When it first appeared on British television screens back in September 1998, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a revolutionary production. It was the first game show to offer such a large sum of money, and few have come close to that amount even today.
The show reached its peak in the UK around a year later, with more than 19 million viewers tuning into ITV to watch one episode in 1999. This helped the company attract large sums in exchange for TV adverts during the show. This success was replicated around the world, and the Millionaire brand has become a powerhouse.
How Many Millionaires Did it Make?
In reality, few contestants walked away with £1 million (or the local equivalent) on either the UK show, or any of the international versions. On average, winners walked away with around £50,000 each.
The first millionaire winner was actually on the US version of the show in November of 1999, when John Carpenter managed to not use any lifelines until the final question, when he called his father using “Phone-a-Friend” to tell him “I don’t really need your help, I just wanted to let you know I’m going to win the million dollars”.
Other winners include Judith Keppel from the UK, Kevin Olmstead in the US, Martin Flood from Australia, and Sushil Jumar from India. The most expensive year for the show’s producers was between 2000-2001, when three people walked away with £1 million each and total prize money of £7,782,000 was paid out.
Axing and Relaunch
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire remained a regular fixture on British TV lineups until 2014, with the 500th episode airing in 2008. In those 15 years, 1,500 contestants appeared on the show, but its ratings began to drop in its final few years.
However, a 20th anniversary version aired in 2018 with Jeremy Clarkson replacing Chris Tarrant as the host. It received a lot of praise from viewers and critics and attracted high viewing figures. This convinced ITV to renew the show for another full series, keeping Clarkson as the new host.
Merchandise and Licensing
The global success of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire brand created a lot of demand for licensed products and merchandise. In the first few years after the show first aired, computer games and board games became popular items in the UK as fans wanted to recreate the format at home.
Since the relaunch of the show in the UK there has been an increase in licensed products, including an updated 20th anniversary board game, several themed online slots titles, and t-shirts that contain quotes from the show like “is that your final answer?”.
It wasn’t just the UK that fell in love with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The format was sold to more than 100 different countries, including Australia, the United States, Russia, India, Italy, Nepal, Hungary, and Brazil.
While not all international versions had the same level of success as the original, some countries have seen just as much Millionaire-Mania as the UK.
In the US, broadcaster ABC went from being the fourth most successful network to the first, and ran 20 seasons of the show before cancelling it in 2019, leaving indelible memories for many. The show was relaunched one year later in 2020.
In Australia the show began in 1999, before being renamed to “Millionaire Hot Seat” in 2009; and it continues to be popular to this day.
Not Just Another Game Show
To those that don’t work in the industry, the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire may not be totally apparent until you compare it to other game shows. After all, other prime time British shows like Britain’s Got Talent, the X Factor, and Pop Idol have dominated Saturday Night TV schedules for the best part of two decades, and have also been exported around the world.
However, no other game show has enjoyed the same level of success. ITV tried new formats like Red or Black and Pokerface, but both failed. Channel 4’s Deal or No Deal enjoyed success, but not on the same level, although its day time scheduling may not have helped.
The BBC’s Weakest Link enjoyed several years of success, but could not pull in the same viewing figures as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Today, ITV’s other game shows don’t come close. Tipping Point and The Chase don’t see more than 2 million viewers per episode.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was unique in its high stakes, high pressure style. The life changing sum of money on offer did not compare to the 5 figures offered by most other game shows, but it typically didn’t yield much more than £50,000 per contestant.