WWTBAM analysis

Season 3 is 1/3 done - how does it compare?
by Jeff Gross / 2005-01-17


This is the first of a series of articles I plan to write which will take a look at how US syndicated Millionaire is being played. We're now about one third of the way through season 3's contestants, so now would be a good time to see how the current season is comparing to last season.

There have been two significant rule changes for season 3. First of all, an additional lifeline has been added. Switch the question becomes available to a player after successfully answering question 10. This lifeline allows a player to get rid of a question and replace it with another of the same value.

The other significant change was to lower the prize amounts for successfully answering questions 10, 11 and 12 from $32,000, $64,000 and $125,000 to $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000. Questions 13 through 15 retained their same value.

The lowered prize amounts were implemented not just to compensate for the new switch the question lifeline. Millionaire's producers wanted to provide more incentive for a player to take more risks in the upper tier of questions. They had noticed a pattern of play, whereby players would do anything (burn as many lifelines as necessary) to get to $32,000, take their chances on $64,000 and not go any further unless they were absolutely sure of the next answer.

So have the changes made any difference to date? If you compare season 3's results to season 2's, the answer is not too much. The total amount of prizes paid for the current season's first 125 players is $3,146,000. Last season, a total of 375 players won a total of $9,006,000. So this season's average prize of $25,168 is a bit ahead of last season's average of $24,016.

A total of 42 people have finished on question 10 or higher this season. Last season, 137 did, which would indicate a pace of 45.7. So although fewer people are making it into the top tier, some are going farther. Comparing this season with last season's pace bears this out. The breakdown this season is as follows (last season's pace in parentheses): q10: 18 (25), q11 17 (16.7), q12 4 (4), q13 2 (1) and q14 1 (0). This season, we already have one $500,000 winner (which was me) and two $250,000 winners (John Castellano and Dino White).

One interesting fact I see from the breakdown is that switch the question isn't appearing to make too much difference in a contestant's final prize. The number of players successfully answering question 11 is on pretty much the same pace as last season.

Looking more closely at how switch the question has been played this season yields the following facts:

1. 42 contestants have received the switch the question lifeline.

2. 27 contestants used switch the question as their fourth lifeline. 11 used it as their third lifeline, and 4 did not use it at all.

3. 22 contestants used switch the question at the first opportunity on question 11. 13 people used it on question 12, and 3 people used it on question 13.

4. Of the contestants that successfully answered the switched question, 1 did so at question 13, 4 at question 12 and 11 at question 11. So 16 of 38 players who used switch the question successfully answered the switched question (just over 42%).

5. Three contestants managed to correctly answer the question one level higher than where they used the switch the question lifeline. One player managed to correctly answer the question two levels higher.

So the switch the question lifeline has had some benefit for a few players. However, for quite a few others, the lifeline hasn't provided the player with an additional advantage. In most instances, the replacement question was no better than the switched question as far as the contestant was concerned. In other instances, a player had some idea as to the answer to the first question, but didn't want to take the risk. Unfortunately, the contestants often found the replacement question was less easily answerable.

While receiving the switch the question lifeline is undoubtably a good thing for any hot seat player, not very many players have been able to really take advantage of it. The real beneficiaries of switch the question may be the viewing audience. More upper tier questions means more suspense and challenge for those watching at home. We are ahead of last year's pace of big winners, with two $250,000 winners compared to three all of last season, and the first $500,000 winner since the first season. So Millionaire's producers should be justifiably proud of this season's new twist. Switch the question has provided more excitement at relatively little cost. For future contestants, their thinking has to consider how to fit switch the question into their lifeline usage strategy.

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