but immensely popular Millionaire anymore, executives quickly ran a stake through its savior’s heart. But we here at The Nest will always be grateful for the few years this masterpiece of simple televised trivia was the talk of the nation, and gave this squirrel an experience he will never forget.
And even more, had there been no Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, there would be no Evil Squirrel, no MBRS, no Buster or Rainbow Donkey, no comic, and even no blog. That’s because I cut my cyberspace teeth on the official ABC message board for Millionaire 13 years ago, and it was there that ES and the gang came to life over the past 5 plus years. So thank you Regis, not only for saving ABC, but for bringing the joy of squirrels, skunks, possums, and rainbow donkeys into the lives of literally hundreds of people out there!
It is interesting where we can end up when we start something and of course it is nowhere
near the end! I love my Rainbow Donkey drink bottle. I would like to drink more water and
hope this will encourage me. Now if I can just stop admiring it and put some water in it…..
YAY!!! They can sometimes be slow with delivering within the country, let alone across the world! I’m glad you got it already and like it!!! Rainbow Donkey, the new spokesman of better health! 🙂
Holy shit, I want a Rainbow Donkey water bottle!!! Do I have to put water in it?
Proud of you putting your pic up…hawt! 😉 I thought that check was real at first…
Hawt? Oh my, I must have put the wrong picture up…. 😉
I wish the check were real, but I’m sure these days ABC’s ass couldn’t cash it…
No, same pic you sent me a while back, and same opinion. 🙂
Must be the stage makeup! 🙂 That shit was nasty….
Oh shut up. 😉
I think it awesome that you even got to audition, it had to be fun! On the one hand, I’m sorry you didn’t become a millionaire, on the the other what would the world be without ES?
Oh and you owe me a coffee, I laughed so hard when I read the caption with the judges pictures I spilled it! 😉
Bwahahaha… payback for Brett!!! 😉 I wonder where the really evil looking emoticon is…?
The fact that I did get to audition was kind of a fluke in itself… which I’ll go into detail about when I finally share the full experience sometime…
If I were a cynic I might believe that the show switched from phone-tested bright sparks to auditioned dumb-asses because the execs no longer wanted to keep paying out the big bucks… if I were a cynic.
That’s always a possibility… though I heard that even in the early days when big money winners were common, the show was far cheaper to produce than a standard television show. Whatever the real reason, there is little doubt in my mind, and certainly not in many of my game show board friends’ minds, that the franchise was intentionally sabotaged despite its raging popularity…
Love the picture! Yes, it IS a shame what they did to Millionaire. Now they can skip questions and all sorts of weird stuff. Do you ever watch Jeopardy? I used to when I was home at the right time. I’d watch it, feel dumb, then watch Wheel of Fortune and feel instantly smarter.
LOL! I used to be pretty good at Jeopardy until I let my mind atrophy the last 10 years or so. I still take Jeopardy’s online test every January, but I don’t think I’ve ever passed it…
When I first saw that check, I thought, Oh, I hope he doesn’t give up the blog now that he’s rich. I wish you all the riches in the world, but you have to promise to keep up the blog. Wouldn’t know what to do without it!
Love the pic! Now I can put a face with the name — a lot less evil and squirrelly than expected. 🙂
I couldn’t give up the blog for anything in the world! I enjoy entertaining my loyal group of squirrel fans! I was much younger in that picture, and I can assure you I am much more squirrelly and evil looking now…. 😉
great pic and love your 4 seconds of fame, revel in every one of them!
Thanks! I do revel in them, and await the other 14 minutes and 56 seconds Mr. Warhol said I am due…. 😉
Hey, good for you! I think I would have totally frozen.
I literally did that on the first put in order question. Actual complete, trance-inducing brain shutdown for about 5-7 seconds when one of the choices wasn’t what I was expecting. I have no idea how I would have been able to handle it had I actually made it front and center in the Hot Seat….
Ah, the memories! Seat #9! If only they had a seat #13 and then you would have been a cinch! WWTBAM has intorduced me to many friends. Forever grateful without ever being on the show!
very cool 🙂 and good picture 🙂