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October 6, 2015

Meredith Vieira on the Changes to 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'

by Joel Keller, posted Sep 27th 2010 4:00PM
Melora Hardin and Meredith Vieira during the Celebrity 'Millionaire' weekIf you haven't watched the syndicated version of 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' lately, you might not recognize the show if you've tuned in since the ninth season began earlier this month.

Questions and dollar amounts in the first round are now randomized. And there's also no more Hot Seat. Both the contestant and host Meredith Vieira both stand, either behind or around a 'Deal or No Deal' -style podium. When Vieira first heard about all the potential changes, she felt that they shouldn't fix what wasn't broken. But she quickly came around when she realized how much excitement it brought.

"I realized that I had become complacent, particularly (during) the first five questions," she told me last week. "They were almost tedious. When you get in a game you want to be in the game. It was almost as if you were waiting for the game to begin."
In addition to the randomized questions and dollar amounts, other changes to the game play include the elimination of all the popular lifelines except Ask the Audience, two new Jump the Question lifelines, and a building bank that is at risk for all of the first ten questions.

Vieira and I talked more about the changes, and the current celebrity run of episodes, which should wrap up today in most markets. Winnings from these episodes will go to the Alzheimer's Association.

Before we go into all the changes, can you give me a good story about the Celebrity Week that just passed?
I loved them all. I know Mario (Cantone) from all the times he was on 'The View,' and I also had a relationship with Peter Gallagher, we went to Tufts (University) together, so that was like visiting with old friends. I've obviously met Victor (Garber) before, Melora (Hardin) and Melissa (Rivers), and Evan Lysacek, I was there when he got his gold medal in Vancouver, and Jean Smart I had met through the years as well.

They were all great and they all brought something different to the table because they're different characters. But they were really into it because they had a connection to Alzheimer's, in many cases a family connection, so they were there with a real purpose in mind. They were also there to have fun.

They all seemed more nervous than the regular contestants.

Oh my gosh, they were all very nervous, but I related to that. Melissa pulled me aside and she said she was really freaking out, and I reminded her that well before I was (hosting) 'Millionaire' that I did one of the celebrity weeks with Regis, and it was actually right after 9/11 and it was to raise money for various organizations that were involved, whether it was police or fire, or in my case, [the families of victims from] Windows of the World. In my case, I was physically ill in the green room before I had to go on, so I really appreciate how nervous the are.

And if you're already well known, it's even scarier to make a fool of yourself. You don't want the public to realize that you're stupid, because that's what (the celebrities) really think. And I said there's nothing that has to do with your intelligence in this game. Yeah, if you have some basic knowledge of trivia, it's going to help you. But the stacks are the stacks, and you could get a stack (of questions) that's really made for you or you could get one that has information in the questions you don't really know anything about.

Especially now with the new format. The way the questions are randomized now, I can't imagine there would be any embarrassment about losing early on anymore.
No. I don't think there should be or there is. It's just that people have built it up so much, and they've waited and waited for this opportunity that if you go out early, it's discouraging to say the very least. That's why we say to people to appreciate the fact that this first question could be the hardest and that's why you have the lifelines. And if it's real difficult, you know that the easier ones are going to come, because they're there, you just don't know where they are.

What we're seeing -- and I saw this yesterday in game play -- there was a question that really would have been a low-level question (in the old format), but it was high up in the stack for this person, and they were second-guessing themselves. Because they thought, "Well, is this an easy question or is this a trick question?" And you no longer know. You used to know (during) the first five questions that if they seemed easy, it's because they were. Now you just don't know, and it's interesting to see how that affects game play. It just makes the person a little bit uncomfortable, and you want that. You don't want them freaking out, but you want them on their toes and you want to see the way they try to figure stuff out.

The questions aren't trickier than they were before, though, but the randomization plays on people's psyches a bit?
Exactly. It's a psychological game as well now.

How far in advance of the season did the producers come and tell you about the changes?
A couple of months before. They were in the process of doing things and I knew there was some stuff in the works, but I didn't know the extent of it until a few months before. Then my reaction was "Why? Why are you doing this?" I felt the show worked. People know 'Millionaire;' I was worried about them making changes.

