If Michael Davies weren't the executive producer of TV's hottest game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, he'd make one heck SSI of a drill sergeant. An hour before taping on Nov. 7, at an ABC Manhattan soundstage where the show will originate for the next two weeks, Davies stares down the 10 anxious contestants—all men—seated at their high-tech consoles and gives them a tough-love lecture about the rules of the game. The contestants are about to face off in a "fastest finger" round to determine which one will sit in the "hot seat" in front of host Regis Philbin to compete for the $1 million jackpot. "Chief among the rules is, this is my game," says Davies, a tall, blunt Brit. "This is not a court of law. I am the final judge. This is not Atari; these are not Vegas slot machines. These are big financial decisions in your life. If anything happens, if a light crashes to the floor, if someone shouts out, if Regis falls over, you continue to lock in your answers and play."

Welcome to the brave new world of high-stakes, big-money, hive-inducing game shows where not even warm-up talk is cheap—or warm. In this bull-market era, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a virtual clone of the phenomenally popular show of the same name in Britain, has triggered nothing short of a game-show gold rush into the millennium. When it debuted last August for a two-week run, the show nabbed five spots in the Nielsen Top 10, peaking with a Friends-worthy 22 million viewers for its finale, an unprecedented achievement for a game show. Now in the midst of a two-week November sweeps run—its premiere netted almost 26 million viewers—it is still raking in far more than it is dishing out in cash prizes. With juggernaut ratings, low production costs, ad rates in the $700,000-a-minute zone and not one six-figure fat cat through the first few nights, it is a veritable prime-time money machine.

The biggest winner of all may be Philbin, 68, for pulling off a remarkable moonlighting coup beyond Live! with Regis & Kathie Lee. "I begged my way on," he says. "There was a short list, and I wasn't on it. I called my agent, and we made a full assault on ABC in L.A. It has been a terrific ride. I never had this kind of attention before." Philbin has a five-year deal with Millionaire, and as for that Live! day job: "I'm out in 21 months, August 2001." Final answer out? "I don't know," he says.

Contestants don't get very far with that kind of vagueness. To them, winning a million isn't everything; it's the only thing. But it is much harder than it appears. Mark Megerian, 34, a computer programmer, was at $16,000, looking to lock into a guaranteed $32,000. The Minnesotan was sure Denver was the highest state capital. "It's gotta be Denver, right? Mile High City, c'mon!" he told Philbin. "I thought it was Denver too. I'm sorry, it's Santa Fe," said Philbin, who, due to some technical glitch, then needed three more takes to deliver Megerian's devastating news. Megerian wasn't likely to be spending his measly $1,000 winnings on a trip to New Mexico. "I don't ever want to hear the words 'Santa Fe' again," he says on his way out of the studio.

Washington, D.C., tax lawyer Joel McElvain, 31, figured octo—"eight" in Latin—meant an octave would naturally span eight whole tones. Wrong, it's six, but at least he was locked into the $32,000. "I thought I knew it, so I didn't think I needed to phone a friend," says McElvain, referring to one of the three "lifelines"—calling someone for help, eliminating two of the four multiple-choice answers, polling the audience—a contestant has at his disposal. As McElvain leans against a wall near the stage, contestants stop by to congratulate him. "I wasn't trying to gamble. I thought I had the answers. I'll get over it. My attitude has got to be, I'm $32,000 richer at the end of the day."

So far, Millionaire's heavy hitters are Michael Shutterly, a 46-year-old Richmond lawyer ($500,000) and West Virginia square-dance fiddler Doug Van Gundy, 33 ($250,000). Both are playing it close to the vest financially. Van Gundy, whose annual income is $11,000, has "splurged" on a new computer; Shutterly, who plans to save for his three kids' college educations, just replaced his nine-year-old station wagon with a new Camry.

Millionaire hopefuls call a toll-free number for a three-question quiz. After a random drawing among the winners, a phone play-off determines 10 contestants (and two alternates) for each tape date. For reasons the show's producers don't fully grasp, many more men make the cut than women. On the first two nights, 19 of 20 players were men. As Davies has speculated, "Maybe the skew of the material has been geared to white males. I'm not sure."

