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First Person

Ex-Contestant Wants to Question the Answers

February 02, 2001|RICK ROSNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My wife said, "You have a little girl in kindergarten. Do not embarrass the family."

So . . . no naked roller-blading in front of ABC with a sign reading, "I Got a Stinky Question on 'Millionaire.' "

Last July, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's" Regis Philbin asked me this for $16,000: What capital city is located at the highest altitude above sea level? A. Mexico City, B. Quito, C. Bogota, D. Kathmandu.

My "phone-a-friend" and I couldn't come up with the highest capital. But then, neither could "Millionaire."

The right answer--La Paz, Bolivia. Nor did "Millionaire" discover that--like Los Angeles, which has a zillion different altitudes from below sea level to above 5,000 feet--each of the city options they gave me were all over the place when it came to altitude, with no city really being the highest.

"Millionaire's" policy is, "When we make a mistake around here, we fix it." At least that's what I thought. After all, in his pre-show briefing, executive producer Michael Davies told us not to sweat getting a bad question, that they'd rectify any glitches.

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So after I was bounced off the show--and unearthed the correct answer--I sent Mr. Davies a few letters.

"Millionaire's" lawyer wrote back reminding me that in order to play the game, I'd signed an agreement to abide by their judgment. They thought the question was fine and were sticking by their original research.

That's when I started going nuts, seeing a shrink, hitting the gym five times a day, making weird "Hernk!" noises, and obsessively researching. I needed to know if "Millionaire" had ever failed to include the top answer in any other question phrased like mine.

I've spent 500 hours tracking down 20,000 "Millionaire" questions from the U.S., British, Indian, and Australian versions of the show. You'll find me surrounded by foreign-language dictionaries at 4 a.m., playing "Millionaire" online from Switzerland, Germany and Norway.

By the way, I bounce bars. My specialty is catching the 1% of customers with bad IDs. Now, I've become a "Millionaire" bad-question cop, catching more than 30 faulty questions from their broadcasts or licensed products. I've found more than 800 questions phrased like mine. Only two fail to include the absolute top answer, and those two questions are just plain wrong.

One, from the official "Millionaire" chocolate game (Answer questions, win chocolate cash!) asks, "Which U.S. state has the longest coastline?" Their answer--Michigan. Trouble is, "coastline" refers to land touching a sea or ocean, the nearest of which is 400 miles from Michigan.

The other, from the "Millionaire" hand-held game, asks, "What was the first location of MTV's 'The Real World?' " Their answer--Venice, Calif. Correct answer--New York City.

"Millionaire's" error rate has remained fairly constant, but diminishing media coverage may mean less pressure to remedy mistakes. In November, they asked contestant Lori Bailey, "How long did Michelangelo spend painting the Sistine Chapel?" and asked Gus Wheeler, "In what level of the Earth's atmosphere do commercial airplanes normally travel?"

None of the choices contained the correct answer, but only Bailey was brought back and given another chance to play. In December, "Millionaire" asked this fastest-finger question: Put these books in order by the decade in which they are primarily set, starting with the earliest: A. "Bonfire of the Vanities," B. "Of Mice and Men," C. "The Alienist," D. "The Fan."

"The Fan" is the title of two different thrillers, each made into a movie, published in 1977 and 1995. So the question has two answers, and the right person probably didn't make the Hot Seat.

The odds are much higher that a contestant will leave "Millionaire" after a flawed question than as a millionaire.

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Mistakes will be made. But more are being made on "Millionaire" than you'd expect from a show on which every answer is life-or-death, a show that anchors an entire network! With the ad revenue from just one "Millionaire" episode, we could have produced nearly 200 episodes of "Remote Control," the first game show I wrote for (and you thought I was only a bouncer).

The unfairness of my question is notorious. The author of a New Yorker article selected it from among thousands to make her point that "All game shows are inherently sadistic."

Game-show genius Ben Stein says it "is not only a hard question, but a very, very, very bad question."

So what should I do?

I'd prefer not to join the legal log jam of 15 lawsuits that are rumored to be pending against the show. "Millionaire" should do the right thing and bring me back. Meanwhile, I challenge whoever wrote my question to a trivia duel--10 questions, loser shaves his or her entire body.

And I'm fattening myself up for a hunger strike. Perhaps I'll end up as the answer to a game-show question: Who was the first person to be force-fed intravenously because "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" messed up?

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