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Burning Questions

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After watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, did you find yourself brimming with a bunch of head scratchers of your own? No need to phone a friend. Below, EW answers all of your nitty-gritty queries about this intriguing quiz show.

How can I become a contestant on the show?

You can start by picking up the phone and playing a three-question qualifying game (the toll-free number will be announced Nov. 1 on ABC and http://www.abc.com). Millionaire exec producer Michael Davies offers the following pointers on how to gain the inside track: ”I’m not going to tip off exactly how to do it,” he teases, ”but you want to prepare yourself with a pen, paper, and a chart [for] the four possible answers before you make the phone call.”

How do they come up with the questions?

A team of 12 writers and researchers has at its disposal a $300,000 specially stocked library teeming with computers and reference books, ranging from Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence to Eyewitness Handbooks: French Cheeses. Thousands of questions are whipped up and triple-sourced for accuracy before being stored in a database. (Since the infamous ”Lake Michigan” error, a further last-minute check has been added.) ”For every 1,000 questions that are approved, there are only 100 that I will ever consider programming,” says Davies. ”A lot of game shows have 60 questions per half hour; we have 12 to 13 questions per half hour and they sit on the screen for a long time, so they’ve got to hit you where you just go, ‘Oh my God, I should know that, but I have no idea.”’

How can I cram for those big-money questions?

”The people who are really good players have an incredibly wide range of interests,” hints Davies. ”Spend a lot of time in the library, but you also better find some time to watch television. This show is as much EW as it is Discover or literary journals.” And what if someone reaches the hot seat? ”This is sort of like SAT advice,” he continues. ”Take your time. Read the question. Figure out exactly what we’re looking for. Run through the answers very carefully. And go with your original instincts. Often the multiple choice tends to confuse people, when usually they’d instantly know what we’re looking for.”

C’mon, doesn’t Regis know all the answers?

Nope. After someone wins the ”Fastest Finger” competition (in which one of the 10 contestants earns a place in the hot seat by giving the speediest correct answer), Philbin retreats to the computer room, where he reviews the pronunciations of all the ensuing questions and multiple answers — but isn’t told the correct responses. Later, when a contestant gives the final answer, a light flashes on Regis’ computer: green means it’s correct, red equals a flub. Why leave Reege in the dark? ”It’s important he’s a neutral force asking them the question at face value,” says Millionaire supervising producer Ann Miller. ”If they thought he knew, they could be reading a lot of stuff into that.”

If someone wins 1,000,000 dollars, how is the money paid out?

Unlike some of those big-time lotteries, Millionaire delivers its dough in one lump sum. But don’t forget about Uncle Sam; after taxes, a mil could be worth roughly $550,000. You’re better off playing in England, where one million pounds equals about $1.6 million — and the Queen doesn’t even take a cut.

Aren’t those early-round questions a little too easy?

“If you stopped and looked at the tapes,” says Miller, “you’ll see how scared these people are. They’ve made it through the phone game, they’ve made it through a play-off game, they’ve made it through the Fastest Finger, and now they’re the person in the chair. They look around. There’s 200 people staring at them. There’s a spotlight and the heartbeat music. And all of a sudden, ‘On the standard vertical traffic light, what color is on the top?’ becomes an Omigod question. The first four questions are set so the person can relax, catch their breath, and acclimate to the situation.” Declares Davies: “I defy all the people who say this show is easy to get in that chair under that amount of pressure and have the ability to get through the whole range of questions.”

Has the audience ever been wrong when contestants ask for help?

Only once in the American version — but it wasn’t really the audience’s fault. The question was, The name of what toy translates into English as play well? “The contestant went to the audience and said, ‘I think it’s either Atari or yo-yo,'” recalls Davies. “He actually ruled out the correct answer, which was Lego. But still, 12 percent of the audience voted for Lego.”

Do contestants have a time limit in which to answer questions?

“They can take the whole show,” maintains Davies, “but we have beautiful editing. The longest we’ve gone is somebody took about 12 or 13 minutes on one question, and we edited it down to about 6.”

How different is the U.S. version from the British?

Aside from Yankee Reege in the host slot, it’s virtually a carbon copy, mate. “The most striking difference is that their show is longer than ours because they don’t have as many commercial breaks,” says Davies. “The host [Chris Tarrant] spends a little more time messing with the contestants and trying to force them to change their minds. I think there’d be outrage in this country if we did that.”

How does this ‘phone a friend’ thing work?

When contestants arrive at the studio, they give the producers the numbers of five friends in the United States, and during the day, the producers contact the phone friends to make sure they’ll be available during the show. When a contestant reaches the hot seat, a producer calls that person’s five phone friends and tells them to stand by.

Can the phone friend ‘cheat’ by gathering a bunch of experts or using reference material?

Theoretically, yes. “If you have 15 people in the room and someone shouts out the answer, technically we don’t have that as a rule, so that’s not cheating,” says Miller. “But I don’t believe there is a way for someone to have the right reference book in front of them or to get to a website. The 30-second limit [begins when] Regis turns the phone over to the contestant, and in that time, the question has to be read [along] with the answer choices. There really isn’t time to cheat.”

Where does Regis get those way-cool suits?

Philbin is fitted at Beau Brummel in Manhattan, where he’s been shopping for years. Although the show buys the suits at cost, you should expect to pay anywhere between $800 and $1,600.

Do contestants get consolation gifts?

Yes — but they’re nothing to write home about: Everyone receives a gift bag containing AT&T phone cards, McDonald’s vouchers, ABC/Disney merchandise, and — hold on to your chairs — an official Millionaire T-shirt. ”We thought about making bigger consolation prizes,” says Davies, ”but ultimately these people are still eligible to come back again if they didn’t make it to the hot seat. And they’ve already been flown to New York [where the show tapes] with a guest. So it’s still a pretty good deal.”

Are contestants instructed to chitchat with Regis?

”What I say to them is they can sit there and be totally silent,” says Davies, ”but sometimes it’ll make them feel better if they talk it through and get into a conversation with Regis. Yes, that makes better television, but they don’t have to.”

Why are female and minority contestants so scarce?

The producers are boggled by that one too. ”The two things I am most unhappy about on the program are how few women and how few minorities we have on,” says Davies. ”But I love the fact that we are a completely blind program. We don’t meet people and pick them for any other reason than the fact they passed the phone test. We don’t just have people who have game-show personalities or degrees in trivia. These are normal people.” Davies says he hopes three recent changes in the initial phone game will help level the playing field: (a) Folks are now limited to two calls; (b) the speed requirement has been loosened up; and (c) all calls will be completely toll-free.

How do you select the all-important million-dollar question?

After the writers assign degrees of difficulty to the questions, Davies makes the final call on which stumper is taxing enough to be the ultimate brain buster. ”At $32,000, you’re thinking, ‘I should know this,”’ he says. ”At $1 million, you’re thinking either ‘One of my phone friends knows this’ or ‘Oh my god, if I had selected Bill to be my phone friend, he would have known this.”

And finally…why isn’t there a question mark at the end of the show’s title?

”I really never saw the need for it,” says Davies. ”Graphically speaking, it looks horrible with a question mark. In Britain, it has a question mark, but I just took it out at some point. It’s sort of rhetorical, do you know what I mean?”

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