The lucky few who are flown to New York for their 15 minutes (and, hopefully, 15 questions), arrive at ABC for a brief lunch in the commissary several hours before taping. Then after a last hug and send-off by their loved ones, contestants are sequestered, jurylike, in a sealed-off room until their turns at the "fast finger" consoles. Spouses, pals and partners chat or sit quietly in a lounge off the commissary, trying to soothe jangled nerves. New Yorker Joel Winkelsas's mom, Helen, traveled 300 miles from Buffalo and waited alone. "I told him to try not to be nervous," she says. "He's jumpy and his face is all flushed." He hoped to win so he could take his three nieces, one of whom is mentally disabled, to Disney World.

Once players are "secured," as supervising producer Ann Miller, who oversees the writing and research staff, puts it, they are also unplugged—turning in all non-numeric pagers, Palm Pilots, beepers and cell phones.

A "corruption" of data would seem hard to swing. Miller works with a team of writers and researchers who plow through books with titles like Outlaws, Mobsters & Crooks and The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft to spit out thousands of questions stored in a database. Only Miller, Davies and the head writer know what's in the 15-question "stacks" for a given show.

And only the studio audience is privy to any of the occasional foul-ups. John Cuthbertson, a 37-year-old physicist turned investment analyst from San Diego, fields his first question: How many days in September? Easy. "Thirty days hath September," he tells Philbin. The host checks his monitor and looks stricken. "Sorry, you're wrong," he says in disbelief. Cut! Suddenly, a team of stagehands converges upon the podium like an Indy 500 pit crew, tilting it, yanking out a dense bouquet of color-coded wires that malfunctioned and resulted in the wrong response. The question is taped again, and Cuthbertson is on his way to an eventual 532,000 payoff. Viewers the following night will never know about the wiring glitch.

Tension and excitement kick in for real when someone reaches the $32,000 guarantee and shoots higher. The audience comes alive, the contestant feels the pressure, and Regis plays his poker-faced, chin-rubbing teases to the hilt. Producer Vincent Rubino, in the wings with his laptop, can beam up to 20 preloaded messages to Philbin's monitor, unseen by viewers. They tell him to draw out the moment, intensify the drama. "The show has brilliant cliff-hanger potential every night," says Rubino.

During the Nov. 7 taping, Cincinnati attorney Jeff Siehl reaches $64,000 and is so rigid with tension that he has to grab onto his console. "I was incredibly nervous," he says later. "I was trying to hold on to keep my hands from shaking. I kept drinking water up there. The stage manager came out during one break and said, 'You need to show more emotion, act a little excited.' I guess I didn't show it, but I was very excited."

Rubino sends Philbin a message: MAKE HIM SWEAT—HOLD THE MOMENT. He does. Siehl, 27, backs off a $125,000 question about the number of arms on a squid and opts to phone a friend. His lifeline's hunch is right ("What immediately comes to mind is 10," says pal Tony Antonoplos back in Cincinnati), but Siehl still pockets $64,000. "It was too much money to take a risk and pretty good for a day's work," he says. "It was definitely the right move," says girlfriend Cartrese Carter. "I didn't want him taking a wild guess." As for the three cars he hoped to buy his siblings: "That was contingent on getting the million," Siehl explains. "But I'll get them nice gifts."

Pretty soon, it seems, someone, somewhere will have to go home rich. FOX has debuted its more convoluted Greed ("a rip-off," sneers Philbin), which offers $2 million, and the crowded game show field will soon include updated classics What's My Line?, Twenty-One and The $64,000 Question, as well as a TV adaptation of the CD-ROM You Don't Know Jack, with Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens as host. And Millionaire's producers understand that to sustain ratings, they'll need to spread even more of that game-show loot. "As the weeks go by," says Philbin, sitting in his dressing room, "if we don't have a big winner, how often can people get excited about $16,000 when they've seen someone win $500,000? It gets monotonous. We want a million-dollar winner as soon as possible." And you can take that to the bank.

Glenn Garelik in Virginia

  • Contributors:
  • Glenn Garelik.