Top Dollar

Patrick Eyers on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – USA

First published September 2000

The joys of American television – no National Lottery programme on Saturdays, no repeats of Dad’s Army (heresy, sorry) and of course, no Paxman. But hang on, isn’t modern US TV just a pale imitation of the “best TV in the world”? Tuning in and dropping out, as I have been known to do here in Colorado, has caused me to ponder: what the hell is US TV today? Is there life beyond ER and Friends, or is it just one giant advert for Grease Monkey and Rocky’s Autos?

American TV in the early ’00s is a straight split between the giants (NBC, ABC, CBS and newcomer FOX) and the rest (read: small, local, topless knitting). All the classics aired on Channel 4 in the UK have been imported due to their success on “primetime” TV over here (7pm – 11pm weekdays). All the big programmes on the network channels attract advertising – huge amounts of it. This pays for the next season of successes (The X- Files, NYPD Blue, etc.) and the next season of mind-bending crap (Channel 5, tonight). So at the heart of all TV policy over here is the need to draw an audience. Simple? No. If it was simple we’d still be watching M*A*S*H, Taxi and The Rockford Files (and many wish we were actually, but that’s another story). American people have become wiser and smarter (witness Sex in the City – you probably have), insisting on better quality programmes, more highbrow, intellectually challenging fare, but most importantly and prophetically programmes that are modern and look like movies. Computers, lights, noise, irritating heartbeat sounds. How does British TV fit into this? Let’s compare and contrast the versions of that well known (originally British) game show: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.

The US version is the same as – but completely different to – the Tarrant Millionaire. The set and sound effects are identical, the prizes are in dollars but the rules, the lifelines, the camera angles, the mentally challenged audience: they are carbon copies. And so they should be, with Celador heavily involved in the US version. But hang on; this version is not just better, it’s in a different league. Think Blackadder and Blackadder II. Why? Firstly, the host, one Regis Philbin is a national institution here. OK, so is Tarrant in a sickly Tony Gubba sort of way, but Philbin is more your Des Lynam than your “wacky DJ host”. They share traits, indeed Philbin has admitted that many of his mannerisms are copied directly from Tarrant. Yet the two are at opposite sides of the spectrum. You’d buy Regis a beer, but Chris? It’s more a case of waiting for him to whip out the wallet with a buttery smile and a quirky comment to the “barkeep” and then doing your best to get out before someone sees you. They are both masters of sarcasm (some accolade) but Philbin looks like he gives a damn; Tarrant knows we know he doesn’t. We remember Man-O-Man.

Of course, the real stars in Millionaire are the fastest-finger winners (invariably men, as per the British version). It is a well-known fact that your US Member of the General Public was born to be on the telly. And it shows. They dance, whoop and scream when they get to that chair. Moreover – and here’s where they ultimately depart from their British equivalent – they talk openly about that operation and how much they love their wife/dog/automatic, and crucially, they move the audience at home; the good people in their trailer parks and condos. People tune in to watch Millionaire both here and in the UK to see the contestants either win the million or lose a horrendous amount. Those who decide they’ve had “a great day, Regis/Chris, but …” and stick at question six, bore us. Win big or lose big. Nothing else will do. Accordingly, there have been five millionaires in the US and none in the UK (the very idea seems somehow uncomfortable). A comparison of questions from both versions of the show reveals little bias in their relative complexity although those in America are often based around geography or presidents (which are compulsory at school here). Indeed, the first winner of the million, one John Carpenter, attained instant (and deserved) hate status from all non-Americans viewers, when upon receiving the million dollar question (and knowing the answer), he took a lifeline, rang his “Pop” and told him he was about to win a million. How un-British! How American. How entertaining.

Philbin has also developed a wonderful rapport with the studio audience and those of us at home sipping our Dr Peppers and scoffing 18″ pizzas. We have none of this constant cheque waving or false hiccupping that characterises Tarrant working the crowd. If Philbin said, “but we don’t wanna give you that” he would be shot. Simple. Additionally, it’s funny, but the extra advertising within the US show actually makes it all seem rather glitzy and well-funded. On the phone-a-friend lifeline option the man Philbin looks at the camera and asks AT&T to go get Dad/Jim/Pete from college on the phone, and sharpish. And it works. Can you imagine Tarrant hanging on for BT to answer the bloody thing and please, please don’t transfer me to the Lothian call centre?

So, is that it? Is it the ability of Millionaire to just be a good American show (as opposed to a clone of an average British one) that has revitalised America’s Broadcasting Company (home of NYPD, The Practice and Whose Line is it Anyway? – another British export which is incidentally rather good)? The answer is: no. It’s because it’s incredibly well paced (admittedly thanks to the British format), boasts an expert quizmaster whose trademark line: “Let’s do it! Lets play Who Wants to be a Millionaire?!” (to camera with an accusing finger, like Uncle Sam – like Lord Kitchener – in those posters) is a million miles away from the sniggering, shockingly demented British host. It’s because the internet, which is present in a staggering 50% of properties in the US, is integral to the game and can be exploited to play along at home. But most of all it’s because the contestants are people just like us. They appeal to the US audience because they have bad hairstyles, they have worrying “friends” called Bubba and they really get excited when money is involved; the more the better. The success of Millionaire in the UK and the US (and just about everywhere else on Earth) is testament to people’s interest in watching others under pressure. It is also testament to greed, and in the US people are not embarrassed by that. They love it. People in the UK, in general, do not, and that’s perhaps why Tarrant is yet to hand over a cheque for the full-whack.

Perhaps people will just watch anything with bright lights and Des Lynam types; indeed the repeat runs of the first few episodes of the US Millionaire bagged audiences similar to those calculated for the original run. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this programme is its origins and its incredible malleability: it’s a slick British show that has been embraced wholeheartedly by the United States Of America (land of the free by the way, except for most fun things). Yet, they’d hate the English version. Honestly.

Ah, me. If only Jim Bowen hadn’t signed that contract to perform his gerbil worrying routine in Dundee, I’ve got this great idea for a world-wide series called Who Wants to Throw Darts at a Revolving Turntable. We’ll have a pub-league standard darts player and his delightful non-darts playing wife and they have to nail Chris Tarrant in nine darts or less. And we can get an international-class host like darts guru Tony Greene to compère it … Yeah, could probably sell that one to the Americans.