by Steve Bourie Learn more about the author read more »
Yes. It’s true. I was one of the fortunate few to be a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. While the results didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped, it did turn out to be quite an adventure and, in my own little way, I actually became a part of television history. Here’s a rundown on how it all transpired.
As the author of this book on casino gambling I’m always looking for ways to help publicize it and what better way than to get an appearance on a nationally televised game show that is consistently rated as one of the top 10 programs in the country, plus the chance to go home with lots of money? Of course, there was one little problem: there were literally hundreds of thousands of people trying to get on the same show, so the competition was extremely fierce.
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How to pre-qualify
The first step required calling the Millionaire’s toll-free number (800-433-8321) and correctly answering three questions of increasing difficulty. The system is completely automated and it first asks you to punch in your date of birth, followed by the last four digits of your social security number. Next, you’re asked the first question which has four correct answers that need to be placed in correct order. For example, “Put these words in order to get the title of a famous book: 1- Flies; 2 – of; 3 – Lord; 4 – the.” You then have 10 seconds to punch in the correct order on your telephone keypad (3,2,4,1). If you’re wrong a message tells you that you lost and then disconnects you, however, if your answers are correct you get to answer a second question that’s a little more difficult than the first. Once again, if you answer incorrectly you lose but if you answer correctly you get a shot at a third question that’s usually even more difficult than the previous one.
If you answer that third question correctly the system then congratulates you and asks you to choose a taping date from the pool of available dates (usually four or five different days). The message then goes on to tell you that a random drawing would be held among all of the winning contestants who chose the same taping date and that you would be called the next day between noon and 3 p.m. if you were one of the 40 names that was chosen. You then punch in the phone number you want to be called at and the next day you sit by the phone and wait for a call that would usually never come. The reason that call never came, according to the folks at Millionaire, was that they got about “260,000 callers a day” and they estimated that six percent would get all three answers correct. That works out to 15,600 correct callers each day. Unfortunately, if there were only four dates to choose from that meant that 4,400 people were competing for the same date but only 40 would be called back. Thus, the odds were about 110-to-1 to get called back.
I had successfully answered all three questions 19 times before I was lucky enough to get my call back from a live operator who asked me a series of eligibility questions: Do you, or your family members, work for ABC? Do you, or your family members, work for Disney? etc.
Once it’s determined you’ve met the eligibility requirements the operator gives you a different toll-free number to call, along with a personal pin number that’s needed to get access to a new five-question quiz. I got my call on a Friday and was told to call the following Wednesday between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. to take the new quiz.
When I called on the appointed day another automated system gave me a series of five questions similar to the three-question quiz. I was told that if I answered all five correctly I would be put in a random drawing to choose the 10 on-air contestants for the taping date I chose.
Actually, I thought the questions were pretty easy except for one: “using their postal abbreviations, put these states in geographical order starting in the west: 1 – AK, 2 – AR, 3 – ID, 4 – MD.” This was a little tricky if you weren’t familiar with postal codes but, fortunately, I knew them very well and punched in the correct answer: 1 (Alaska), 3 (Idaho), 2 (Arkansas) and 4 (Maryland). This time the automated system allowed you to answer all five questions and didn’t tell you if you were right or wrong. I was fairly confident that I had answered all of the other questions correctly and sure enough, at about 3:40 p.m. I got a call from one of the show’s associate producers to congratulate me – I was going to be on Who Wants to be a Millionaire!
The taping date was just one week away and the first thing she needed to know was, “who’s going with you?“ My wife, who initially was hesitant about going, changed her mind and agreed to go with me. The next day around 1p.m. a travel itinerary was faxed to us and by e-mail I received three pages of interview questions to answer about myself. Additionally, there was a three-page checklist of FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) about being a contestant which lets you know that each contestant on the show is given: round-trip transportation for two to New York, a hotel room for two nights, a chauffeured car to and from the airport, plus $50 per day spending money (total of $150 for the contestant only).
We arrived in New York the following Tuesday at 11 a.m., met our driver at the baggage claim area, and arrived at the Empire Hotel on West 63rd Street (across from Lincoln Center) an hour-and-a-half later. At the registration desk I was given a packet of information which mostly had legal releases requiring my signature.
All contestants stay at the Empire and the Millionaire production staff has its own suite on the top floor. All of the contestants on our show were required to meet in that suite at 6:30 p.m. and to bring along the two sets of clothing we planned to wear on the show. Actually, only one person from our group was going to need that second set of clothing because they would be the only holdover contestant for the next show but we didn’t know ahead of time who that would be.
That evening we met in the suite with a production manager who told us what to expect the next day. We also got to meet our fellow contestants and we had our clothing approved for use on the show (no logos, no solid white shirts, no checkered patterns, etc.). We were also given our $150 in cash, plus a souvenir Millionaire t-shirt imprinted with “contestant” on the back.
