Television

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Was My Lifeline

The game show changed television—and my life.

Photo collage of Regis Philbin, Meredith Vieira, Chris Harrison, and Terry Crews.
Clockwise from top left: Regis Philbin, Meredith Vieira, Chris Harrison, and Terry Crews.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Disney/ABC.

There’s a decent case that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is the most consequential game show in television history. Though Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! have longevity on their side, and though O.G. quiz programs like Twenty-One conceived the language that 1,000 game shows speak, Millionaire changed the landscape unlike any other televised trivia contest before or since. The show’s glossy aesthetic and superhigh stakes attracted unprecedented audiences—at its peak Millionaire was more popular than Monday Night Football—and ignited a game show arms race.

No Millionaire? No Greed, no Weakest Link, no Deal or No Deal. Jeopardy! likely wouldn’t have ditched the pre–Ken Jennings rule that limited contestants to five consecutive victories. There would have been nothing to inspire Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?—a harbinger of the reality TV boom.

Now, 20 years after the show’s U.S. debut, “no Millionaire” is finally coming to pass. On Friday, Variety broke the news that the syndicated version of Millionaire will be canceled at the end of its current season.

Though million-dollar payouts are now relatively commonplace on reality programs, the top prize really did seem preposterous when the U.S. version of Millionaire debuted in 1999, a year after premiering in the U.K. While other programs settled for giving victorious contestants enough cash to remodel their kitchens and take a moderately nice vacation, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire attempted to make them legitimately wealthy just for correctly answering 15 trivia questions.

Twelve people won the show’s top prize during Millionaire’s U.S. run—and countless others came tantalizingly close. Including me. As Slate readers may recall, I appeared on the show in 2015, making it all the way to the game’s penultimate question, which was worth $500,000. Though I didn’t know the answer, I guessed anyway, and became one of the biggest money-losers in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire history. I lost 90 percent of the $250,000 I had banked up to that point. Even all those years after its heyday, Millionaire promised to viewers and contestants that it could actually change lives. I didn’t end up winning big, yet the show still changed mine.

You may not have known that Millionaire was still on the air. The hourlong primetime version hosted by Regis Philbin was canceled in 2002, replaced by a half-hour syndicated version that, in recent years, had been consigned to time slots that would have otherwise been filled with infomercials. (Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune have the plum syndication slots on lockdown in most markets. By contrast, my episodes of Millionaire aired at, like, 1:30 p.m. and then again around 2 in the morning.) After Philbin, the show cycled through several hosts—Meredith Vieira, Cedric the Entertainer, Terry Crews—before settling on Bachelor host Chris Harrison, who has been Millionaire’s official final-answer-getter since 2015. The syndicated show tinkered with various format updates, like bringing the “Phone a Friend” lifeline in studio and concealing the dollar value of the questions until the contestants answered them. I suspect these changes didn’t do much for the ratings.

At its peak, though, the show truly was a phenomenon—even, for a time, the top-rated show on all of television. At one point, ABC aired Millionaire a staggering five nights per week. While in retrospect this reeks of oversaturation and greed, it made sense at the time, because America had Millionaire fever. Is that your final answer? became a national catchphrase. The show’s primetime production values were copied until they became a cliché. Philbin even wrote an autobiography titled Who Wants to Be Me? (“Regis likes to RANT!” was one Amazon reviewer’s verdict.)

During that magical first season, the show’s contestants became national figures. When Rudy Reber was steered wrong on the show’s $500,000 question by his Phone a Friend lifeline Will Durst—losing $218,000 in the process—the fallout was chronicled with a long feature in the Washington Post. When Robby Roseman and Brian Fodera became the first two primetime contestants to incorrectly answer the game’s very first question—a “gimme” worth $100—they were invited on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and given new cars for their troubles. (The New York Post covered Fodera’s O’Donnell appearance with an article titled “Why This Loser Is Laughing.”) And when a cocky, bespectacled IRS agent named John Carpenter became the first American to beat the game and win $1 million in November 1999, the story made national news. Carpenter appeared on Saturday Night Live, Late Show With David Letterman, and Good Morning America. He even posed for the cover of People.

I vividly remember watching Carpenter’s run alongside dozens of other people in the packed TV lounge of my college dorm. (That’s how big Millionaire was: College freshmen were staying in to watch a game show on a Friday night.) Carpenter was a showman. He saved up all of his lifelines until he reached the million-dollar question, at which point he phoned his father—not to ask for his help, but to inform him that his son was about to become a millionaire. The studio audience—and America—went crazy.

I felt a kinship with Carpenter, for I too was cocky, bespectacled, and wanted to be a millionaire. I spent the next several weeks repeatedly dialing the toll-free contestant hotline to vie for a chance to play. Everyone else in America apparently had the same idea, because my calls rarely got through, and when they did, I struggled to answer the touch-tone trivia questions that would have qualified me for the chance to move on. I eventually abandoned my dreams of game show riches and returned to the normal collegiate pastimes of drinking bad beer and ditching philosophy class.