Obviously, when I thought about it, we'd been tweaking the show for quite a few seasons.

Right, like the clock...
Right, and changing a lifeline here or there. So why not try it? I think the consensus amongst the chiefs -- and I am not one of the chiefs -- was that the show was becoming very predictable, and they wanted to shake that up a bit. It's one of the reasons that people came to 'Millionaire' in the first place when it first premiered with Regis, because it was different. It was new and it was exciting.

(The producers) felt it had lost a little bit of that and in an effort to recapture it they felt these changes would help. I held out, I said "Look, I'm going to wait until I see. Let's play a game and let me see how this works." And they brought me up to one of the conference rooms and they played a game -- I just watched, I didn't participate -- and at the end of it, I said "You know what? I actually think this is better."

What made you turn your opinion and think the new format was better?
Because I was excited, and I realized that I had become complacent, particularly (during) the first five questions. They were almost tedious. When you get in a game you want to be in the game. It was almost as if you were waiting for the game to begin.

Upping the values of the first five questions last year didn't really help change the difficulty of them.
No, it didn't, the questions remained the same, that's exactly right.

Do you think that the game now, as it is, is really a different game? From the music, to the fact that there's no Hot Seat anymore... it's all changed.
Yeah, I know exactly what you're saying and I did worry about that, but I don't think that. At its core, it's still the same game. It's still a trivia game, you still have to get all the questions right to get to the million, and I don't think that changing a lifeline here or there or getting rid of the Hot Seat ultimately changes the feel of the game. I still know that it's 'Millionaire' when I watch it.

And I can only judge by audience reaction, and I'm only talking about the live audience here -- I don't check out the blogs or anything; I think I'd go crazy if I started reading that stuff -- but I always ask for feedback from the live audience because I think they're a good sample, and we've had such a positive reaction. A few people have said "Boy, we miss the Hot Seat, and don't you? You have to stand in high heels." They're very protective of me. And I said "Yeah, I should have thought of that a little bit more when I said 'yeah, get rid of the seats'." (chuckles)

Do you think these changes inject some energy into the show, into the audience, and into you? And has that been the best side effect of these changes?
Absolutely. It has been. And I think what it hasn't done is become frenetic, which it could become, and that was something I was worried about, that there'd be a lot of jumping up and down and craziness. Because there's a certain classiness to the show, I think, that I would hate to see sacrificed. And I don't think that has happened.

But I do think that certainly there's a sense that there's more movement to the game, and obviously because you don't know what to expect -- you don't know what to expect in a question, you don't know what to expect in a dollar amount -- there's more suspense. It makes it a lot more fun, not just for the contestant, obviously, but for the audience. They go crazy when (a contestant) is down low in one of those first few questions and you turn it over and it's worth $25,000. They love that.

I think when I first saw it, the podium reminded me of 'Deal or No Deal,' where you see people walking around, and talking to their family and fretting about their decision...
You see a little bit of walking around with our contestants, but more likely they use it to hold on. And what they can't do, which is what you can do in 'Deal or No Deal,' is turn around to their companions and ask "What should I do?" They're not allowed to do that. Once they're in game play, they can't talk to anybody. When they're out of game play, after they get a question right, they can run up to their husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, grandma, whoever it is, and get a hug if they choose to. But game play is still very much focused on them in that spot.

From what I've seen, you're definitely invested in the surprise of seeing how much a question is worth.
Oh, yeah. Because I have no idea, none whatsoever. So it's funny, several times at tapings, I've said "Here's hoping it's the $25,000" and it has been. And I've said, "Maybe I'm a frickin' psychic," because I'm not allowed to know any of that. I mean, the control room knows, they see it, but it's been randomized prior (to the taping); they're not moving the numbers around, the computer has set it up, but they know what the computer has done but I don't.

Do you think this format will yield more higher-value winners? Because so far, I haven't seen too many people reach that upper echelon of 'Classic Millionaire' questions that go from $100,000 to $1 million.
Just keep watching. I think that we'll see some big money winners. But it's still hard, it's still not easy. And it's how you play those lifelines, too.

Speaking of lifelines, there's this new one called Jump the Question; I've seen people jump questions they could have answered. Are people still getting used to this format?
I think that to some extent, they probably are, but they're very very well briefed before they get out there, because we don't want anybody to have any confusion about the game. And if I were to even sense that, we would stop and make sure they understood, because there's no way you're trying to mess someone up in terms of the rules. I haven't seen that happen, because I think (the producers) are very clear. What we get occasionally is when someone says "Skip the Question" [the name of an old lifeline] instead of "Jump the Question." (chuckles) I start saying "Skip the Question," and the producers go to me "why are you doing it now?"

No one's asking for a Phone-a-Friend or anything like that?
No, we haven't had that at all. I wish they had that, but... But I think "Jump the Question" for some, they've used it, like you said, when they probably didn't have to because they're just not 100 percent sure of their answer and they might be a little less inclined to guess now because they want to keep building that bank. They can accumulate a lot of money in that bank if they just get through round one.

That's an underrated change, because you don't come out of that round with just $25,000 anymore, you can come potentially out of it with over $50,000.
More, sixty-some. I haven't added up all the numbers, but it's well over sixty (thousand). Even if you don't get the $100,000 question (right), when you get there, that (first round) money is yours. So you already would have made more than you would have in the old version.

When you went on 'Regis and Kelly,' Regis seemed to have a bit of a reservation about the changes. I mean, he jokes around all the time, but did you have a sense that he was really asking "What are you doing to my baby?"
No, not really. I think it was all in good fun. I think he handed over his baby quite a while ago -- not in the sense that if they wanted to do another primetime version that Reege wouldn't want to do it -- but I think he's been happy with the success of the syndicated version, and that it's remained true to the feel of 'Millionaire' and I don't think we did it any harm, for sure. If he can nudge me a little bit, I think he always will (chuckles).

Do you think this version can work as a nighttime version?
I don't see why it wouldn't. I think this version can fit in well in nighttime as well as daytime. We play at night in certain markets -- we're not at 9:00 at night... but I think the game is the game, and I came to 'Millionaire' because I think it's a great game and I continue to believe that it's a great game that has legs, no matter what time of the day you see it.

Check your local listings to see where 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' airs in your area.

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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If you watched "Who Wants To be A Millionaire" yesterday on ABC-tV, you may have heard the distasteful comment Meredith made about former President Nixon. the question referred to what kind of Music Nixon would have like to perform had he been born at another time. the contestant asked for the audience's help and they were almost evenly split across the board to which Meredith said "kind of like the way Nixon ran the Country" or "kind of what Nixon did to the Country". Very disrespectful and uncalled for in IMO. Is she happy with her Country now?? I'm not!

September 13 2011 at 2:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cassandra Jacobs

I hate this new format. There is no logical progression and challenge for intelligence. The lack of the chairs particularly bothers me. I have suffered from chronic back pain since I was 27 years old. I could not stand there without being in intense pain. I find it discriminatory.

September 28 2010 at 7:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brett Alan

Can anyone explain to me exactly how the bank works once you go on to round 2? On the show today (**SPOILER WARNING IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT**)...Peter Gallagher jumped the $100K question, then didn't know the next question and walked away with the bank. So what would he have had if he had guessed and gotten the question wrong? I was expecting him to guess thinking he had nothing to lose.

What if he had gotten the $100K question and then walked away from the next one? What if he had gotten the $100K question and then given a wrong answer for the next one? I'm confused!

Still not sure how I feel about the changes. I do think one more "help" lifeline (as opposed to the jumps) would be nice, even if you only get it for the second round.

September 27 2010 at 11:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Brett Alan's comment

The second round goes back to the traditional millionaire game. If he answered the 100,000 and got the question wrong he would only get 25,000 not the bank. If he had gotten the 100,000 question right he gets the 100,000 if he goes to the next question and does not answer he only gets the 100,000.

October 02 2010 at 9:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Eek - that new podium has some major wobble action at 1:47 in that video! Someone's gonna need a real lifeline if that things topples over!

September 27 2010 at 6:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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