How Google Killed “Phone A Friend” From “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”


Google gets blamed for everything these days. Even game show format changes.

This past Wednesday, with our SMX East conference winding down in New York City, I walked up to ABC studios to watch a couple tapings of Who Wants To Be A Millionare. I also stayed after the tapings to take the audition test, hoping to qualify to be a contestant on the show.

Who wants to be a millionaire? Duh. Me.

Now, watching TV shows being taped can be a very dull experience. There are takes, re-takes, breaks, stops, starts, edits, interruptions, and so forth. (It took more than two hours to tape two 30-minute episodes of Millionaire.) That can make even the most enthusiastic crowd of 200 people restless. So, producers often plan distractions to keep the audience entertained. In our case, comedian Paul Mecurio served as our distraction host — telling jokes, talking to the audience, taking questions and generally trying to keep a sense of pace to the proceedings.

There were several audience questions about the drastic changes to this season’s version of Millionaire. (Pretty much the entire format of the show has changed.) But one person asked why, before the 2009 season, the show dropped the “Phone A Friend” lifeline. This was a way for contestants to call a friend or family member to get help with a tough question.

“Because of Google,” Mecurio said. “Everyone would call their friend and the friend would start Googling to get the answer. The contestant would be like, ‘Hey Joe, aspirin. A-S-P-I-R-I-N.’ We could hear them typing on their keyboard!”

Mecurio went to say that they want the show to have a human touch — that humans should answer the questions, not computers. So that was the end of Phone A Friend.

And now you know.

Oh, if you’re curious, about 100-150 of the audience members stayed for the ridiculously difficult audition test. Only eight people passed. I wasn’t one of them.

I’m blaming Google, too.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Features: Analysis | Google: General | Google: Web Search | Search & Society: General | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • T Campbell

    The show came pre-ruined for me, for the very same reason. It was easy to imagine myself getting a call like that, and doing the same Google-Fu.

    Now, it would be possible to do Phone-A-Friend for questions Google can’t answer so easily– questions involving deductive reasoning, for instance. But that would likewise mean a serious deviation from WWTBAM’s format.

    I’m a crossword puzzle designer, and the ways Google has changed that field are interesting too. I’d love to see an article about that, one of these slow days.

  • Matt McGee

    How has Google changed the crossword puzzle field?

  • sania mehta

    Completely acceptable to replace life line ‘phone-a-friend’ from show “who wants to be millionaire”. Because it is a game show and it judges person’s knowledge not about how quickly he can cheat in 1 min or 30 secs. But I don’t find only Google to be responsible for this. Person on other side can also search from other search engines, wiki answers, yahoo answers as well.

  • T Campbell

    Others are more qualified to answer that question than I am (and I’ll invite them to do so), but here’s a cursory examination:

    There’s an ongoing debate among solvers of the newspaper crossword about whether or not googling is cheating. I know my father and I still avoid it when solving the NYT Sunday, and we haven’t felt the need. It’s definitely practiced, though, because the day that a popular puzzle is syndicated, its clues often show up in Google Hot Trends.

    Online crosswords seem to be done for a more computer-savvy audience, and I think googling is more widely accepted but still controversial when solving those. I know that without reference works, I can handle up to the “Thursday” level of puzzle (with Monday-Saturday representing a scale of increasing difficulty). But online, I do find myself googling, albeit sparingly.

    For a constructor, this situation presents a new challenge. Do we bring more obscure references into the puzzles, secure in the knowledge that the reader can bring this extra tool to the table? Or do we work for those who want to eschew the tool and test their memories, not their search capacity? One way or another, the net result is that we’re working with a greater range of solving abilities than ever. What one solver finds forbiddingly hard, another finds boringly easy.

    Speaking for myself, when I make independent puzzles like the Ubercross Fiddy (, I try to challenge the solver in ways that Google can’t make super-easy, and I try not to use any clues that are virtually unanswerable WITHOUT Google, either. Example: “Its white filling turns orange in October” (answer: OREO). Other online constructors, I think, accept googling as part of the game now, and construct puzzles that are sufficiently challenging even with its use assumed.

    Google’s impact on us has had its upside. The above-mentioned Google-friendly puzzles can work with a greater vocabulary than ever before. And for me, finding obscure trivia that people might not know but can still lead them to the answer has never been easier. My friend Brendan Emmett Quigley, who works in both print and online, waxed rhapsodic about that on his blog recently (

    But, like so many other disciplines, ours is scrambling to make the most of the ever-changing world of digital media.

    I’m strictly an online constructor and not nearly as much of a part of the “scene” as some. I hope they’ll offer their corrections and additional thoughts.

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