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He's America's Dealer of Choice

With Regis Philbin holding the cards, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' feeds off the same high-stakes tension that lights up Las Vegas.

May 21, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

PALM SPRINGS — The search for the meaning of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," like the search for the meaning of life, leads to surprising places. It leads, for instance, to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs. Here, as they do every Friday night, about two dozen compulsive gamblers gather to face their demons, to share tales of financial ruin and families torn apart. It's a comforting, ritualized exercise that keeps them from all the temptations out there--race tracks, card clubs, casinos.

But Tom Tucker, executive director of the California Council on Problem Gambling, himself a gambler in recovery, kicked off the meeting by referring to a new kind of temptation: Does anyone here watch "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"? he asked. And does it make you want to gamble?

It was a planted question. I had been invited into this particular meeting, chasing a ghost: I was looking for a person who can't watch "Millionaire," as opposed to the average 28 million who can and do (to say nothing of the 36 million who tuned in for the show's recent run of celebrity contestants). In the TV business, "Millionaire" has been called many things--a juggernaut, a drug, a phenomenon, a disease--but these are mostly the metaphors of its enemies, and none explains why we keep watching, at such astonishing rates. The show's 28 million viewers--in TV terms an estimate from Nielsen Media Research--also stack up this way, based on 1999 statistics: "Millionaire" is watched by roughly the same number of children who are fed by the federal school lunch and breakfast programs. A single night of "Millionaire" draws the same number of people who pass through Logan Airport in Boston in an entire year.

Perhaps the riddle of "Millionaire," then, is better put this way: Are we sick, as a nation, for staying with this show so devotedly, zombie pawns in yet another marketing scheme perpetrated by the evil geniuses at the Walt Disney Co.? Or are we just having fun?

Maybe I was the sick one, fighting Friday afternoon traffic from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, burning gas into the ecosystem, all in the interest of a half-baked theory--that the secret of "Millionaire's" success, the reason it retains such a superhuman hold on the public's attention, lies in the canny ways the show apes the adrenaline-pumping escape of casino gambling. You can see it in the vibrant surreality of the show's lighting and set design, in its series of teases and tensions: Play here and you will become rich. As in blackjack, "Millionaire" allows its players to see their hands before upping the ante. As in blackjack, the player contemplates his odds and consults his superstitions. But in "Millionaire" you must bet more to win more. Sure, you can cut and run if you think that's best (wimp). In the meantime, think about it. Take your time.

It is here that Regis Philbin, the show's host, earns his salary. A Gallup Poll released in January found that more people can identify Philbin as host of "Millionaire" than Jay Leno as host of "The Tonight Show." Regis is smooth, with those steely ties that look like they could hurt you, but he's more than a host. He's a facilitator of dreams, to the best of his ability. In the circumscribed tension of the show, with so much money on the line, he can become father confessor or therapist. Share your thoughts, Reege encourages. Yes, that $64,000 sure could come in handy. Absolutely, Reege assures, no shame in taking the $64,000 and bailing. On the other hand, why not go for it? You've polled the audience, you've phoned a friend, you've used up your 50-50. No more lifelines left. It's just you and your gut and the following question: "When am I ever going to get this close to $1 million again?"

In the parlance of the gambler, this is the show's "action," the way it trades on the excitement and even euphoria of the high-stakes wager. When Philbin calls out "final answer," he could as easily be saying, "Place your bets." Seen in this context, "Millionaire" isn't just a benign trivia game or game-show genre stimulator. It's a form of recreational gambling, an intricate, hyper-stylized casino game beamed into America's living rooms. And what it tells us is very, very true: Gambling is fun. A horribly self-destructive activity if it gets out of control, yes. But in the meantime fun. Fun, fun, fun.

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