Three Letters of Protest Regarding
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

Rick Rosner



On July 23 and July 25, former Noesis Editor Rick Rosner appeared on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” the popular, but widely criticized as “dumbed-down,” ABC quiz show. Rick missed a question at the $16,000 level. There has been considerable discussion on Prometheus fire list of whether the question was fair; the thread title was “Rick Rosner Robbed?” Here are three letters from Rick himself on this subject.

 

 

12207 Laurel Terrace Dr.
Studio City CA 91604-3608
July 27, 2000

 

Michael Davies, Executive Producer
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
Valleycrest Productions, Ltd.

Dear Michael,

As you might expect from someone who spent hundreds of hours over the course of a year studying and practicing to make it to the hot seat, I’ve spent the last two weeks scrutinizing every aspect of the elevation question. You must already know that the question is flawed:

What capital city is located at the highest elevation above sea level?

A. Mexico City   B. Quito
C. BogotŠ   D. Kathmandu

I’ve come to some conclusions about the question’s deficiencies, which lie in the following areas:

1. An unfortunate set of possible answers

2. Imprecision of elevation

3. Inappropriate level of difficulty

 

1. POOR ASSORTMENT OF POSSIBLE ANSWERS

There are many indications that the question is based on a limited and arbitrary list of 30 world cities entitled Latitude, Longitude, and Altitude of World Cities, on page 463 of The 2000 World Almanac. This list excludes over 80% of the planet’s high-altitude capital cities, including La Paz, considered to be the world’s highest capital; Lhasa, nearly the same height as La Paz and capital of China’s Autonomous Region of Tibet; and Sucre, Bolivia’s other capital and higher than Quito according to some sources.

The wording of the question, What capital city is located at the highest elevation . . ., rather than Which of these capital cities . . ., indicates that the author of the question thought that the world’s highest capital city was included among the four choices.

The question is more difficult than was intended. Rather than asking, What is the world’s highest capital city? the question essentially asks, As the world’s second, third, or fourth-highest capital, depending on what sources and criteria are used, which of these capital cities is located at a higher elevation above sea level than the others? The latter question is of course much harder.

Of the 24 or so world capitals with elevations over 4,000’, The World Almanac lists only 4. (The Almanac lists a fifth capital, Santiago, Chile, at 4,921’, but this figure is thousands of feet higher than its elevation in any other source.) All four of these cities were used in the question, including Kathmandu, a wild card that makes an already difficult question nearly impossible.

The more you know about Kathmandu, the more the question becomes counter-intuitive and counter-deductive. Know that Kathmandu is in Nepal? Well, Nepal has the highest points on earth and the second-highest average elevation of any nation. Kathmandu is the capital of a country with elevations from 200’ to 29,000’, the capital of a province with elevations from 1,500’ to 25,000’, the capital of a district with elevations from 4,200’ to more than 9,000’. Kathmandu has the same altitude-related smog problems as Mexico City. In 1992, it was the site of an altitude-exacerbated crash of a Thai Air jetliner.

I estimate that less than 1/4 of 1% of all Americans know Kathmandu’s elevation. About 1 American in 400 has visited Nepal. (And you can visit Kathmandu without learning the elevation. My Phone-A-Friend, a travel writer, has been to all of the cities in the question.) Only one American in a million belongs to the Nepal Studies Association or receives the Himalayan Research Bulletin.

Kathmandu is an inordinately attractive answer regardless of what you know about the other three cities.

 

2. IMPRECISION OF ELEVATION

Elevations listed for the four cities not only vary widely from source to source but also fail to encompass the actual ranges of elevation found in these cities. Elevations given for Quito vary from 7,000’ to 9,500’, for Mexico City, from 6,890’ to 7,875’, for BogotŠ, from 7,500’ to almost 9,000’. (The 1994 and 1995 editions of The World Almanac erroneously list BogotŠ’s elevation as 11,490’.) Often, two different sections of the same source will list two different elevations, varying by hundreds of feet.

Each city occupies a growing range of elevations. From 1970 to 1990, the area of Quito doubled every 7.4 years. Maps and statistics are generally incomplete and obsolete. The Quito Metropolitan District encompasses a range of elevations from below 4,500’ to above 10,800’. BogotŠ ranges in elevation from below 8,000’ to above 10,000’. Mexico City’s Distrito Federale encompasses neighborhoods ranging from 7,200’ to above 9,100’. The Kathmandu District ranges from 4,250’ to 9,050’. Simply stated, all these cities overlap in elevation.

