A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker



I think the American Broadcasting Company has really stumbled onto something here.

Not like they stumbled onto something a couple of decades ago when the television network gave us "Fantasy Island," "The Love Boat," "Charlie's Angels" and "Three's Company."

Thankfully, they haven't stumbled onto anything like that.

This time it's a game show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" that has brought ABC to the top of the network ratings race. The format is an old game show standby: answer a series of questions correctly, make tons of money. Every time you answer correctly, the stakes go up until you have a shot at a question worth $1 million.

But ABC has thrown in a few new wrinkles, and not just those belonging to host Regis Philbin. The questions are all multiple choice, so even if you know absolutely nothing about the subject, you have a good chance of guessing correctly. Contestants also have three "lifelines" they can use on the way to the million dollar question. With one, they can poll the audience for their opinion on the question. With another, they can increase the odds to 50-50 by eliminating two of the options. And with the third, they can telephone a friend or family member who may have some expertise in the subject to get their input.

Oh, and then they have Regis sitting in front of them, giving them every opportunity to change their minds at the last minute, dramatically asking each one the first media catch-phrase of the 21st Century: "Is that your final answer?"

I have a couple of theories about why this program has captured the imagination-and the viewing attention-of the American public. In the first place, everyone loves the idea of easy money, and let's be honest: this looks like easy money. For the most part, the questions aren't hard. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way here. I mean, it isn't like "Jeopardy," which has been known to send Ph.D.s home in tears and empty-handed-except for the lovely parting gifts, of course.

And second, we like the gentle, forgiving nature of the show. It's like the producers are doing everything they can to help contestants win. We like that because, for most of us, life isn't like that. There are few clear answers to Real World questions-multiple choice or otherwise- and more often than not, we are stuck with the first response that pops into our minds and out of our mouths no matter how much we may wish to replace it with another, more carefully reasoned response.

But even if life isn't a game show, and we don't have Regis Philbin tossing softball questions at us and making sure we're absolutely, totally, completely happy with our answers, we do have lifelines. Instead of an audience lifeline, we have friends and family members to whom we can turn for help. There's no 50-50 lifeline, but we can rely on the wisdom and experiences of those who have gone before us to help us eliminate risky possibilities. And even when there aren't family members or friends to whom we can talk, and we don't think anyone has ever dealt with anything quite like this before, we can call upon God-the Ultimate Infinite Lifeline.

Which is not to say that Regis is a metaphor for God-you'll have to tune into "Touched By An Angel" for that kind of programming. In fact, if you were to ask me, I'd guess that ABC never intended "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" as a metaphor for the Real World lifelines that are available to those who are looking for answers in life. They just . . . you know . . . stumbled onto it.

And yes, that would be my final answer.

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--- © Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and