Copyright 2000

By Stephen Winzenburg

Communication Professor

Grand View College

Des Moines, Iowa




For the first time in 45 years a game show is the number one show on network television. The lights, the music, the inquisitive host, and the chance of the audience at home to play along have reignited a format long thought dead on prime time.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" has been called "too easy", while others criticize it for having too many questions that are related to pop culture. Others wonder if certain types of questions are asked more often and why women are not able to do well on the show. And what about all those die-hard "Jeopardy" fans who scoff at "Millionaire"’s success?

A content analysis was conducted using random episodes of "Millionaire" that were taped on ABC from November, 1999, to February, 2000. For comparison purposes, random episodes of "Jeopardy" were taped, half from 1995 shows being rerun on the Game Show Network and half new shows in syndication.

After watching the programs it became clear that while "Jeopardy" requires quick-thinking contestants who are playing more for the intellectual challenge than for the prize money, "Millionaire" is more entertaining and could even be considered more educational!


Those core English and History classes that were required in high school and college now come in handy when playing these popular game shows. While it’s fun to criticize "Millionaire" for having their first million dollar winner answer a pop culture question about which television show Richard Nixon appeared on ("Laugh In"), in reality contestants need to focus on the liberal arts and sciences they learned in school in order to win money.

Three of the most often asked question categories are the same for both shows in this study: literature, history and language. "Millionaire"’s questions most often involved language (15%), history (13%), then science (11%) and literature (11%). Television (9%) and movies (7%) came next, closely followed by geography, animals and sports.

"Jeopardy"’s most often asked questions came from history (16%), followed by geography (12%), then literature (11%), language (10%) and science (8%).

When grouped by broader subject headings, questions about language and literature are equaled on "Millionaire" by those about popular culture media. Almost half of all the questions Regis Philbin asks involve communication and entertainment, such as books, movies, television, music and word definitions. By contrast, less than one-third of the questions asked by Alex Trebek deal with communication and entertainment. "Jeopardy" tended to offer a broader range of categories, from religion and business to foreign politics and education. "Millionaire" had a more narrow range of questions.

However, if you want to go for the big money on "Millionaire" it is wise to study up on art. Although not often asked on the show, when art questions do pop up they are almost always for big money, resulting in the average art question being worth $223,000, which is three times the value of the next closest category. Other questions averaging large payouts include religion, also rarely asked, at $79,100; and the more often-asked categories of history ($67,500), television ($67,300) and geography ($50,100).

"Millionaire" categories such as sports, movies, science and music had questions that could be found at almost any money amount. But the categories that had the lowest averages were food, math, toys and language. These were typically used as the easy questions to begin each round of the game.

Since "Jeopardy" values are equally set at the start of the game (from $100 to $1,000), there is no one category that can stand out as having a higher value than another. Only in the "Final Jeopardy" round is a question asked where contestants can wager all of their winnings. In this study there was not a pattern of any one category being favored for "Final Jeopardy", although literature and history each came up more than once.



On the "Millionaire" episodes viewed, 80% of the contestants were male and ages ranged from 18 to 54, with most being in their 20’s and early 30’s. Fastest finger players came from a fairly balanced geographical cross-section of the country, with one exception: the west coast was dramatically under-represented. The Northeast had the most fastest finger contestants with 35%, followed closely by the Midwest at 30% and the South at 25%. The West was only represented by 10% of those on the show.

The top professions of those who made it to the hot seat were education-related: students in college or graduate school were the top category, followed by teachers. Other top professions were sales people, lawyers and engineers.

By comparison, "Jeopardy"’s contestants were also 80% male, but most in their 30’s and 40’s. The best represented region was the Northeast (44%), with 24% from the West and 20% from the Midwest. Only 12% came from the South. Certain cities had multiple contestants due to the method "Jeopardy" uses to go into a particular city to recruit guests. Professions of "Jeopardy" contestants also favored students, educators and lawyers.

With both shows having contestants in similar job categories, my conclusion is that "Millionaire" favors young adult males east of the Mississippi, while "Jeopardy" favors more middle-aged males from the east and west coast. Potential contestants from the western United States will have less of a chance making "Millionaire", while southerners are less apt to get on "Jeopardy".

The fact that both shows overwhelmingly favor white males reflects the contestant selection process. It is admirable that "Millionaire" attempts to be totally fair in allowing anonymous callers to be selected to play the in-studio game, yet it favors young males who may have video game experience in using fingers to press buttons quickly. It is understandable that "Jeopardy" must give a tough in-person quiz to filter potential players for what is a challenging game, yet it’s limited to players from cities where the tests are given and favors intellectuals who do well on exams.

It would add to the credibility each show if they would set a quota system in which players were more reflective of the females, minorities and different regions of the country. "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" do a better job getting women and minorities on their programs because part of their selection process involves picking players with good television personalities. "Millionaire" and "Jeopardy" must go beyond qualifying contestants through sample tests by selecting players based on their representation of the general population.



"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" allows a contestant to have a literal 15 minutes of fame. Once the fastest finger round begins, the winner averages 14 minutes and 51 seconds of screen time.

Some are on screen much longer and work their way up to the big money, but over half of all "Millionaire" hot seat players must settle for $32,000 or less. In the episodes studied, 38% of the contestants went home with only $1,000, while 24% left with $32,000. Three per cent left with nothing, which means players have twice as good a chance as walking away with nothing as they do walking away millionaires!

It is hard to measure individual screen time on "Jeopardy", since all three players are shown for most of the program. But even on this show, players get about 15 minutes of fame: the two rounds of questioning take up a total of 12 minutes; the chat time between Alex Trebek and the contestants last for around two minutes (averaging only 40 seconds of personal time getting to know each player); and "Final Jeopardy" lasts 45 seconds. Add it up and "Jeopardy" contestants get about 14 minutes and 45 seconds on the show.