Furthermore, varying definitions of elevation, based on different definitions of the planet’s basic shape, add ambiguity to measurements of elevation. According to The 2000 World Almanac, measurements of Everest vary by more than 800’.

 

3. INAPPROPRIATE DIFFICULTY LEVEL

I have both objective and subjective evidence that this question was unreasonably difficult. I reviewed more than 60 episodes of Millionaire, including my own. In those episodes, 4 out of 59 contestants who reached the $16K question were eliminated by that question. One out of 31 contestants who reached the $32K question with all lifelines intact was eliminated by that question. Of these five ousted contestants (four at $16K plus one at $32K), two were eliminated by the only two city elevation questions that, to my knowledge, Millionaire has ever asked. The odds that both city elevation questions fell at random into the contestant-killer category are 450 to 1 against.

I evaluated several hundred actual Millionaire questions worth from $8K through $64K. I estimate that a bright, educated, trivia-oriented person would be 60% less likely to correctly answer my $16K question than an average $16K question. In the 10 days before my show was broadcast, I asked 47 such people the capital city question. For their answer to count, they had to be able to name at least three of the four countries of which these cities are the capitals. The people I asked included geography specialists from UCLA and local map stores. Only 6 named Quito with any degree of certainty. Another 7 guessed Quito, while 2 said BogotŠ, 9 said Mexico City, and 23 said Kathmandu.

You’ve asked other tough questions at $16K

Who did Bryant Gumbel replace on The Today Show?

Where does the umlaut go on Haagen Dazs?

Who was never named Time’s Man of the Year?

but in each of these questions, millions of people have witnessed the pertinent fact. Scores of millions of Americans watched Brokaw on Today. Most of the population has seen a Hšagen Dazs sign. Time has a circulation of four million. Seldom has a question hinged on a fact as obscure as the elevation of the world’s 472nd most-populous city.

You’ve asked easy geography questions for much more money. Here are two examples for $125K

In terms of land area, what is the largest state in the United States? What state contains the easternmost point in the contiguous United States?

Some people would say that it’s bad luck that I was asked such an imperfect question. Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s the best luck in the world, but it has given me the opportunity to go on a little adventure, playing detective, getting the goods on a question gone bad.

Thank you for your attention and consideration. I am eager to talk with you or your staff and to share more of what I’ve found.

Thanks again and best wishes,

Richard Rosner

 

 

12207 Laurel Terrace Dr.
Studio City CA 91604-3608
August 1, 2000

 

Michael Davies, Executive Producer
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
Valleycrest Productions, Ltd.

Dear Michael,

I hope that you’ve had a chance to look over the letter I faxed on Friday. Here’s more on the elevation question, in two sections:

1. What the web thinks

2. What one needs to know to answer it

I’m sorry to keep sending you letters. I’m not a grievance-oriented person, but a little research led me to a surprising amount of information indicating that it is an unacceptably-flawed question.


1. WEB OPINION

The Mexico City/Quito/BogotŠ/Kathmandu question has generated more online discussion than almost any other Millionaire question. On three different online message boards, I found over 130 posted messages pertaining to the question from 40 to 50 different fans. (Not wanting to interfere with the discussion, I have posted no messages concerning it.)

Here’s what online fans had to say:

Five directly stated that I should be invited back on the show. Another 19 fans were also on my side, stating that it is a flawed or unfair question for its dollar value. Eight of these people stated that it is the hardest question ever asked for $16K. Seven people took neutral positions, and twelve people said it is just my tough luck or trivia ignorance or failure to use my 50/50.

So in terms of web opinion, I did pretty well—two to one in my favor from a group of people who tend to be harsh, sarcastic, highly knowledgeable about the show, and hypercritical of the contestants.


2. NECESSARY KNOWLEDGE

Almost every Millionaire question can be answered by knowing one main fact, or by using deduction and/or process of elimination. That process breaks down on the elevation question.

If Quito were the world’s highest capital, the question could be answered by simply knowing that fact. Too bad it isn’t. Someone who knows that Quito is the second-highest South American capital (though some sources rank it behind both of Bolivia’s capitals), or that Quito is the second- or third- or fourth-highest world capital, depending on the source—isn’t done answering the question.

The three answers besides Quito—Mexico City, BogotŠ, and Kathmandu—must be eliminated, either by knowing each of the capitals higher than Quito, or by knowing the supposed elevations of all four possible answers. It’s a lot to know, as I show via an Obscurity Rating.

