As easy as winning the lottery

`Who wants to be a millionaire?' is brain-dead and hugely popular. But is it a quiz? Tim Dowling investigates
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The Independent Culture
If you're the sort of person who switches over as soon as you see Chris Tarrant hosting a game show, you will have suffered a curious sense of deja vu this week. "Didn't I just do this last night?" you will have said to yourself as you hit the button in the hope of replacing Tarrant's face with a nice picture of a seal being eaten by a whale. But you're not crazy. Chris Tarrant really has been on every night for the last 10 nights, hosting ITV's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? which purports to make "British quiz-show history" by being the first to offer a top prize of pounds 1m.

Game shows have always been popular, especially with TV execs who say "cheap television" like it's a good thing. But the appeal for the audience, though undeniable, is hard to pin down, if only because there are so many different kinds of game shows. Cilla Black's new vehicle The Moment of Truth, in which guests are given a week to learn a new weird skill before performing it on TV, is an uplifting family-togetherness fest, even though the Japanese game show on which it is based is mainly an exercise in humiliation.

Programmes such as 15 to 1 and Countdown offer no prizes or feelgood factor, only a little mental exercise, while with shows such as Wheel of Fortune and Supermarket Sweep you can almost feel your brain beginning to die. Many of the older game show formats have been souped up out of all recognition, but Supermarket Sweep - or Dale's Supermarket Sweep, as it is now known; such is the degree to which the winsome Mr Winton has made the programme his own - retains some of the Great British Game Show's original unwholesomeness. The prize money is derisory, as is the standard of competition. The zombified chumminess of the contestants (the answer to "you can buy bread there, and it begins with a B" is not "bakery", but "bakery, Dale"), Winton's dental hygienist delivery and the whiff of post-war austerity all have a reassuring echo of yesteryear. Like all good daytime TV, it seems to be made for people who have the flu.

Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? is, by contrast, event television at its most hyped up. Contestants are held over from night to night to agonise about whether they should risk their winnings on more winnings. The show is transmitted live in order to create the illusion that something momentous is taking place, and it seems to be working. Audience figures began to climb after the first night, with between 11 and 12 million regularly tuning in. On Wednesday it even beat Changing Rooms, which, in the best of all possible worlds, wouldn't be that big a deal; but this isn't, and it is. The show does go some way to recreating that sense of drama that made the quiz show a national obsession in Fifties America: a sense of drama which the producers quickly discovered was difficult to maintain without cheating.

The WWTBAM? formula is simple: contestants are required to answer 15 multiple-choice questions of increasing difficulty, multiplying their winnings until they get to the final million pound question. In order to keep tension high, guests must be lured into risking their accumulated wealth to go on to the next question. In Fifties America, as we all know, they were lured with the correct answers. On WWTBAM?, they are given everything but. Contestants are permitted to look at the questions and the four multiple choice answers before they decide to go on. Then they're given the option of having it whittled down to just two. They are allowed to ring up a loved one or poll the audience (tip for future contestants: audience smart, loved ones stupid). Even after all that there's nothing to stop contestants just walking away with the money, and many do. The questions themselves are disappointing. By the middle of programme's 10-night run, racking up the first pounds 4,000 had become a tedious formality, and Tarrant's trademark poker-faced lingering before revealing whether the answer is right or not was getting irritating.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is a post-lottery quiz show, so it has to be big, and essentially meritless. When they're giving away tens of millions to ordinary jerks, you can't deny someone a paltry pounds 32,000 just because his geography is hazy. The idea that you, the viewer, are in there with a chance is also a big part of it - contestants are selected from callers to a recorded message who answer a multiple choice question, and whisked to the studio on the night. The vicarious pleasure of watching someone else win no longer seems to be enough to sustain our interest; we have to know that it could have been us,. Each phone call, incidentally, costs about 50p, and it took me two goes to get a question I could answer. So now you know where the million quid comes from. The show also denies us the pleasure of watching someone lose. Contestants either win or they win big. There is no way to judge whether they deserve it. Perhaps they have the right attitude in Japan, where at least they make you eat worms for the money, so you feel you've earned it.

Who Wants To Be Millionaire? may not be cheap television exactly, but pounds 1m for 10 half-hours seems a bit of a bargain, especially if no one ends up winning it. No one has yet, but it could be you - or me. Why not? I deserve it.