Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And the next generation of TV quiz shows

After ‘Millionaire’ ending after 15 years, insiders are pondering the format’s future

Arts Correspondent

The dramatic music played out for the last time; the sweeping lights turned off for good. After 15 years, host Chris Tarrant had asked the last question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The decision to axe Millionaire, after it screenings became more occasional and largely consisting of celebrity charity specials, has left UK television insiders wondering whether another show can ever capture the public imagination to the same extent. At its height, after all, it captured 19 million viewers – and inspired one of the most successful British movies, Slumdog Millionaire.

David Flynn, chief creative officer of Endemol UK, who has worked on creating shows from Deal or No Deal to Pointless, is among those asking: “Can a quiz gain such a mass audience again?”

“It’s all about risk taking,” he says. “The reason why Millionaire got that peak was because it felt like nothing else. It’s been around so long it is easy to forget how revolutionary it was.

“The channel and producers took the risk, and ITV opened up its schedule in a way it never had before. If we take that risk on something else we could absolutely get that audience again.”

As television producers search for the next prime-time game hit, success may well be reliant on how well they harness advances in technology, according to experts.

Mr Flynn, who was a student when Millionaire launched and was inspired by its scope, said: “We’ve seen the game show genre reinvent itself all the time and one trend we’re seeing is the growth in use of digital media.”

Endemol’s show The Million Pound Drop allowed audiences to play along at home, while The Bank Job released a game which would see winners cast on the TV programme. In the first two weeks it was played two million times.

Hinting that further interactive innovation is yet to come, he said: “The next one, which I can’t talk about yet, is all about revolutionising again how we use digital media.”

Media commentator Neil Midgley agreed that big entertainment hits of recent years had all relied on advances in technology. Millionaire had a premium rate phone number for viewers to call to potentially get on the show.

“They didn’t have public voting or participation, but the phone-in to be a contestant made people feel like they had a stake in the show. A lot of people phoned that line, and that paid for the prize money.”

X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing – though not game shows – took advantage of live phone voting to help build huge audiences. “Maybe we need another technology advance in television before we get the next big hit,” Mr Midgley said.

ITV has high hopes for Rising Star – another talent show, this time from an Israeli format – which will allow the audiences at home to vote on performers while they are singing, using an app. The game show developers will be watching closely.

Of Millionaire, which launched in 1998 and went on to air in 118 countries, Mr Midgley said it “was such a perfect format it effectively killed the genre; no one yet has been able to match it. A prime-time game show is now hard to do. There are lots in daytime which are doing well.”

This daytime quiz slot was opened by the success of The Weakest Link. Among subsequent rivals, Endemol’s Pointless has also built a keen audience since its launch in 2007, and is to expand onto Saturday night schedules.

After Millionaire there were a lot of “high jeopardy quizzes,” Mr Flynn said. “It was all about high stakes, serious stuff. It felt like there was time for a change, so with Pointless we tried to create a more parlour game, comedy atmosphere. It was a reaction to the seriousness.” He sees the trend for more comedic game shows continuing.

For Endemol, quizzes are “our bread and butter,” the creative chief said. Creating a new format is a “long involved process” with the firm coming up with up to 15 ideas a month, possibly two of which will be pitched to a broadcaster.

They play the nascent formats in the office to see if they work. “You can see pretty quickly if they work or not,” Mr Flynn said. “They are like mathematical formulae, every element has to fit together, and if one doesn’t work it all falls apart.”

The company devised The Million Dollar Drop in the office using cardboard boxes with trapdoors cut into them and pound coins inside. “If the hairs on your neck don’t stand up as you watch it, even at that stage, it probably isn’t right.”

The success of a show is not only whether it receives high viewing figures in the UK, but whether the format can be sold around the world. “The holy grail is not necessarily 10 million viewers in the UK, but a smaller UK hit that is sold to 150 countries,” Mr Midgley said. “The opportunities are currently in the daytime slots and internationally. There’s life in the old quiz show dog yet.”

World's Most Popular Game Shows

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

The show that became TV’s most popular quiz was sold to 112 countries. Launched in 1998 with host Chris Tarrant, and ran until this week.

Deal or No Deal

The Endemol-produced show, fronted by Noel Edmonds, was sold to 80 countries, with contestants picking boxes in a quest for £250,000.

Wheel of Fortune

The “spin the wheel” classic has been sold to 47 countries. It was first screened in the US in 1975 where two contestants have won $1m.

Total Wipeout

An average 4.5 million UK viewers see contestants jump, bounce and crash their way through obstacles, hoping to win £10,000. It has been sold to 29 countries.

Hole in the Wall

Known in Japan as Brain Wall, it is seen in 22 countries. Entrants contort themselves to fit shapes in a moving polystyrene wall.

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