"Jeopardy" winners take home much less money. A "USA Weekend" magazine article reported that of all the "Millionaire" contestants from August to March, the average winner took home $83,590. Watching "Jeopardy", contestants ended up with anything from zero to $19,000, with the average final winner getting only $12,000. However, the rare contestant who wins five days in a row can take home closer to $50,000 total and be awarded a new car–then be eligible to return for the tournament of champions where the winnings can total over $100,000.

"Millionaire" asks about 16 questions per half hour, with the average amount of time spent on a question being 45 seconds. "Jeopardy" asks about four times as many questions in a half hour (61 total) and questions and answers speed by at an average of 12 seconds each. Surprisingly, on both shows contestants answer incorrectly only an average of three times per program.


"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a success because it is entertaining, well-produced, and allows the viewing audience to feel a part of the game. While the contestant sits in the hot seat, selecting from the four possible answers, viewers at home are analyzing the choices and the contestant. It is a rare program on television–it makes us think. And often we think we’re better than the person winning the big money.

"Jeopardy" is a success because it is challenging, fast-paced, and allows the audience to feel in awe of the brainy contestants. While three highly-intelligent, carefully screened players compete against each other to give the correct "question" to an obscure answer, it makes the viewer at home feel a bit stupid for not measuring up to those pushing the button on the show.

Which is a more educational experience for the viewer? "Jeopardy" certainly asks a larger volume of questions and contestants must come up with the answers off the top of their heads, remembering to put it in the form of a question. But at the end of the half-hour, viewers will retain almost none of what they saw on the show. Questions are flashed on the screen quickly and answer come every 12 seconds so people watching at home will not remember much of what they saw.

I would argue that "Millionaire" is actually more educational. It utilizes a number of methods that increase learning:

Emotionally, "Millionaire" encourages the viewer in invest in the player. The set reveals the studio audience surrounding the person in the hot seat, cheering him on. Regis chats with the player, asking about how he met his wife or how he got his unusual job. Regis acts like he wants the contestant to win, patting him on the back and apologizing when the player doesn’t make it to a million dollars. At the end of the program, Regis invites viewers to call in to be a part of the show. It is all very emotionally inviting, so that the person watching at home feels an attachment to the players, the game and the host.

"Jeopardy" is somewhat emotionally distant, with a large overlit set that separates the players from the host and the unseen audience. The most important part of the show is the wall of cold electronic monitors that reveal the "answers". We hardly even know the contestants and within a minute of the show’s opening they are playing the game. Almost no time (an average 40 seconds per person) is given to personal chit-chat. Alex may give encouraging words but is careful throughout to not favor a contestant and shows no emotion toward the winner other than a professorial "well done" at the end of the round.

Any emotional attachment viewers may have to "Jeopardy" comes from the admiration people at home have for the intellectual abilities of the host and players.

Thinking that "Millionaire" is easier than "Jeopardy" is like claiming golf is an easier sport than tennis simply because it is played with a different pace and style. Like tennis, speech and accuracy is crucial in "Jeopardy", and the players are in direct competition with each other. Like golf, "Millionaire" is laid back but analytical, and once in the hot seat the contestant is really competing against himself. You rarely see tennis stars do well on the golf course and a golfer couldn’t survive the intensity of tennis. So it takes different skills to do well on these television games–many "Millionaire" contestants wouldn’t even get past the practice test on "Jeopardy", while the intellectual Jeopardy contestants may stumble over a simple $500 pop culture question on "Millionaire".

The one question that can not be answered by this study is whether "Jeopardy" questions are more difficult than those on "Millionaire", since levels of difficulty are subjective. However, if given the opportunity to make an appearance on either show, most would choose "Millionaire". There is more time given to answer questions, lifelines can be used for outside help and the monetary reward is much greater. "Jeopardy" involves much more work for much less money.

"Millionaire"’s success reflects the typical American’s desire to strike it rich without having to work too hard at it. It encompasses the ultimate American dream: an all expenses-paid trip to New York City; meeting the famous celebrity host; getting a chance to win big bucks while seated in a comfortable chair positioned in front of a television screen; and getting that 14 minutes and 51 seconds of fame.



Content Analysis

Copyright 2000 Stephen Winzenburg, Grand View College




80% male; 20% female

35% from Northeast; 30% from Midwest; 25% from South; 10% from West

Top professions: college students; teachers; sales; lawyers; engineers

Typical amount won: $1,000 (38%); $32,000 (24%); $64,000 (14%)

Amount of time on camera: 14 minutes, 51 seconds



"Fastest Finger" categories most often used:

TV 20%

Geography 20%

Movies 16%

History 14%

All others less than 6%.



Lifelines used at average amount:

Ask the audience: $17,000; 50/50: $53,000; Phone a friend: $112,000



Specific subject: Language 15%; History 13%; Science 11%; Literature 11%;

Television 9%; Movies 7%; Geography 7%; Animals 7%; Sports 7%

Grouped subject: Popular media/pop culture 27%; Language/Literature 27%;

Sciences 20%; World Affairs 18%




Art $223,000 average

Religion $ 79,100

History $ 67,500

Television $ 67,300

Geography $ 50,100



Sports $ 42,400

Movies $ 41,500

Animals $ 40,800

Science $ 39,100

Music $ 35,800

Literature $ 35,000

Current Events $ 32,400



Language $ 5,700

Toys/Games $ 4,100

Math $ 1,900

Food $ 988