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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

One in a Million

By Belinda Acosta

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (ABC) has shot to the top of the Nielsen ratings and doesn't seem destined for a downward slide any time soon. So, do you want to be a millionaire? Have you thought: Hey, I could do that if -- If what? What does it take to be on the hottest game show on television? I asked Austinite Edward E. Toutant, a systems planner for IBM, who was a contestant on WWTBAM's first show of its return run, Jan. 9. No, he didn't make it to the heralded "Hot Seat" (he was correct on two of the Fastest Finger rounds but not the fastest), but he sure had a swell adventure. The following was excerpted from our interview via e-mail:

Austin Chronicle: To become a contestant, you called an 800 number and answered some questions, right? What were the questions?

Edward Toutant: Yes, the qualification process actually involves several steps and is quite complex. The full rules are at the ABC Web site (http://abc.go.com/primetime/millionaire/mill_legal.html). Here's my shorter version: 1. Call the toll-free number once per day between 5pm and 1am. 2. If you get through, answer three questions that each require placing items in the correct order (largest to smallest, earliest to latest, etc.). 3. If you are one of the 7% of callers who answer all questions correctly, wait by the phone for three hours the next day for a phone call that will probably never come, because it is based on a random drawing that selects about 1% of the correct respondents. 4. If you do get the call, you will play a playoff round on the phone a few days later against hundreds of other people who also got the call. 5. Call in during the designated hour and answer five questions like the ones in step 2, this time answering as fast as possible. Only the 10 fastest people with the correct answers are chosen. 6. Wait by the phone for up to four hours while the results are tabulated and hope that you get the coveted phone call later that evening. 7. If the call comes, frantically make travel plans, pack, leave a message for your boss that you'll be out, call friends and set up lifelines, try to get a few hours' sleep, and get to the airport for the flight to New York early the next morning. 8. Arrive at LaGuardia, find the driver who was hired to pick you up, and check in with the contestant coordinators. 9. Try to sleep. Gather with the other contestants the next morning when a van arrives to take everyone three blocks to the ABC studios for the rehearsal and taping. 10. Fly home the next day --

The five questions I got in the playoff round are shown below. Keep in mind that some of these are pretty easy, but what matters is how quickly you enter the answer on your phone keypad:

  1. Put these states in alphabetical order: New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, New Hampshire.
  2. Put these crazes in chronological order: Hula Hoop, Duncan Yo-Yo, Frisbee, Slinky.
  3. Put these Dustin Hoffman films in chronological order: Rain Man, The Graduate, Wag the Dog, All the President's Men.
  4. Put these books in order of their publication: Little Women, Love Story, The Shining, The Old Man and the Sea.
  5. Put these gymnasts in order of birth: Keri Strug, Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Cathy Rigby.

AC: Meet any interesting people?

ET: Probably the most interesting person I met was Michael Davies, the executive producer from England who obtained the American rights to WWTBAM after it was a big hit in the U.K. He is a very impressive and charismatic person who obviously loves what he is doing and is closely involved in every aspect of the show's production.

AC: Where did you stay?

ET: All contestants stay at the Empire Hotel at 63rd and Columbus Avenue, across from Lincoln Center. Each contestant is encouraged to bring a guest. I brought my brother Roy, from Louisville, Kentucky.

AC: Who were your lifelines?

ET: Each contestant is allowed up to five. Mine were: Mike Gessner, a lawyer in Pennsylvania; Lori Bailey, a government worker in Colorado; Robert Faires, the Arts editor of The Austin Chronicle; my sister Claire Toutant, a doctor in California; and my brother Bill Toutant, a philatelic dealer in Kentucky.

AC: I'm told you've been on another game show. What is the appeal to you -- the money, the pressure, being on TV, or something else?

ET: I was on Jeopardy in 1989 and won $11,401, plus some Rice-a-Roni and other parting gifts. I was also on The Challengers in 1991 and didn't win anything. It was a short-lived quiz show that emphasized current events, hosted by Dick Clark. Until WWTBAM came along, there haven't been any other shows that I'd like to be on, except maybe Win Ben Stein's Money (Comedy Central).

What is the appeal to me? Gosh, I suppose it's mostly just a chance to impress women and be pursued by thousands of game-show groupies! Okay, so that hasn't happened yet, but John Carpenter, who won a million dollars on WWTBAM, had some nice things happen to him. He got to be on Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman, either of which would be a major thrill for me. I would still enjoy the competition, even if there were no fame or money involved, but the thrill of being on a successful game show on prime-time national TV is so obvious to me that I am surprised anyone would even ask such a question.

AC: Although you didn't get a chance at the Hot Seat, was being taken to New York a prize in itself?

ET: The producers of WWTBAM consider the trip to New York a prize, and each of the 10 contestants received an IRS 1099 tax form reporting the taxable cash value of the trip.

AC: Has your opinion of WWTBAM changed now that you've been a contestant?

ET: I still think it's a great show, so that hasn't changed. The biggest change in my perception of the show is that for any contestant to be successful, the Hot Seat is not nearly as important as the Fastest Finger round. Unless you win the Fastest Finger round, you'll never get to the Hot Seat. The Fastest Finger round requires a totally different set of skills. You have to read the question and the four answers, then hit the A, B, C, D, and "enter" buttons in the correct sequence. The buttons are tricky and frustrating, since you must fully release each button before pressing the next one. If I ever get another chance to be on the show, I'll put a lot more emphasis on improving my response time in the Fastest Finger round and let the Hot Seat round take care of itself.

AC: What is Reege really like?

ET: Overall, he was very likable and seemed to be having the time of his life.

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