Induction #249 - Millionaire's Clock Format
Tick Tock, Tick Tock. The Origin of Millionaire's slow, painful demise.


Syndication (September 2008 - September 2010)

I don't think we've ever seen a show that has had a more agonizing and lackluster limp to the finish line as the current version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire has. Once a massive force for game shows, leading into the game show renaissance of the early 2000s, is now just a hollow corpse of its former self. I could talk about how after Meredith left the show that they decided to chase trends instead of reforming its own identity. Steve's buddy Cedric The Entertainer and Terry Crews were not the answers that the show was looking for. Chris Harrison brought some stability but the damage would have already been done, especially with the move to Caesar's Entertainment Center aka a tent in Caesar's Parking Lot aka the home of WrestleMania 9.  Man isn't there anything that piece of asphalt and concrete can't kill any enjoyment out of.

But all of those are symptoms of the original course of action the show took in order to pop the ratings. The original cause for the show's slow, painful demise was in the invention of a certain format that was made to stop long production times because of people wanting to think out an answer and add more drama to the game. Instead all it did was drop the winnings and chase away more viewers. After years of teasing it and not being able to come up with enough coherent thoughts to write out the script for it, here it is in 2009 Vintage...The Clock Format.

To start the new format, Meredith tells us to listen to the sound of the clock that will be ticking away. She hypes up that the show will be "faster, more exciting and much more nerve wracking than ever before." I guess playing for life changing amounts of money isn't enough tension or drama to get people to tune in anymore. It takes awhile to get to the explanation of the new wrinkle or should I say wrinkles to the game. So much so that from intro, to contestant interview to explanation to first question...takes almost 4 minutes.

Oh, I should talk about the new wrinkles as well. Aside from the graphics changes, which are ok and keep with the old styling of Millionaire, unlike the ones used in this last season, they now have the categories given as well for the questions. I guess this is to give the contestants a bit of an advantage to what's coming up. They also decided to change up the lifelines a bit. First is the discontinuing of 50:50. A staple from the original game to make the question easier gets tossed. In its place is Double Dip from the Super Millionaire days. You get two cracks at the question, but you can't walk away. I'm going to address this later in regards to the clock format. Also introduced after the first five questions is completed is Ask The Expert. It works like Three Wise Men in the Super Millionaire series, but this time it's only one person via Skype. At first glance, it doesn't sound too bad, but it all comes down to the execution.

And it just falls apart. The clock is set for the first 5 being 15 seconds, the second 5 being 30 seconds. I don't mind that part of it. But something goes wrong when we get to the third tier. They only get 45 seconds for those higher end questions with the $1,000,000 being the base 45 + any time unused. It almost becomes impossible to justify going for anything higher than $100,000. Hardly anybody would risk $75,000 to go for $250,000 with 45 seconds on the clock, even if they were supremely confident. Same goes for the next level, even doubly so. With only 45 seconds on the clock, nobody in their right mind would risk $225,000. And nobody did go for it in the syndicated version.

Another big problem is that the time starts when the four answers are revealed. Meredith is still reading the choices while the clock ticks down. It got to the point where in the first couple of questions with the joke answers being said, everyone is still laughing and the clock would tick down to 1 or 2 seconds before the contestant says final answer. It is a very extreme disadvantage to the contestant. I remember the 10th anniversary specials having massive problems with this. This clock took Regis out of his element completely. He liked to have a bit of fun with the contestant on the first few questions and this prevented that, especially with how he delivered the questions. So much so that a couple contestants almost got KOed on the first question.

It got to be so much of a problem that some contestants would interrupt Meredith just to save some time. One contestant used that strategy to good standing. Alan Carver did this a lot during his time in the hot seat and was very unapologetic about it. Despite missing the $100,000 question, he earned his $25,000. Sadly, nobody else would use his strategy to save some time to hopefully use for the big question as effectively as he would. He exposed a lot of flaws in the format just by his lonesome. 

More flaws started to show with the format later on. One contestant named Ed would be caught in a devilish dilemma on his $25,000 question. He would use Double Dip and get one choice wrong. He wanted to walk away but when time ran out Meredith told him he couldn't walk away and would be considered an incorrect answer. He would leave with $1,000. This is what happens when you don't configure everything correctly. If someone uses the Double Dip either stop the clock or reset the clock. It smacked of being really unfair to the contestant.

So after 16 months of the format you'd think some flaws would be addressed or fixed. Well, they were but not with the Clock Format itself. First thing they addressed is that people aren't getting excited enough, so let's bump up the dollar amounts on the lower tiers they thought. While it might sound good, it's lacking up top. The $16,000 question where most people are likely to walk away is now just $15,000. Granted the first safe haven is $5,000, but with the financial crisis that was happening at the time, nobody was risking $10,000 then on a coin flip at times. The next big thing they addressed was Phone-a-Friend. The staple that has been with the show since 1999 was axed. The reason they gave was the use of the internet has hindered the use of the lifeline and made it unfair. That I don't have much of a problem with, but it left a contestant high and dry save for the Ask The Expert where a good chunk of the time they were useless since they were often given a question that was not in their wheelhouse, so it was a waste of time.

Because of sagging ratings, the producers thought they needed more names for the show, so they added a Celebrity Question to the stack being read off by a celebrity. Here is the real start of throwing proverbial crap on the wall to see what would stick. It added absolutely nothing to the show and dragged it down further. So how do you follow that up? Well you get the hottest commodity to hit game shows in a long while.....just not here.

Possibly the reason why the format was finally axed was the week hosted by Steve Harvey. While he proved to be a great host on Family Feud, Millionaire proved that he wasn't cut out for this style of show, especially with the clock format. While he was personable to the contestants and was a great salesman...notably for his book, his ability to pronounce the questions or the answers led to stuff of legends. It ate up the contestants time to answer the questions and it made the show even more of a slog than it was. So much so that the show got the most publicity it had since it was on Primetime on ABC...being parodied by SNL and Kenan Thompson. Check out the video of his time hosting above for more.

The mea culpa for this would reverberate throughout the show at the end of the season. An overhaul of the production staff happened, the set would change, the classic music would be dumped and a new score would be put into place, and a new format would be put into place. That would become the Shuffle Format. It would last until Chris Harrison took over in 2015. The Clock Format would turn out to be the canary in the coal mine as the show was on its last legs. So many gimmicks started with the clock format that it made Millionaire lose the identity that it once had. It took the show 5 years to try to get the format back to it once was, even surviving cancellation because of stations not wanting to pay the licensing fee the show was charging. But by then it was too little, too late. The last couple seasons of the show felt lifeless as hardly anybody even reached six figures. Hopefully the cancellation will allow the show to get rebooted in primetime and become the special event it once was. If shows like The $100,000 Pyramid, Match Game and The Joker's Wild can do this, then Millionaire can.

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