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Published: Wednesday, 7/11/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Meredith Vieira: Longtime 'Millionaire' host likes giving away money

Meredith Vieira:

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Television personality Meredith Vieira. Television personality Meredith Vieira.
GETTY IMAGES Enlarge

There are more than 5 million millionaires in the United States.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire would like to add at least one more to the list from the Toledo area, and is conducting auditions for the popular syndicated game show from 7 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Hilton Garden Inn at Levis Commons, 6165 Levis Commons Blvd. in Perrysburg. The show also is auditioning contestants in five other cities.

Originally hosted by Regis Philbin, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire premiered as a prime-time network sensation for ABC beginning in 1999, before it moved to syndication with Meredith Vieira as host in 2002. The show is deceptively simple in construction -- a single contestant answers up to 14 multiple choice questions to win a million dollars -- and surprisingly difficult in execution because of the increasing challenge of the trivia questions and the pressure not to lose money you've already won.

The quiz show, which can be seen locally weekdays at 12:30 p.m. on WTVG-TV, Channel 13, marks its 11th season on Sept. 3.

The Blade recently talked with Vieira about the enduring popularity of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, if she ever roots for the contestants, and how well she would perform on the show. A former cohost on The View and Today Show, Vieira, 58, was reluctant to talk about the departure of Ann Curry as cohost from the NBC morning news show and who replaced Vieira a year ago, other than to wish her well:

"Ann is a dear friend and I think that she will continue to do fantastic work for NBC and I look forward to seeing her at the Olympics. I'm glad I'm not in management because it's very hard to make the decisions that are made. I can only speak from a personal point of view and, you know, she's a buddy."

Q: Who Wants to Be Millionaire has been on the air in prime time and syndication for 13 years combined, and outlasted several other prime-time game shows. How do you account for your show's popularity?

Meredith Vieira, right, host of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and
Chad Justen, a Toledo contractor who was on the show in 2008. Meredith Vieira, right, host of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and Chad Justen, a Toledo contractor who was on the show in 2008.
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A: I think it's because it's a game that anybody could play, first of all, so it appeals to people of all ages. The opportunity for really anybody to answer 14 questions and walk away with a million dollars, you don't see that anywhere else. And also we've seen in recent years a lot of people coming in because they're hurting, they need money for mortgage or they need money to keep their kids in school and the game affords them the opportunity to maybe see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Q: So the nation's economic situation has affected the players and, in that sense, the game?

A: Absolutely. The kinds of people coming in who are auditioning, why they want to be on the show and also the way that they play the game. I think that they are a little more cautious sometimes because every dollar counts. Or they might be willing to take that risk because they're so hopeful that they'll get the next question and get more money. It could be either one. I'm sort of hoping this year that we see some folks coming in who are doing better, and they're not playing for a mortgage this time, but are playing because they want to give their wife or their husband a vacation that they never had. It would be nice to see that.

Q: I know you must root for the contestants, but are you ever nervous for them?

A: Always. I'm always nervous for them. I know their back stories, I know why they're there. I like these people, I like giving away money; I want to see everyone get the million dollars. Sometimes I know the answer -- I mean they never give me answers going in, but I happen to know -- and if I see they're going down the wrong path it breaks my heart that I can't interrupt them and say, "No, don't do that." I have to just stand there stone-faced and that's the hardest.

Q: Really good poker players are able to read the body language from other players to gain an edge. How do you keep from inadvertently revealing an answer?

A: I think you develop the skill, actually. That's part of it. Most of the time when I have that look on my face it's because I don't know the answer to the question so there's no way that I can give anything away. I find through all the years as we head into our 11th season that even with all of that, I don't retain a lot and I think it's because there's so much information thrown at me every day -- we're taping five shows a day -- that it's in one ear and out the other for me. You'd think I'd be brilliant at trivia but I pretty much [stink] at it.

Q: What's the best you've ever done on the show as you play along with the contestants?

A: I actually played our Facebook version of the game, which is a great way for people who want to audition for the show to practice because the questions are so similar ... and I got a million dollars and it was very exciting. That's amazing for me. When I've played with contestants I've gotten up to, depending on the game, $250[000], never a million.

Q: What's the category you feel most comfortable answering?

A: Probably literature. Definitely not pop culture, I'm pretty bad at that, actually. But I tend to do fairly well on literature. And those usually are the questions that are higher up, that's when you start to get more history and I guess lit would be one of them. When I played the game with Regis, the celebrity version, and I got to $250,000, I believe that was a literature question. But you can never predict, either. That's the thing about this game and that's why anybody can play it. It's good to have a wealth of knowledge ... but since I've been hosting it we've had a bartender win, we've had a truck driver win, and a teacher, so that's a pretty diverse group. It's been rare. We've had three [million-dollar winners] in 10 seasons.

Q: How would you convince someone in the area who is thinking about auditioning for the show but hasn't committed to it?

A: I would say play the Facebook game. You'll get very comfortable very fast. You'll find you probably do know much more than you think you do. And you have nothing to lose. You literally have nothing to lose. If you come out for the audition and you pass the test, the producers will talk to you [and] you may very well find yourself on a plane to New York with an opportunity to go home with a million dollars. At the very least you're going to go home with a thousand dollars and you're going to have a blast.

Q: You've had two other high-profile jobs while you've hosted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, both of which you quit. Why have you stuck with the show? Is it the paycheck?

A: No, it's definitely not the paycheck. Today Show was the paycheck. I really, really enjoy it. I remember when I took the job people said, 'You're going to do a game show?' I said, 'Absolutely.' I loved it when Regis was doing it. ... I was thrilled when they came to me and asked me to host it, not knowing whether I could pull it off, but wanting the opportunity to do that. As I said, I love to give away money to people, I think it's fun. I get very invested in these folks. I've met so many lovely people from all over the country who have come to play the game. And I feel that in my own way I may be changing someone's life -- a little bit or a lot -- for the better and that's a pretty cool thing to do every day.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.



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