Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Top 5 "Millionaire" Knockoffs

On August 16, 1999, the U.K. hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire premiered in the United States on ABC.  Regis Philbin started as the host of this series from its debut date until 2002. When the show switched to syndicated television in 2002, Meredith Vieira took over as the host of Millionaire.  During the show’s first year of broadcast, Millionaire was ranked as the most watched show on television at the time. Originally airing three to four nights a week on ABC, Millionaire consistently drew in almost 30 million viewers a day.  Almost immediately, FOX, NBC, and CBS caught the “Millionaire” fever and wanted a piece of the staggering ratings that the hit ABC show was getting by creating million-dollar shows of their own.  This week, I have decided to countdown the top five game shows that ripped-off ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  So, let’s begin the countdown!

#5- It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime

We begin this week’s countdown with a game show that I’m sure that almost no one remembers or vaguely remembers called It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime. This show debuted June 5, 2000 on FOX with Gordon Elliot as the host. This show was based on the 1999 Australian game show The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime (not to be confused with the syndicated American 1986 game show of the same name), and was FOX’s second answer to ABC’s Millionaire, shortly before Greed was cancelled the following month.  Here’s how the game was played:

One contestant had a chance to win up to almost $1.3 million by answering a total of ten questions correctly. Each question was taken from one of the ten categories which were Pop Culture, Famous Events, Movies, Famous Places, TV, Pop Music, Toys & Games, People, In the News, and the Animal Kingdom.  The first question was named the “Credit Card Question”.  If the contestant answered the question correctly, their credit card debt was eliminated, up to $10,000 in debt.  The bill containing the credit card debt information was brought onstage by the contestant and shredded, only if the contestant answered the question correctly.  The second question was worth $5,000, and if the contestant answered the question correctly they advanced to face the other eight questions. Before answering each question, the contestant had to bet a minimum of half their winnings at that point. For example, if a contestant answered the second question correctly for $5,000, the player had to bet at $2,500 on their next question. The contestant had two minutes to give the correct response (since the questions were not multiple-choice as on Millionaire) and to lock in their “final” answer by pressing a button which “locked-in” their response.  However, if they answered any of the ten questions wrong, the contestant’s wager was deducted from their winnings and the game ended. The contestant could also use three “lifelines” to help them progress through the game.

-    “Second Chances”: The first two lifelines were called “second chances”; the first one enabled the contestant to switch the question for one in a category of their choice, while the second one enabled them to turn their question into a multiple-choice question with three possible answers.
-    “Last Chance”: This lifeline enabled the contestant to reuse any of the “second chance” lifelines once in one of the last three questions.

After every correct answer, the contestant had the option to walk away with whatever they won up to that point. Answering all nine questions correctly and betting everything on each question won the contestant a maximum of $1,280,000.  The show’s largest winner was Dr. Tim Hsieh, with his winnings totaling $1,042,309, with $2,309 from the “credit card” question. 

I apologize for not having any screenshots or video footage from It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime as I could not find any.  The only time I have ever seen an episode of this show was about three years ago on YouTube before it was taken down. I have never even heard about this show until that day when I watched it online.  From what I can remember, the show was kind of boring to watch. I remember myself constantly fast-forwarding through most of the show, especially through the part s when the contestant was thinking about the answer to each question.  It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime was like Millionaire meets Las Vegas gambling with a hint of the 1996 game show Debt. Needless to say, this show only lasted for a week from June 5 until June 10, 2000. Even though the show changed Millionaire’s format by reducing the money tree down ten questions, removing the four possible answers for each question and increasing the possible grand prize, this show was no match for Millionaire. To my knowledge, no reruns of It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime have been shown since its cancellation. This show was by far the worst rip-off of Millionaire I have ever seen

#4- Winning Lines

A wide shot of the Winning Lines stage
Coming in at number four on this week’s list of five is another short-lived game show called Winning Lines. This “game of numbers” show was based on the British game show of the same name, which lasted from 1999 to 2004. Winning Lines was CBS’s answer to Millionaire premiering on January 8, 2000 and was game show legend Dick Clark. Interestingly enough, this show ran under a half-hour format as opposed to an hour-long show, like every primetime show was doing at the time.  The game was played in three rounds: the qualifying round, “Sudden Death”, and the Wonderwall bonus round.

