The "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Phone-A-Friend Lifeline

Retired in 2010, Phone-A-Friend Has a Lifeline of its Own

The "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" stage with empty chairs and full audience.

Idea SV/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Who wants to be a millionaire? Probably most people. Since August 16, 1999, contestants on the NBC game show of the same name have been taking their shot at winning a cool million by correctly answering 14 multiple-choice questions. Players can stop at any time along the way. A wrong answer can be very expensive.

Fortunately, contestants are offered “lifelines” to help them make it to the top. Phone-A-Friend, made famous during Regis Philbin's stint as original host, was one of four original lifelines. While it was discontinued in 2010, it may yet be the best-known of the "Millionaire" lifelines and is still routinely trotted out by comedians and those engaged in the game of social commentary in the media.

Phone-A-Friend Basics

The premise of Phone-A-Friend was simple: Up to three friends, relatives, or acquaintances were made available for consultation when a contestant was unsure of an answer. These "friends" were pre-selected, and producers arranged to have them standing by in case they were needed during the taping of the show.

When a contestant opted to use the Phone-A-Friend lifeline, gameplay stopped. The contestant selected the person he or she would like to call, and that person was contacted by telephone. ("Millionaire" did not allow the use of cell phones to make the calls.) Once the friend answered, the host of the show revealed where the contestant was on the money ladder, after which the contestant had 30 seconds to read the question and multiple-choice answers and solicit the Phone-A-Friend's best guess for the correct response. If time ran out, the call was cut off. After the call, the game clock resumed and the contestant could then either provide an answer, use another lifeline, or walk away with the money he or she had earned to that point.

Funniest Phone-A-Friend Moment

The most famous example of the Phone-A-Friend lifeline in action came when the show's first million-dollar winner, John Carpenter, phoned his father on the final question of his game. Carpenter didn't ask his dad for advice, however. He only called to say that he was about to win a million dollars because he knew the answer to the question. He was right.

End of the Life-Line

The reason this lifeline was retired was that it was fatally flawed. Since the Phone-A-Friend folks were contacted only by telephone, they often had an open web browser at the ready and simply Googled for the correct answer. Many savvy contestants learned to provide only the key details in the question, giving their telephone cohort as much time as possible to find the right answer.


Duca, Lauren. "The Final Answer On ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?,’ 15 Years After It Premiered." Huffington Post, August 15, 2014.