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    Only 98 hear final answer: You passed


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001

    TAMPA -- While those around her moaned and groaned, Katie Travis sat serenely, secure that she had made the cut.

    [Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
    Jason Thweatt, who came from Virginia for the audition, waits for the results of the test given to each applicant for the show. He passed.
    Travis, a 45-year-old St. Petersburg mother, was sitting in a studio space at WFTS-Ch. 28 on Thursday evening, surrounded by 108 people who had just completed a 30-question test.

    Those who passed stood a chance at the "hot seat" on ABC's hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

    This group had come to WFTS, along with more then 250 others tested in two previous auditions Thursday, after calling a toll-free number last week to register.

    But earning the right to sit across from Millionaire host Regis Philbin meant scoring well on a test filled with ordering questions -- asking applicants to arrange a list of foreign cities according to location, for example.

    While only about 30 percent of applicants make the cut, Travis knew she made it.

    "When I watched the show on television, I always thought, "I can do that,' and it turns out I can," said Travis, who wound up among 31 applicants who passed the test from her group. Throughout the day, 98 of 320 hopefuls passed the written test in Tampa.

    After passing the written test, applicants faced Millionaire producers armed with lighted buzzers to answer trivia questions and personal queries.

    The goal: to see how charismatic each hopeful might be, if they actually made it to television.

    Such questions were no problem for Jason Thweatt, 25, who had already spent nearly $1,000 flying down from Chester, Va., with his father. Because call-in numbers for each city are posted on the Internet, say producers, about half of the applicants are from outside the Tampa Bay area.

    Thweatt, who is black, said he's hoping to counterbalance a lack of ethnic minorities on the TV show. Millionaire producers have expressed hopes that the auditions will increase diversity, but the majority of applicants at WFTS Thursday night seemed to be same sort of middle-aged white men who often appear on the TV show.

    "I find it hard to believe all the qualified players are from one ethnic group ... but look around," said Thweatt, who was the only black person to pass the test in his audition group. "I'm at a loss as to what can be done about this."

    Confusion last week over which toll-free number applicants should call also added controversy. WFTS and Sarasota ABC affiliate WWSB-Ch. 40 aired advertisements with Philbin telling viewers to call (888) 558-5401 to register.

    But that number wasn't yet activated; callers who dialed it were likely not included in Thursday's contestant pool. The St. Petersburg Times and the Internet featured the correct number.

    "I'm kind of (upset) that Regis threw me a curve ball," said Robert Northrup, 43, of St. Petersburg, who dialed the 888 number. "I think they should give people in Tampa another chance."

    After wrapping up a 12-hour day Thursday, Millionaire staffer Sonny Bifone would fly back to the show's New York office this morning, loaded with videotapes of the applicants.

    Those he likes will receive a postcard telling them they're among a pool of possible contestants.

    The in-person auditions are still a new process. Before, contestants had to pass a phone quiz, be selected at random by computer and pass a tougher telephone quiz (in a few weeks, the show also will bring back the telephone quizzes).

    "We're just looking for people who can have fun with Regis and do well on the show," said Bifone, who will travel to seven more cities in weeks to come. "It's about finding people who will make great television."

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