On September 3, the syndicated game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" returns for its 11th season. Those who haven't seen the show in a while, might be surprised at some of the formatting changes that have occurred in the last few years. Competitors no longer sit in the hot seat but stand instead. The questions have been randomized so the easiest question might be worth a whole lot of dough, while the hardest might earn a contestant very little. And there is a lifeline that allows someone who's stumped to jump a question.
'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' has crowned only three winners in syndicationAll of these changes might make it sound even easier to zip through the 14 general knowledge trivia questions to win the $1 million prize. But only three people have come out victorious in the syndicated version of the show since its debut in 2002.
In a recent exclusive interview, two-time Emmy winning host Meredith Vieira looked back through her nearly 2,000 episodes at her favorite moment on the show. When they taped the show that would air on February 18, 2003, retired truck driver Kevin Smith seemed like an unlikely candidate to be the new installment's first million dollar baby and yet he was.
Looking back at how a former truck driver took the top prize in 2003As Vieira recounted, "That iconic moment that everybody knows on 'Millionaire,' when the confetti came down, that was very, very moving to me. Because here was this guy and most of his learning came as he was driving his truck. He would have books on tape, and he just was a voracious learner."
And yet Vieira conceded that most people didn't believe the blue collar worked had it in him. She remarked, "To look at him and to hear what he did, I would imagine some people would go, 'Well, what's he gonna know.' Well, excuse me, he knew a lot. He won a million dollars."
Still Smith's big win seemed to have more of an emotional impact on Vieira than on her very fortunate guest. She recalled, "I cried more than he did. I don't even think he cried. I think he looked at me like, 'Why are you crying? I got the money.' But that really to me was very, very special."
Winning the million isn't easyHaving doled out over $70 million in winnings to "Millionaire" contestants, Vieira's version has had only two more top prize takers. In 2003, Nancy Christy became the first woman to win, and Sam Murray took home the cast during the "Million Dollar Tournament of 10" in 2009.
Vieira tips her hat to the three that have tasted ultimate success on the show. As she noted, "It's not easy to win. We've had people see the million dollar question. Certainly many have seen the question for $500,000. But to get all the way to a million isn't easy."
Play along at home when "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" returns on weekdays starting on Monday, 9/3. Check local listings for times and stations in your area.
More from this contributor: