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The process of selecting contestants for the initial thirteen broadcasts began with an ad asking viewers "Who wants to be a millionaire?" and informing them that by calling a 900-number (some states required 800-numbers), answering three questions correctly in the fastest time, and being the top scorers in a playoff game, they could be on their way to New York City. The cost of the call was $1.50, and callers were restricted to two calls from the same phone each day. Revenues from these phone calls were to be used to defer the costs of producing the show.
In Britain this technique had been tremendously successful, but initially here there were substantially fewer calls than expected. "Calling a 900-number can have a real taboo about it," explains Supervising Producer Ann Miller, "and so many people have 900-blocks on their phones to prevent their kids from using it." (Callers now use a free 800-number to qualify.)
Players were asked to answer three general-knowledge questions increasing in difficulty. Each question required players to put four things in the proper order using their telephone keypad. One question, for example, told players to "put the following cities in order from east to west, traveling along Route 66: Albuquerque, Tulsa, Amarillo, Beverly Hills." Players who answered all the questions correctly were ranked on speed of response. About 7 percent of callers answered all three questions correctly. These players were then asked to select one of the available thirteen tape dates for which they wanted to qualify. (If you try calling in, Davies advises that you, "prepare yourself with a pen, paper, and chart for the answers before you make the phone call.")
There was a playoff for each tape date, held among the top scorers from each day who selected the same tape date. The playoff consisted of five questions of increasing difficulty, answered by placing the items in the correct order. Again, players who answered all the questions correctly were ranked based on the speed of their responses.