The Surprising, Lasting Legacy of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’

The 15-year-old game show had an enormous impact on pop culture – but not in the way you might think.

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Pop quiz: Which of the following genres owes most of its success to the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

A) Daytime game shows
B) Primetime game shows
C) Primetime reality competition shows
D) Daytime dramas

While you consider the answer – sorry, we’ve got no lifelines for you – a bit of background: Millionaire debuted on ABC 15 years ago this week. At the time, it was heralded as a major comeback for the primetime game show format. Though syndicated game shows continued to enjoy a great deal of success (think Jeopardy! and The Price is Right), the quiz show scandals of the 1950s had effectively stymied all primetime game programming.

Millionaire, while still a gamble, was a relatively safe bet. It was a big success in the UK, where it began. The only bump on the road to success was in getting U.S. audiences to like it, too. They did, to the tune of almost 30 million average viewers for each episode and a season ruling atop the ratings heap. It was such a phenomenon that ABC would broadcast the show multiple nights per week – and similar shows quickly filled rival networks’ schedules. Game shows were triumphant once again.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The form fairly quickly fell out of favor once again, with Millionaire burnt out in three years and other shows not sticking around much longer. Deal or No Deal was a surprise success for NBC in 2005, but it also fizzled. Of these shows, only Millionaire still has a presence on TV today – and in syndication.

But the answer to our article-leading question isn’t A. It isn’t B, either. No, Millionaire’s lasting impact is actually, perhaps surprisingly, in primetime reality competition shows.

Raising the Stakes

One of the biggest weapons in Millionaire's arsenal early on was host Regis Philbin. A beloved figure genteel enough to get along with everyone – but witty enough to rib the contestants a bit – Philbin was in many ways the ur-game show host. Others in the genre were a bit blander, like Alex Trebek or Bob Barker; beloved, of course, but they let the game be the star.

Philbin wasn't just a host, he was an emcee. He kept things going while charming everyone. It's not a leap to say Millionaire would have floundered without someone like him. Now, think of the best reality competition hosts: Ryan Seacrest on American Idol, or Jeff Probst on Survivor. They bring much the same energy to their proceedings – you won't find someone smoother than Seacrest, nor more invested in his game than Probst.

Both of those shows also took their big money cues from Millionaire. Before the million dollar quiz show debuted, payouts were generally only up to the tens of thousands. Many networks had imposed prize limits as a result of the quiz show scandals. But Millionaire was the first big hit to take the reward sky-high once again. Survivor and Idol's round $1 million payout definitely looked familiar when those shows debuted.

Admittedly, Millionaire doesn’t have enough in common with shows like Idol and Survivor to be called the single progenitor. So why is its greatest impact in the reality competition genre? It’s because of The Weakest Link.

An Important Link

Without Millionaire, there would be no The Weakest Link. Dating back to their UK roots, the two shows were born rivals; British channel ITV was regularly ruling the ratings roost with Millionaire, so BBC developed Link as a response in 2000. Similarly, NBC commissioned an American version to compete after two years of losing to ABC’s version of Millionaire.

One look at The Weakest Link and the similarities to modern reality competitions seem obvious. A group of people fighting it out for a monetary prize? That’s pure Survivor (which also got its start in 2000). Working with your competitors for your benefit? Quite reminiscent of the team challenges on Project Runway and Top Chef. A mean Brit taking the piss out of the contestants? Hello, Idol and Hell’s Kitchen.

In fact, you could argue that The Weakest Link had a greater impact on reality television than even Millionaire has. So what makes the latter so much more important? For the most part, when Link went off the air in primetime, American culture left it behind. (It struggled through two syndicated seasons with a different host on COX.) Millionaire, however, has defied the odds and survived.

The Missed Millionaire

Though Millionaire managed to impact another genre more than its own, that hasn’t stopped the show itself from carrying out its own legacy. The syndicated version has aired since 2002 – which means American TV has had some form of the show on the air for 15 straight years. Additionally, ABC’s brought the show back for two separate primetime special events: Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire? and a 10th anniversary edition.

Yet perhaps the biggest indicator that Millionaire made a lasting impact on pop culture was in the 2008 Best Picture Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire. A commercial smash, Slumdog’s narrative framing device was the full-fledged, brand name Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game. Its success even contributed to ABC’s 10th anniversary edition of Millionaire.

For bonus points, can you guess the last film about a game show to be nominated for Best Picture? In an ironic twist, that’d be Quiz Show, the 1994 film about the quiz show scandals. The story of what killed off game shows for so many years was topped by a movie celebrating the show that beat the curse.

Millionaire may not have saved game shows, but its long-term impact is undeniable. It remains a source of nostalgia for millennials, and it led to dramatic change in how primetime TV is developed. That’s a priceless legacy for sure. Final answer.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.