What would go into an Obscurity Rating for a city’s elevation? Perhaps the product of these four criteria

A. Number of cities in its elevation class

According to the World Almanac list, only four capitals belong to the exclusive 4,000’ Club. The fewer members in a class, the easier it is to know each member. Many more people know the four assassinated U.S. Presidents than know all the Presidents who died in office.

B. Its distance from the continental U.S.

C. The inverse of its population

D. Its rank in the 4,000’ Club

Using these criteria, pretending the World Almanac list is correct and complete, and assigning Mexico City an Obscurity Rating of 1,

Quito would have an O.R. of 25.
BogotŠ would have an O.R. of 8.
Kathmandu would have an O.R. of 280.

But the World Almanac chart is incomplete. Quito isn’t the world’s highest capital. It’s about third. BogotŠ is about fifth, not second.

Mexico City is ninth, not third. Kathmandu is 19th or so, not 4th.

And there are about 24 world capitals over 4,000’, not just 4.

So Mexico City has an Obscurity Rating of 18, not 1.
Quito has an O.R. of 450, not 25.
BogotŠ has an O.R. of 120, not 8.
Kathmandu has an O.R. of 7,980, not 280.

And the elevation question’s overall Obscurity Rating is increased 140,000-fold.

Whether or not you believe that O.R. is a meaningful statistic, it’s impossible to believe that you would intentionally ask what capital is the highest, then offer the world’s 9th, 3rd, 5th, and 19th-highest capitals as the answer choices. [Being 19th makes Kathmandu more, not less attractive as an answer. Its obscurity (compounded by its geographic and political isolation, and its reputation as the world’s most mysterious city, closed to the outside world until the 1950’s) increases the probability that one’s reasoning will be based on its ultra-high altitude surroundings.]

In the dozens of hours I’ve spent looking at hundreds of sources, I found no reasonably complete and accurate list of world city elevations. Not on the web, not in any of Amazon’s 25 best-selling atlases, not in any almanac. The World Almanac list of international city elevations includes only 1% of the world’s cities. It includes only 13% of the world’s capitals. And in every edition since 1994, 3 to 6% of the altitudes listed have been wrong.

I am eager to hear what you will do about this thoroughly compromised, obscure and misleading question, a question that not only lacks the intended answer, but also lacks any correct answer because of the cities’ overlapping elevations.

Thank you,

Richard Rosner

 

Via fax and US Mail 12207 Laurel Terrace Dr.
310.557.6631 Studio City CA 91604-3608
September 19, 2000


Susan Futterman, Director, Broadcast Standards and Practices
ABC, Inc.
2040 Avenue of the Stars
Century City CA 90067-4785


Dear Ms. Futterman,

On Who Wants to be A Millionaire, I was eliminated by this question:

What capital city is located at the highest altitude above sea level?

A. Mexico City   B. Quito
C. BogotŠ   D. Kathmandu

The question is invalid, for three distinct reasons:

1. All four of these mountainous capitals have a vast range of elevations in common with each other. None of these cities is exclusively the highest, and the question has no correct answer.

2. Millionaire’s inadequate research led to grossly misleading and obscure answer choices, making the question far harder than intended and unjustifiable at the $16,000 level.

3. The correct answer to the highest capital question isn’t among the answer choices. It’s like asking, What does 2 + 2 equal—0, 1, 2 or 3?

Millionaire makes mistakes; many of its episodes include contestants brought back because of bad questions, etc. Yet of 4,000 questions asked on Millionaire, there’s never been another question wrong in so many ways.

I strived for a year to reach the Hot Seat. My wife and I spent nine exhausting days away from our home and daughter, traveling farther—29,400 miles between us—than any other Millionaire participants. We willingly did so because we expected fair play.

So Millionaire should, as it has many times before, uphold its own and ABC’s integrity by making amends. The question’s lack of a definite answer notwithstanding, its esoteric answer choices make it absolutely unsuitable below the half-million-dollar level. This is a substantial violation of Millionaire’s Official Rules, which state that questions shall be designed to be of increasing difficulty. Kathmandu’s elevation alone is 50 times more obscure than the facts behind most $16K questions.

The question was so difficult that the Millionaire staff, with unlimited access to research materials, couldn’t come up with the right answer.

I am eager to speak with you at your convenience and will gladly provide supporting documents, including letters exchanged with the show. I hope to resolve this quickly and amicably, without having to use additional resources to obtain a fair outcome.

Thank you,

Richard Rosner

home 818.985.5230 cell 818.395.9593