Since 1999, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” has been the very definition of the phrase “making millions by giving away millions”, and for good reason. The combination of high pressure, high stakes, and the man vs. machine dynamic of the game made it an event that brought audiences as much as it brought contestants. “Millionaire”, the creation of British screenwriters David Briggs, Steven Knight & Mike Whitehill, was – and still is – not only one of the most rewarding game shows in TV history, it was – and still is – one of the most expensive to produce, from its Thunderdome-esque stage to its staggering prize budget, all of which brought an audience to bear witness on the show that changed game shows and TV in general.
As it entered the 2002 season, however, the things that fueled its rise to prominence from British export to worldwide phenomenon have given way to the economics and constraints of the syndicated game show. No longer is the show being branded on everything from home games to T-shirts. No longer was the show given (semi-)free and open markets on contestants – they were cast in auditions. And no longer did they have the backing that comes with being on a major broadcast network to do so. Even worse for the show’s economics: as the game was being made tougher – the removal of lifelines, the switch to random shuffle, and the scaling back of prize money – the contestants were being made smarter, a troubling scenario if you are not making the millions that you were accustomed to making.
That brings us to this past season. After shooting the majority of its run at ABC’s flagship studios in New York City – on a massive soundstage utilizing state-of-the-art computers & game show electronics – the economics of television forced a change to a smaller stage in Harlem, the former home of BET’s “106 & Park”. After Meredith Vieira’s grueling schedule could not warrant another season, Cedric the Entertainer – who had little experience as a TV host in reality and in character – had to work for less. The incoming host Terry Crews – no stranger to game shows on the big screen (he played the game-show-host president in “Idiocracy”) or the small (he was one of the house regulars on “Battledome”) – does not have the hosting experience to carry a lofty franchise trying to make it back to relevance. But with him – and a move to Connecticut to shoot what will be the show’s 13th syndicated series – comes a cut in the budget to save on cost. The same move was made during the second syndicated season of “Deal or No Deal”. As the game didn’t change, the show was not profitable enough to warrant a third. On the flipside, “Family Feud” changed hosts and coasts, and partly due to tax incentives offered by the state of Georgia and partly due to the affable nature of Steve Harvey’s comedic wit, the show has never been more popular or profitable.
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” made millions by giving away millions, but as the millions coming in become far and few, so too must the millions going out in order for the franchise to remain profitable. It’s a big price to pay for big money in play.