A total of 49 contestants played in the opening qualifying round. The host would read a total of six mathematical questions with a numerical answer for each question.  Each contestant had five seconds to enter in their answers on their keypads.  The six contestants who answered the questions correctly in the fastest time moved on to the next rounds while the other 43 contestants were eliminated from the game.  The second round was called “Sudden Death”.  The six contestants who advanced to this round kept the number they were assigned to in round one. Once again, the host would ask mathematical questions that had a numerical answer, specifically one of the six numbers the contestants were assigned to.  If a contestant buzzed-in with the correct numerical answers, the owner of that number was eliminated.  For example, if the answer was 47, the contestant who was assigned the number 47 was eliminated.  However, if a contestant gave an incorrect answer, they were eliminated. The one contestant who survived the round won $2,500 and a chance to play the Wonderwall bonus game.  The other five contestants were given $1,000 as a consolation prize.

A qualifying round question
The Wonderwall bonus round, also known as “the most intense/exciting three minutes in television”, was interesting to watch. The solo contestant was now shown a total of 49 answers on three projection screens.  The contestant had three minutes to answer as many questions correctly as possible. Before the clock started, the player had fifteen seconds to familiarize themselves with the answers on the Wonderwall.   A correct answer won the contestant money while an incorrect answer or not answering a question within the fifteen-second time limit earned the player a strike.  Three strikes ended the round and the contestant lost everything except for the $2,500 they won in the “Sudden Death” round.  If the player answered 20 questions correctly, they won $1,000,000. On a quick side note, on the British version, the grand prize was a two-week trip around the world. During the bonus game, the contestant was offered five “lifelines” (no surprise there) to help them through the game.  The first two lifelines were called “pit stops”, which enabled the contestant to stop the clock and review the board for fifteen seconds. The second two lifelines enabled the contestant to pass on two questions and the final lifeline was the “Bail Out”. This enabled the contestant to walk away with the money which they won up to that point after getting their second strike or when fifteen seconds were left in the round. Here’s a video of a $500,000 win by Catherine Rahm in the Wonderwall bonus round.

On a quick side note, Winning Lines previously held the record for the most contestants simultaneously competing against each other before 1 vs. 100 premiered six years later on NBC with a total of 101 contestants. While this show was a success in the U.K. for five years, it had the opposite effect in the U.S. This show was pretty much doomed from the start for several reasons:

-     It was already competing against the incredible success of ABC’s Millionaire, which made it difficult for CBS to get the proper ratings for Winning Lines
-     The show had multiple airings on Saturday evenings, which is never a good idea
-     The only segment where we would see a contestant playing for $1,000,000 was during the last six minutes of the show

A contestant observes a portion of the money tree for the
Wonderwall bonus game
This show would have worked better as an hour-long program, giving at least two contestants to play for the million-dollar cash prize. The only reason why this show would be partially remembered is because of Dick Clark, a well-known television icon, hosting the show. While this was a good idea by CBS to hire Clark as the host, it was not effective enough as the show would be cancelled in ten shows, with the final show airing on February 18, 2000. I believe Winning Lines would have been more successful if it had debuted a year after Millionaire was getting all the praise and acclamation. This challenging game show was interesting to watch and fun to play along. 

#3- Twenty-One
Number three on our countdown of five is a game show that many of you have heard of by now (if you have been reading my articles), Twenty-One.  As you might have known, Twenty-One was the headliner for the 1950s game show scandals.  Five decades later, NBC would revive this once infamous game show into a multi-million dollar production. This show premiered on January 9, 2000 with host Maury Povich. This was NBC's response to Millionaire's incredible success. The rules of the game were very similar to the 1950s version. The object was still to get to the 21 the fastest. A correct answer earned the player the points they were playing for and an incorrect answer earned the player a strike. A player won a game if their opponent earned three strikes, if they stopped the game after the second or fourth question, or if they reached the goal of 21. Here were the changes made to the 2000 revival of Twenty-One:

-      Instead of the player being deducted points for wrong answers, they received strikes.
-     “Second Chance” lifeline: This “lifeline” could only be used once per game and allowed the contestant to receive extra help from a family member or a friend on any question.  If the player answered the question incorrectly after using the lifeline, they earned two strikes instead of one.
-     Tie-Breaker: If a game resulted in a tie, a tie-breaker question was played.  The first contestant to buzz-in with the correct answer won the game.
The first (left) and second (right) money tree formats
used in NBC's 2000 Twenty-One revival
-     Money tree: The contestant’s cash winnings were now no longer based on point deficits, but were now established by how many games the contestant won. The series went through two cash ladder formats (shown below).   The cash amounts the contestant won were cumulative, allowing the contestant to win more than a million dollars. 
-     Perfect 21: The winning contestant had a chance to play the “Perfect 21” bonus game for an extra $210,000 added to their total. The contestant now had to an answer six true/false questions correctly, with the first question worth one point, the second worth two points, and so on. Each point was worth $10,000 and scoring 21 points in this round won the contestant $210,000. The contestant could stop and keep the money after each correct answer, but a wrong answer ended the round with the contestant winning nothing in that round.   
-    The addition of multiple possible answers for questions, ranging from three to five possible answers depending on the difficulty of the question.
-     The studio audience could now vote on who they wanted to play in the next game against the current champion.  
-    The champion could play as long as kept winning (as on the 1950’s version), but if the champion lost a game, a new champion was crowned and the champion kept all of their winnings.
-    After the champion lost their game, their total winnings were presented to them in cash on a silver platter in $100,000 increments, depending on the contestant's winnings (later traded in for a check backstage, which was mailed to the contestant's home address.) 

Maury Povich talking to two contestants preparing to
play their game
I remember watching and enjoying the reruns of this show when it aired on GSN for the short time that it did.  This show was more successful than Winning Lines or It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime by giving away much more money and airing longer than either show.  Twenty-One produced two multi-million dollar winners: Rahim Oberholtzer with $1,120,000 and David Legler with $1,765,000. Shown below is Oberholtzer's $400,000 game.

NBC employed the same tactic used by CBS’s Winning Lines to obtain ratings by hiring a well-known television icon (Maury Povich of Maury) as the host of their show.  Twenty-One took the terms “big bucks” and “high stakes” to a whole new level with each champion possibly winning over a million dollars and more in only a minimum of four games (“Perfect 21” bonus games included), and was a great show and fun to watch, especially with Maury Povich hosting the show and how great of a job he did. This show lasted for five months, from January 9 until May 28, 2000.

#2- Greed
Coming in at number two is “the richest, most dangerous game in America”, Greed.  Greed was the first show to feature a $2 million grand prize. With Chuck Woolery at the hosting helm, this show premiered on November 4, 1999 on FOX and was FOX's first (and best) response to Millionaire. Here's how the game was played:

The terrifying Tower of Greed. F.Y.I: Greed began the
series with a jackpot that started at $2 million and
increased $50,000 for every game it wasn't won
The game started with six contestants playing a qualifying round to determine who would play the game. The host asked a question which required a numerical answer. The five contestants who were the closet to the correct answer moved on the front game. The player who was the closet to the correct answer was named the captain for the "team for Greed". The captain of the team had multiple responsibilities. They could decide whether or not to force the team to walk away with the money after any question, reject any answer on any question and replace it with one of their own, or make any of their teammates give an answer to any of the last three questions.  The selected team now had to climb the "Tower of Greed" by answering eight questions correctly. All the questions were multiple choice questions. The first four questions had one correct answer and four to five possible answers, while the second four questions had four correct answers and six to nine possible answers. Answering all eight questions correctly won $2,000,000 for the remaining players in the game. If an incorrect answer was given at any point in the game, the game ended and team left the game with nothing. Before the $200,000, $500,000 and $1,000,000 question, “The Terminator” was activated. “The Terminator” was a flashing white light which bounced from contestant to contestant until one was selected. The selected contestant had the option to take $10,000, regardless of what happen in the rest of the game, and challenge one of their teammates to a one question showdown or to keep the team the way it is.  The winner of “The Terminator” showdown won claimed their opponent’s share of the total team winnings.  There was also a lifeline in the game the captain could use once at any time after the $100,000 question called a "Freebie".  The "Freebie" eliminated one of the incorrect answers in one of the  final four questions.

