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Taking Away Our Phone Privileges
March 1

Every great, long-running game show has something iconic. The Price is Right has the Big Wheel, as does Wheel of Fortune. Jeopardy has the backwards phrasing of correct answers.

And Who Wants to be a Millionaire had "Phone-a-Friend." A revolutionary idea in 1998, it allowed the player the chance to ask any of his pre-selected friends the current question, and they could discuss it for 30 seconds. The conversations ranged from the straightforward to the tense, the comical to the commonplace, but it was an integral part of the game.

On January 11, 2010, Meredith began the show by telling the next contestant that Phone-a-Friend was gone. As a sort of mollification, the player would be able to Ask the Expert at any point, instead of after the fifth question as was the case before. The reason given was one of fairness: many contestants were having their Friends using the web to research the answer online, and some weren't.

I recall some contestants on the nighttime version using Phone-a-Friend, and on questions worth $1 million. Anyone paying attention could hear the clacking of the keys and the contestant saying "Search thus-and-so." Anyone who thought ahead could (and should!) have had someone at a computer terminal, with a handful of search engines open and at the ready. I don't think this was cheating, but making the full use of the help allowed.

Personally, I think that the reason behind the removal of Phone-a-Friend had less to do with fairness and more to do with the prize money being earned by the players. In the first series of episodes, the players earned an average of over $32,000, but that number steadily decreased over the next five, but in series seven, that amount increased $7,000 to $27,000 (keep in mind that the second safety point was decreased to $25,000 as well.). Players are winning more money since the show started, and so future players are being punished for the previous players successes.

If the new players had gotten something back that was equally as good as Phone-a-Friend, I'd be less irritated, but Ask the Expert is such a crapshoot that I would rather have Switch the Question back.

Why so much caterwauling about one lifeline on a game show? Because back in the early days, the show was taut, exciting and streamlined. Now in the last year the lifelines have been changed up, that asinine Tournament was created to ensure that someone would finally win a million dollars, and instead of being able to make a useful phone call, players now have to hope that their Expert is knowledgeable about the topic at hand. The show has been rolling downhill over the last two years, as if those in power were trying to gut everything associated with the show, and I don't like it. The Millionaire of today is not the Millionaire of even three years ago, and that's too bad.

You can have thirty seconds with Travis Eberle if you drop him a line at traviseberle@gmail.com, but make sure to ask him something he knows.