The next morning my wife and I trundled down to the hotel lobby at 6:45 a.m. to meet with all of the contestants, plus their companions, for that day’s two-show tapings. Our show was scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m. and the other show would begin taping at 4:30 p.m. The 40 of us boarded two buses for the five-block ride to the ABC Studios building, which coincidentally, is the same building where Live with Regis and Kelly is produced.
After going through a security check at the employee’s entrance (did that mean we were employees now?) we were led to a dressing room on the second floor to drop off our outfits. At the same time they checked all of the ladies purses to make sure no one had any forbidden items. We were told in our meeting the night before not to bring any: newspapers, books, magazines, cell phones, beepers, video games, etc. I guess they were very serious about this because they also told us that we could no longer have contact with anyone other than those in our group, or those who worked on the show. We were also told that if “nature” called we would have to ask for an escort to and from the bathroom.
Next was a visit to the ABC cafeteria for coffee, juice, pastries and fruit, plus a 15-minute personal interview with our associate producer, who reviewed the information we had provided about our background. If we made it into the “Hot Seat” Regis would be using these pieces of information as points of discussion for us. (“So, Steve I understand you write a book about casinos? Why, yes I do, Regis and if I win all of your money I plan to go to Vegas and double it!)
Time for Practice
After breakfast, we headed into the studio for rehearsal. Regis wouldn’t arrive until showtime so it was it was just all of us contestants, plus some production coordinators who: put us in our assigned seats (mine was right behind Regis); showed us how to go up and meet Regis if we won the “fastest finger” question (if you’re on his left side exit on the left side of your seat, if you’re on his right side exit on the right side of your seat but if you’re in the seat on his immediate left or right then just slide directly out of your seat to meet him); let us practice getting in and out of the “hot seat” (you have to jump up and into it); told us which camera to look at when we were being introduced by Regis (“wave if you want!”), and then gave us five “fastest finger” practice questions.
My time on the first two questions was a little under seven seconds and the winners on both had a time of about 4.5 seconds. On the next question I knew the order for the first two choices but not the last two. I had a 50/50 shot but I guessed wrong and no time came up on the screen.
On question four I had the right answers but a technician came up behind me to tell me that I forgot to hit the “OK” button. That was a problem because your answers don’t register in the computer until you hit the “OK” button. Since I didn’t push it the timer maxed out at 20 seconds. On the last question I got it right but, again, the time was slow. The practice questions were very simple (put these boats in order of size, starting with the smallest: tug boat, canoe, cruise ship, sailboat), so I could only wonder how much more difficult it would be during the actual show. As an interesting piece of information we were told that we could take as much time as we wanted to answer the questions and the longest anyone ever took was two hours. It was a lady going for the $1 million question and she wanted to be the first woman to win the top prize. She did try for it but she lost.
Next we went back to wardrobe to change into our outfits and then into makeup where they applied cosmetics to our faces and hands.
Then, it was showtime!
We headed back to the studio but now it was packed with people. An emcee was telling jokes and interacting with the studio audience and we were individually introduced to the audience before taking our seats. Regis came out next, made a few remarks, and then went backstage. He then came up to each contestant to say hello and shake our hands before beginning the actual show.
Regis starts with the holdover contestant from the previous show who misses a $125,000 question and leaves with $32,000. Now it’s our turn.
The first question is about movies. I know “Tootsie” is the oldest and “What Women Want” is the newest but I don’t have a clue as to which of the other two movies was older. I guess wrong and the “fastest finger” winner goes on to win $32,000.
Question two is about geography and I know the answer! I punch in the letters and I’m happy as a lark! Suddenly, it dawns on me that I forgot to push the “OK” button. I hit “OK” but it’s too late because my time comes in at 17 seconds. The winner here goes on to win $16,000 after choosing not to answer a $32,000 question.
Question three is on song titles and I have absolutely no idea what the correct answers are. I guess wrong and it turns out that only one person got it correct. She goes on to win $32,000.
Surprisingly, they have time for a fourth question. The topic is authors and I’m in trouble because I don’t recognize two of the names. I know Stephen Crane is the oldest so I guess on the order of the other three. Wrong again! This time it’s Kevin from Michigan who has the quickest time. Kevin only answers two questions before the horn signals that time has run out and my chance to be a millionaire is down the drain.
We all head out of the studio and back upstairs to change back into our street clothes. As we’re leaving I say good-bye to Kevin and wish him good luck on the next show which will be taped in about two hours. We then all head back outside for the bus ride back to the hotel and to make plans for our remaining day-and-a-half in New York.
So, was I disappointed in the outcome? Of course, but that’s just the way it goes. Normally, if I watch at home I can usually get the “fastest finger” question right three-out-of-four times. Unfortunately, in the studio I was wrong three-out-of-four times. Looking back on it, however, my wife and I did get a free three-day vacation in New York where we got to see a great Broadway musical (Chicago) and we also took the opportunity to see some of the world’s greatest paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oh yes, and one more thing. It turns out that Kevin went on to win $2,180,000 – the largest amount of money ever won on a game show in the history of television!