An appropriate question for a game show
hosted by Chuck Woolery
Even though this show lasted for only 44 episodes, Greed was a great and exciting show to watch. There were no $2,000,000 winners, but Greed created special shows and segments to give away even more money. In May 2000, Greed transformed into Super Greed with a $4,000,000 cash prize, and in February 2000, the show brought back eight former contestants who came close to winning the grand prize and gave them the chance to answer one $1,000,000 question which had four correct answers out of eight possible answers. Two of the former contestants faced off in a one-question showdown to determine will have their  "Million Dollar Moment". If the contestant answered the million-dollar question correctly, they won $1,000,000 in addition to their previous winnings. One contestant by the name of Curtis Warren was the only millionaire on Greed winning a total of over $1.4 million, combining his previous game winnings and the $1,000,000 he won from his "Million Dollar Moment".

Two contestants in a "Terminator"
Greed proved to be somewhat a formidable opponent for ABC's Millionaire for its challenging and tense gameplay and with the always entertaining and witty Chuck Woolery as the host, but unfortunately was cancelled on July 14, 2000. If it weren't for a certain British-originated show that was so successful when it aired on NBC that it moved to a syndicated series, Greed would be my pick for the number one spot on this list. 

#1- Weakest Link
When you hear the words “You are the Weakest Link. Goodbye”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind: Anne Robinson and the once popular NBC show, Weakest Link. Weakest Link premiered in the U.S. on NBC on April 16, 2001 with British host Anne Robinson, and switched to syndication in 2002 because of its popularity with host comedian George Gray. This show originated in the U.K. on the BBC network (originally titled The Weakest Link) and premiered on August 14, 2000. Here were the rules of the game explained by none other than Anne Robinson, shown in the video below.

After each round was over, the contestants each selected who they thought performed the worst in the round, rather who was the “weakest link”. The contestant who received the most votes was eliminated and left the game with nothing. This would continue for five more rounds until two contestants remained.  Earlier in the series, one final, money building round was played for double the stakes and a possible $250,000 ($25,000 in the syndicated version) added to the game pot. After that round was played, the two contestants then competed in a head-to-head showdown. The host would ask each contestant a maximum of five (three in the syndicated version) questions and the contestant with the most questions right won the game and the game jackpot, while their opponent left with nothing.

Even though Weakest Link did not produce a million-dollar winner, this show was still successful. Airing for three years and a total of 407 episodes, Weakest Link was best remembered for Anne Robinson’s sarcastic, mean-spirited, and deadpan sense of humor. She would often insult the contestants criticizing them on how awful they played the game and sometimes how unintelligent they were at times. This made the show all the more fun to watch, which probably explains why the show was as successful as it was. Since the show’s cancellation in 2003, GSN and PAX have been airing reruns of both the NBC and syndicated versions. From Anne Robinson's cruel, yet humorous remarks to the show's challenging gameplay, Weakest Link combined Millionaire with Survivor and made this show a success, which is why it's number one on this week's countdown of the top five Millionaire knockoffs.

From the dark sets and the ominous music to the multi-million dollar money trees, each of these primetime game shows claimed to be "the richest game show on television".  At one time, almost each so claimed that they had given away the most money to one contestant in television history. But none of these shows could match up to the greatness and overall popularity that was, and still is to this very day, Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Honorable Mentions 
Here is a list of other Millionaire knockoffs that didn't quite make it to the Top 5 list":
- FOX Family's Paranoia, hosted by former Press Your Luck host Peter Tomarken (Live multi-player Millionaire knockoff)
- FOX's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader hosted by Jeff Foxworthy (Elementary school Millionaire knockoff)
- FOX's Don't Forget the Lyrics with host Wayne Brady (Music Millionaire knockoff)
- CBS's Power of 10 with host Drew Carey and an incredible $10,000,000 grand prize (The survey portion of Card Sharks combined with Millionaire knockoff)

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