WWTBAM analysis

Two thirds of the way through season 3 - what are the trends?
by Jeff Gross / 2005-05-13


On May 10, the 250th contestant of season 3 exited the hot seat. Since there were a total of 375 hot seat appearances last season, we can say that season 3 is now two thirds completed. Even if that doesn't end up being the case, we're now at a convenient point to take another detailed look at how season 3 is shaping up.

The previous analysis piece in January took a look at the first 125 hot seat appearances and compared them to season 2. Now that Meredith Vieira has presided over 125 more hot seat appearances, I want to start by taking a look at how the second third of this season compares to the first. Here are some key things I've observed:

1. Less money has been won. $800,000 less to be precise. The first third's contestants divided $3,146,000 while the second third only divided $2,346,000. There were 2 winners of $250,000 in each group of 125, but this time, no one managed to win more. So the lack of a $500,000 winner in this third does account for a large part of the difference. However, this fact alone doesn't explain the fall. There has also been a remarkable drop off in the number of contestants winning $25,000 or more. Only 30 out of 125 players in this third have managed to get above question 10, compared to 42 in the first third.

2. The players that make it into the upper tier (past question 10) are using the new switch the question lifeline earlier. 20 of 30 players this third used switch the question at the first opportunity (on question 11). This compares to 22 of 42 in the first third. Below question 10, there are higher numbers of players this third in each category except for question 7 ($4000).

3. Far more players this third are getting a question wrong. This is something one would expect as the total amount of the prizes won is lower. However this is a separate trend from the increased numbers of winners in the middle tier. More people are winning all mid-level prizes, not just $1,000. In the first third, 37 of 125 players got a question wrong, 17 doing so with no risk - 14 on question 11 ($50,000) and 3 on question 6 ($2,000). In the second third, 69 of 125 missed a question, 14 doing so with no risk (9 on question 11 and 5 on question 6).

With the second third's 125 players generally walking away with lower prizes, it can be argued that these players are a combination of weaker and less risk averse than those in the first third. More players have answered questions incorrectly and more players are walking away with smaller prizes. The data provides objective information supporting this. However, there is room for some subjective arguments. One can consider the relative difficulty of questions as well as considering how well each selected contestant's knowledge aligns with the questions being asked. It is possible the contestant selection process has recently yielded players who are most knowledgeable in areas more different than usual from the questions asked.

Comparing season 3 thus far to season 2 and before, some of the trends I pointed out in the previous analysis are becoming more pronounced:

1. Average prize money is declining. Although the large average prize drop between season 1 ($32,028) and season 2 ($24,016) didn't look like it was going to extend into this season, the season 3 average is now lower than season 2's. Season 3's average prize was $25,168 during the first third, but is now down to $21,968 through the first two thirds. In the second third alone, the average prize was $18,768. Unless there is a sudden change during season 3's last third, the total prize amount won this season will be significantly lower than last season.

2. There are still more very big winners. Despite the trend towards a lower prize total this season, the number of big winners (question 12 or higher) remains ahead of last year's pace. There were two additional $250,000 winners during the second third of this season, as well as five additional question 12 winners ($100,000 this season, $125,000 in prior seasons).

3. There are more lower prize winners. I started to see this trend during the first third of this season, but it has really accelerated during the second third. The pace for all prizes $16,000 (question 9) and below is well ahead of last season, with the exception of $2,000 (question 6). This is especially true for $1,000 winners. As indicated earlier, far more people are missing questions, and most of them miss in the second tier.

4. There are far fewer nice sized prize winners. This follows from points 2 and 3. The squeeze on the number of question 10 and 11 winners ($25,000/$50,000 this season, $32,000/$64,000 in prior seasons) is significant. At the start of this season, I would have guessed that there would have been more question 11 winners because of the new switch the question lifeline. The proportion of question 11 winners to question 10 winners is higher this season than last, but there will be far fewer winners of these prizes this season if the current pace continues.

5. Switch the question positively effects the total amount won. This may be a surprising finding given point 4, but really should not be considering point 2. By considering only players that have made it into the upper tier (those that answered question 10 or higher successfully), this can be demonstrated. Through the first two thirds of season 3, the 72 players who made it into the upper tier won a total of $4,500,000. This averages to $62,500 per player. During all of season 2, 137 players made it into the upper tier and won a total of $7,658,000. This averages to $55,898 per player. If you were a contestant this season, and finished on question 10, 11 or 12, you may be personally annoyed that you didn't get on last season, but as a whole, the new switch the question lifeline means more money for contestants.

6. Millionaire's executive producers will be very pleased with switch the question. Although you may think they would be concerned about giving more money to players after reading point 5, the new switch the question lifeline does two things that make Millionaire more exciting to watch. First, it increases the number of big winners. Second, and equally important, it increases the number of upper tier questions that are asked. Not only do viewers see more upper tier questions, the extra question allows viewers to become more involved with the players who do well. Players who do well now receive more air time. If you're cynically inclined, you've already figured out that the increased cost per big winner doesn't look too bad if the increased amount of air time the big winner receives is considered.

Once season 3 is complete sometime in July, I will write a recap of the entire season and examine if the trends observed continue. If you have any topics you would like to see me consider for these analyses, please drop me a line at the site e-mail address, just15questionsaway (at) yahoo (dot) com.

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Season 3 is 1/3 done - how does it compare? (1/2005)