Who Wants To Be A Statistician?



Recently, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire came back for a new 7 episode run on UK TVs with Jeremy Clarkson as host. There are many good points and many bad points – the bad being the terrible graphics choices for the money ladder and lack of “playing for” or “just won” money graphics. The good points – Jeremy breathes a bit of life into the format (though if you don’t like him then you won’t like this series), Ask The Host is on the whole quite fun, the pacing was a bit better than the old series and it’s great to see the old money ladder back again.

But what interested me was analysing how the contestants did, and whether they’d make the series so ridiculously difficult no-one would get past £16,000, and to see what people did with the new movable milestone. So I dusted off my spreadsheet and made a few observations.

Thankfully, people did win big. 16 contestants played and £318k was given out over the series, including a £125k winner and £64k winner. Of the 16 contestants, 5 chose to walk away with money. 10 got their question wrong (including someone playing for £2000, so technically they didn’t lose anything), and 1 person got their question wrong but immediately after reaching their second milestone. This seems to be quite a high guess/gamble rate, people seem to be less cautious than the original series. One theory about why this could be is that of late, quiz shows have usually had a fast pace. For shows like The Chase in particular, if you don’t like the current question, a new one will be along soon. This fast-paced mentality might be leading people to go “I don’t know, but I suspect it’s answer B” and then locking it in.

The second moveable milestone is quite interesting. It used to be set at £32,000. Of the 16 contestants this series, 7 failed to set the milestone (they were too optimistic about their question answering changes), and the other 9 did the following: 4x£16k, 2x£32k, 2x£64k, 1x£125k. If you take an average of which question number it gets set on, it lands bang on question 10, for £32k! Having seen it play out, I quite like the movable milestone. It allows more cautious people to play the game and win more – they set the milestone slightly earlier and then essentially can get a free shot at £32k. It also allows the gambler to take on the game (quite often unsuccessfully, based on the number of people who didn’t set a milestone) – but setting a milestone at £125k then entices you towards actually going for the question, even if you’re unsure of the answer.

Of the 9 people who did set the moveable milestone, 4 reach the milestone safely, and 5 don’t (walk away or get question wrong). I’m not sure what this is saying, but I find it interesting that the second milestone is reached about half the time.

EDIT, and thanks to Matt Clemson for provoking this insight: Matt suggested that most contestants had the philosophy of not setting their second milestone until they’ve started to experience difficulty and have used some of their lifelines up already, leaving them with less ammunition to get to the second milestone.

Of the five people who didn’t make their milestone, when they set the milestone they had 0, 0, 1, 1 and 2 lifelines remaining, averaging 0.8 lifelines. Of the four people who did make their milestone, they had 2, 2, 2 and 3, averaging 2.25 lifelines. Those successful in reaching their milestone have many more lifelines to enable them to get there. So, I agree with Matt – you have to use your second milestone BEFORE you start to get into trouble. Maybe this information will help contestants in any future series!

The other lifelines are also quite interesting. The average questions on which the lifelines are used are as follows:
Ask The Audience – Q6.2 (used 14 out of 16 times)
Ask The Host – Q7.7 (used 13 out of 16 times)
50:50 – Q8.1 (used 14 out of 16 times)
Phone A Friend – Q9.6 (used 10 out of 16 times)

There’s a few interesting things in here. Ask The Host was used over a wide range of difficulties, from £300 to £64,000, and Jeremy did struggle quite a bit (ok, on most of them).

Ask The Audience is used on average 1.5 questions before Ask The Host. I completely disagree with this tactic. Between asking the host or the audience, you should always Ask The Host first. With Ask The Host, you’re asking 1 person with unknown general knowledge the question. With Ask The Audience, you’re asking 100ish people with unknown general knowledge the question. Due to the wisdom of crowds, the audience is more likely to know the answer to a harder question than the host – so you should Ask The Host BEFORE you Ask The Audience.

This argument breaks down a little for the Phone A Friend lifeline, because even though they are just one person, hopefully you have better sense of the strengths and weaknesses of their general knowledge. As such, they probably should be used around or later than the Ask The Audience Lifeline – and fewer people did ended using the Phone A Friend lifeline because they wanted to save it for a harder question instead (and got knocked out).

I agree with 50:50 being the middle lifeline used, you need to use it on a question where you have an inkling (medium level question) rather than absolutely no idea (harder level question), so it’s a good idea to use it roughly in the middle.

So there we have it – my summary is: People use Ask The Audience too soon – use Ask The Host instead, people seem to be gambling more, and the new movable milestone caters for both the conservative and risk taking players.

I thought Millionaire got off to an EXTREMELY ropy start on the Saturday evening, mainly in terms of ridiculously hard question difficulty settings, but they returned to approximately normal by Sunday/Monday and the rest of the week was a joy to watch. I found Jeremy a bit disrespectful at times – and got a question reveal wrong in a hilarious yet gut wrenching fashion – but he made the show entertaining and funny on a non-quiz level, which made Millionaire fun to watch. If it ever drops its pace below what we saw this week though, it’ll die right off. People can just google the answer at home and be uninterested.

I hope it comes back for another set of specials – though I’d limit it to maybe a 4 or 5 day run so people don’t get tired of it too quickly, as happened to the Millionaire of old – and only take place once or twice a year. In that fashion, long may it continue… just please change the god-awful fonts first.

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