This is one million dollars! In a moment, these two couples will compete with each other as they battle for the biggest prize in the history of television. Just one single word could turn one of our couples into millionaires! All on the...
SHOW: The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime
AIR DATES: January 6, 1986 to September 11, 1987
HOST: Jim Lange
WATCH IT HERE: YouTube
Yes, unlike many of the shows I've covered, I made it to a third year! And I want to start this suspicious ocassion with a bunch of shows that have been all over this century: big-money prime-time game shows. Ever since "Millionaire" premiered in 1999, networks and companies have been trying desperately to cash-in (no pun intended) on the craze. The one thing MOST of these shows did better than "Millionaire" was to not over-saturate the airwaves themselves and become mundane (if only "Deal Or No Deal" learned that, it wouldn't be working on coming back on cable opposite reruns of "Shark Tank"). But, before I get to all the shows that TRIED to be "Millionaire", I'm going to start with the FIRST show to offer a million bucks: "$1,000,000 Chance Of a Lifetime". And, back in the 80s, it WAS a "chance of a lifetime" for couples who couldn't get on "Dream House" or "Strike It Rich". In the decade where we all dreamed of being millionaires, what better show than one where a couple can do just that? Well,...it has its pluses, to be sure,...but its minuses sorta tell you why it didn't last longer than it did.
HOW WAS IT PLAYED?
Two couples - including returning champions (if any) - play each night. Before the game starts, each couple decides who plays the first puzzle. The players swap after each puzzle.
The players are shown a clue puzzle made up of one or two words. Every two seconds, a letter is inserted into the puzzle. The first player to buzz-in with the correct clue wins $25 and gains control of the main board. A larger puzzle is shown, to which the clue is connected. The keyboard before them lights up all the letters that are in the puzzle (an asterisk is used for symbols like apostrophes or dashes) plus one extra letter known as the "stinger". The player in control presses two letters on the keyboard and all instances of that letter are put into the puzzle, adding $25 to a puzzle bank for each instance. After two letters are picked, the player is given the chance to solve the puzzle and earn all the money in the bank. If the "stinger" is picked, the player cannot pick another letter or guess the puzzle. If the player refuses to guess or guesses wrong, another toss-up clue puzzle is given. The process continues until the puzzle is solved, earning the solver the bank.
The second puzzle is worth $50 for each clue and $50 into the bank for each letter instance. From the third puzzle on, it's $100 per clue/instance. If time runs out during a puzzle, the letters are put into the puzzle just like with the clues, but no more money is put in the bank. The first player to buzz-in with the solutions wins the final bank.
Whichever couple has more money at the end of the game are the champions. If there's a tie, one final toss-up clue is played with the winner being a) the one to buzz-in with the right answer or b) the one who DOESN'T buzz-in with the WRONG answer. The losing couple - if they were defending champs - leaves with whatever money they accumulated in previous games.
The champions are shown three categories. They pick one and are placed in an isolation booth where they can hear only the host and see only the board. They then have 60 seconds to answer six clue-like puzzles based on the category selected, filled in one letter at a time (a bit quicker than a usual clue). The couple can shout out answers as often as they can with no penalties. Once they get a right answer, they move on to the next one. If they get all six clues in 60 seconds or less, they win the bonus game. Otherwise, they leave with the money accumulated in the main game(s) they've played.
If the couple wins their first bonus game, they are offered $5000 more to walk away. If they take the offer, they retire and leave with their winnings. Otherwise, they come back and must win both the main game AND the bonus game to keep going. Winning the second bonus game earns them a $10,000 buy-out offer. If they refuse, they must win the main game once more and play the bonus game.
If they win three main games and bonus games, the couple gets their winnings augmented to $1,000,000 and they retire. In the first season, the million comes in $40,000 a year for 25 years. In the second season, they get $900,000 in cash ($36,000/year for 25 years) and the other $100,000 in the form of two new Mazdas, 40 round-trip tickets anywhere on Delta, five complete rooms of furniture and an outdoor spa.
Well, the OBVIOUS plus - particularly for the time - is that this WAS the biggest prize in television history (there was a $1M Joker's Wild Tourney of Champs, but that was the total prize pool, not an individual prize). Again, this was the 80s, when every American thought they's be living large. And the thought of being a millionaire simply by being a three-time champ on a game show? Wow!
Obviously, they wanted to make winning the million difficult but not impossible. And, with the bonus game, they do that pretty well. After all, what 80s couple knew a lot about Native American tribe names, American composers or even world capitals? But, still, with good word-puzzle-solving skills and a LITTLE logic, a smart couple could win the game. Then they just have to do it twice more for the million. Not as easy as answering 15 multiple-choice questions, eh?
Jim Lange was a treasure to the game show hosting ranks. His long time hosting "The Dating Game" made him perfect for this, keeping the game going smoothly and reveling in the couples' wins. This wouldn't be his last gig (that would be "Triple Threat", a show I didn't watch) but he showed his experience in them here. He will be missed.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK?
You can just SEE "Wheel of Fortune" in this, can'tcha? Again, that's not TOO bad; if you must crib, crib from the best. But I'm not sure they tried hard enough to differentiate. Sure, there's only ONE wrong letter...and, of course, no wheel...but a veteran game show viewer can't help but look at this and think, "What a rip-off of 'Wheel'!" A bit unfair, I know, but that's game shows for ya.
The only other issue was that it was too easy to catch-up if you "play dumb" and build up that bank. I think it might've been better if (like Chico's "FastTalkers" back in the alt.tv.game-shows days), they took money OUT of the bank for each letter revealed instead of ADDED to it.
The change in the second season's "million" is a cop-out if I ever saw one. It's like they WANTED the couple to pay taxes on the cars, furniture, etc. Not that they didn't pay taxes on the cash but...then, I'm sure you could just take it out of each year's annuity. I wouldn't be surprised if all of the first year's cash and MAYBE some of the second year's went to paying off the taxes on the prizes.
WOULD IT WORK TODAY?
Unless they bump it to a "$10,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime", not likely. In the days where Powerball gets up to nine digits on a regular basis, playing for a million is NICE...but it'll hardly change your life anymore. Most people would just put that money into a retirement account and keep working. At least, that's what I'D do with only a million. Sorry, nice try but not something worth coming back unless you raise the stakes...CONSIDERABLY.
NEXT TIME: I feel the need...the need...for "avarice"!
Chris Wolvie wants to be a millionaire so freakin' bad! Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWolvie and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.