The classic TV game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire captured the world’s imagination. In fact, it came back with a new host (Jimmy Kimmel). We don’t know how popular the new version will prove to be, but we do know the original version with Regis Philbin was a major success. TV game shows have been around for years. So why did “Millionaire” become the most-watched TV show in prime time each night during its original run?

It’s worth watching an episode or two as an example of a contest designed for the viewer at home to play along.

The show works because of several key reasons:


Playing The Game

Trivia games are more popular than ever. We all love to compete to show how smart we are. But not all games are addictive.

Success starts with game mechanics, of course. Contestants are offered the chance to win a big prize. $1 million is an awesome incentive. The prize is simple, big, and gets attention.

But the money is rarely awarded. Most don’t make it to the top. The prize is an enticement to create anticipation and introduce tension. Life-changing money is at stake.

But the game is not about the prize. It’s about playing the game. We’ve discovered this over and over with the popularity of radio contests like Thousand Dollar Minute.

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Who Wants To Be A Millionaire game mechanics are easy to understand. Answer trivia questions that become increasingly difficult as the prize value increases. Starting with easy questions hooks the audience and allows the viewer to cheer for the contestant as they build their prize winnings. The viewer can feel themselves in the chair, playing along.

A key factor: Every question is multiple choice. Viewers may not know the answer but can still guess. That adds participation.

The rules are simple and straightforward. It’s easy to play. And more importantly, it’s easy to play along at home.

The lesson: Design a simple, easy-to-play game for listeners to play along with. 

Millionaire Builds Drama

The show is staged for drama. The set is dark and mysterious, a black background with a tight shot on the contestant. You see and feel their emotions. Background music builds tension as they decide on their answer.

While the game is simple, the show adds drama through special features like lifelines and phone a friend. The player has a few opportunities to get help on their quest.

As each level is reached, tension mounts. This is a major part of the appeal of a popular radio game like Beat The Bank. As the reward gets closer, the potential for failure increases. Raising the stakes points the audience to the outcome.

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The lesson: Add elements that raise anticipation for the outcome by raising the stakes. Some stations do this by increasing the prize offer when there is no winner.   

The Host

That brings us to the host of the show. We’ll see how Kimmel fares as host of the new Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, but the original was greatly influenced by Regis Philbin.

Regis is a lovable personality that is impossible to dislike. He’s a terrific host. Regis is so likable. Everybody loves him.

It’s not because of his big voice or even what he says. And his accent is kind of annoying!

But Regis is friendly, doesn’t try to be something he is not, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s down-to-earth and never comes off as trying to be cool.

And, he speaks with the conscience of the audience. He says what they’re thinking.

Regis never used big words. He spoke like the average person. And he stayed within the format, adding a few unpredictable, surprising, and real comments without getting in the way of the game’s momentum.

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Regis understood the appeal of the game and realized it wasn’t The Regis Philbin Trivia Show. He explained the rules clearly, simply, and logically every time. He asked the questions with enthusiasm, drama, clarity, and consistency. The audience was never lost.

And Regis cheered for the contestants. It felt like he really wanted the contestant to win $1 million. He never put them down talked down to them, no matter how poorly they performed.

The lesson: Personalities are not the game, but the game is enhanced by personalities.


Watching Millionaire, I always wondered why Regis made so much money as the host. His job is simple. It seemed so easy. And that’s the secret. Regis made it seem effortless.

The result is that everybody – absolutely everybody – loves Regis!

Radio contests and games can be incredibly popular. As you design your next promotion, consider these lessons from Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. And be sure to inject personalities into it.


Designing Radio Contests For Listener Play-Along

How To Raise the Stakes For More Interest

Thousand Dollar Minute

Beat The Bank

Must-Have Personality Traits For Radio Talent

How Radio Personalities Can Be More Likable

How to Perform With the Conscience of the Listener

Radio Contest Strategy