Terry Crews has his arm around Justin Peters on the set of Millionaire. Behind them, the studio audience and a screen that says "TOTAL WINNINGS $25,000."
The author and Terry Crews.
Heidi Gutman/Disney-ABC Home Entertainment and TV Distribution

When I finally made it onto the show 15 years later, it was a very different production. After the U.S. primetime version of Millionaire had crowned two million-dollar winners within two months, the show’s insurer sued, charging that the producers were making it too easy to win the big prize. Eventually, the questions became more difficult; eventually, the million-dollar payouts tapered off. By the time of my appearance, Millionaire hadn’t awarded its grand prize in many years.

I was well aware of this history going into my taping. I didn’t even bother to study. What was the point? The odds were good that I was going to go out early on some random question that I couldn’t have been expected to know. No one ever wins the million, I told my friends. I’m just going to have some fun on television. And that was my attitude right up until I got on the show and started winning.

To my surprise, most of the questions in my stack were easy, and I was able to reason through the ones that I didn’t know. My educated guesses kept on paying off. I quickly built a rapport with host Terry Crews and the studio audience. Though I was rarely 100 percent confident about any of my answers, I kept pressing my luck because I didn’t expect to win any significant sums anyway. In the short term, the universe rewarded my blithe indifference. In the span of an hour, I banked $250,000—which was and remains a lot of money for me—and was one question away from becoming the first contestant in years to play for the full million.

All that stood in my way was a question about protocol in the British House of Commons. I didn’t know the answer. I didn’t even really have a good hunch. But rather than admit defeat and walk away $250,000 richer, I decided to go for the glory and risk my small fortune on a semi-educated guess. I was too cocky to think straight. No one ever wins the million had quickly become I am destined to win the million. “Let’s make this a game, Terry,” I told Crews as I announced that “B” was my final answer. The actual answer was “D.” My life has never been the same.

As I wrote in Slate at the time, the experience of losing big on Millionaire almost broke me. The shock of the sudden loss—and it was a loss, even though it wasn’t as if the Millionaire producers had deducted $225,000 from my actual bank account—sent me into a depressive state. I had come so close to fulfilling the show’s big promise, and the act of falling short made me feel like I was worse off than if I had never been on the show at all. To this very day I am still occasionally seized with paralyzing regret over my bad choice. Online journalism is not a lucrative field. The Millionaire money I so recklessly risked and lost would have given me real financial stability for the first time in my life. Almost five years later, I still haven’t found it.

But I’ve found a lot else. When my episodes aired in February 2015, I soon started hearing from other failed game show contestants who’d had similar experiences. I got emails from people who had fallen short on Millionaire, on Jeopardy, on Greed. Even Rudy Reber from the first season of Millionaire reached out to console and commiserate. Pre-Millionaire me would have ignored these people. Post­-Millionaire me has embraced them. I’ve met some of my fellow game show losers in person; I play in an online trivia league with others. (In a recent season of the league, I faced off against both another guy who blew the $500,000 question and a guy who blew the million-dollar question.) I still get emails from people telling me that watching and reading about my bad game show experience has helped them process theirs. I’m happy and honored to help.

There is something liberating in reaching for something meaningful even if you aren’t sure you’ll get it. I guessed on the $500,000 question because that was the only way that I would ever get to the million-dollar question. That decision took guts and stupidity. But mostly guts! And once I realized I’ve got guts, I decided to reorder my life around them. Since Millionaire, I’ve done scores of things that I had always wanted to do but never took the leap to pursue. I’ve toured the country dozens of times with my comedy duo. I’ve founded a theater in New York and produced a series of comedy festivals. I’ve walked away from job opportunities that would have made me unhappy; I’ve pursued satisfying projects even though the financial rewards were slim. This may be the path prescribed by countless self-help books; it just so happens that Millionaire was mine.

The simple lesson that Millionaire taught me is that if you want to change your life—either by winning a lot of money on television or by some more prosaic means—at some point you are going to have to take a risk. Unless you are John Carpenter, you will eventually have to step into the unknown, bet on yourself, and hope that you are making the right decision. The dramatization of this decision-making process, as much as anything else, is what drew audiences to Millionaire 20 years ago. By dramatically upping the stakes of every previous game show and forcing contestants to make honest-to-God life-changing decisions in real time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire put this process on display for millions of Americans—and it made for great television.

Well, for a while. Eventually, Americans tired of watching their fellow citizens become millionaires—in part because they stopped actually becoming millionaires, and in part because so many other shows started offering similarly lavish prize payouts. By the end of its run, I hardly knew anyone who still watched the show. It had calcified into a relic, a nostalgia object rather than a relevant cultural touchstone. Even as Jeopardy! thrives in syndication, Millionaire withered.

And now Millionaire is over—at least until someone reboots it. I feel confident predicting the show will come back in some form. Most people on earth know what Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is, a testament not just to the creators’ international licensing talents, but to the show’s thematic universality. Everyone wants a shot at a life they don’t have. Everyone loves the great American shortcut. And everyone wants to be stone-cold sure they know that final answer.