|Ryan Seacrest is the best thing about "Million Second Quiz"|
I’ve loved quiz shows and game shows all my life. I grew up on a steady diet of The Price Is Right, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, Hollywood Squares, Supermarket Sweep, and reruns of Press Your Luck. The Game Show Network was the best thing to happen to me as a kid. When Who Wants to Be a Millionaire sparked a quiz show craze in the early 2000s* I was all in. I watched every night. Once I hit my 18th birthday I started playing their call-in game constantly trying to earn a spot on the show. I still do the Jeopardy online quizzes every year, though it’s been a fruitless effort thus far. I love game shows, especially quiz shows. So when NBC announced that they were launching a new show called Million Second Quiz, I was ecstatic. I downloaded the app the day it came out and racked up thousands of points that first week. I want you to know all this so that you understand how hard it is for me when I tell you that Million Second Quiz is a terrible show.
*The following quiz shows all debuted on the broadcast networks between 2000 and 2002: It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime (Fox), Twenty One (NBC), Weakest Link (NBC), Winning Lines (CBS), You Don’t Know Jack (ABC), The Chair (ABC), The Chamber (Fox).
Let’s start by running down the myriad problems with MSQ:
The Hook Is a Lie
MSQ promised the Holy Grail of television quiz shows: “the first fully convergent television experience, where viewers from all across America will be able to play along in sync with the game during primetime and get a chance to be chosen live on air as a contestant for the following night’s primetime show.” This statement promised what could have been a truly interactive experience. It was, instead, none of these things. 99% of the players who make it on do simply by standing in line. Those few “line jumpers” who do make it on were pretty clearly chosen weeks ago. And let’s not even discuss the disaster that is the MSQ app. The possibilities were endless. They could have allowed at-home players to compete against each other. They could have shown home player scores on the live broadcasts. That is the whole point of MSQ, right? To create a must-see live experience? Instead, what did we get? An app that keeps score. That’s it. The app asks you the questions on the show and keeps score for you. It’s no different than when I used to watch Jeopardy as a teenager and keep track in a notebook of how much money I would have won had I actually been on the show. Sure, the app also shows you the competitor’s score but that’s largely irrelevant because the players on television are playing by different rules.
Two Separate Games
The MSQ app was released weeks before the show debuted and it had a relatively simple premise. Two players, ten questions. The first five questions were worth ten points each, the next three twenty, and the last two thirty. Most points at the end wins. That’s it. Simple. But the show wasn’t content with simple. They wisely switched to a timed format with bouts lasting 5-7 minutes but then felt the need to add an unlimited use “doubler,” which doubles the value of a question but gives the opponent the opportunity to answer (if they get it wrong you get the points instead). Now, this feature plays fine enough on the show, but it makes the app worthless because, while at-home players don’t get the benefit of the doubler’s points, the contestants do. So you could answer every question correctly and still end up with fewer points than the contestants because you didn’t get the advantage of answering a 16-point question. What, exactly, is the point of the app then? The people at home aren’t even playing the same game as the people on the show.
Every good quiz show has a gimmick. The great quiz shows have great gimmicks. Millionaire had the money ladder and the risk of losing money with a wrong answer. Weakest Link had musical chairs and voting gimmicks, bringing strategy into both the money acquisition portion of the game and the player removal portion of the game. MSQ has too many gimmicks. First there’s the Money Chair. It’s an easy enough concept: when you win a bout, you enter the Money Chair. You earn $10 for every second you spend in the chair. Notice that I didn’t say you “win” $10. You “earn” $10. You see, the only way to actually win any money is to get into Winners’ Row, which consists of the top four players. But it’s not enough to just get into Winners’ Row, you have to continue competing to stay there. There are “Power Players” and “Winners’ Defenses” and just a whole mess of complicating features. Oh, and in the end, the top four players will all combine their winnings and duke it out in a winner-takes-all trivia throwdown. Jesus, I’m exhausted just from typing that. It’s just too much.
Faces in the Crowd
So far, three nights in, the players in Winners’ Row have mostly stayed the same, which is unfortunate because we really have no idea who they are. Brandon, the leader at the moment was on the first live show, but otherwise the most we get of these people is a five-second bio as they’re being introduced. Compare that with American Ninja Warrior, a show that, while pre-produced, wants the audience to get invested in its contestants, especially since we’re going to be spending multiple episodes with them, and so usually provides enough background information (even when they don’t do the extended profiles) so we get a sense of them as people and characters as opposed to just faces and names. MSQ, on the other hand, does none of this. And with an adversarial structure, it leaves the viewer struggling to find a rooting interest. Do I root for the established winner, the newbie, or the line jumper? I don’t know, because I don’t know who any of these people are.
Failure to Launch
In MSQ, NBC was clearly looking for a live event series. There is a massive dearth of “Must See (Live) TV” right now. The only programming that can really draw a significant number of its viewers live anymore is sporting events. That’s what NBC was hoping for in this show, but I can’t see how they succeeded. The play-along game is a disaster (I didn’t even mention that the app crashed halfway through the very first night) and, frankly, there isn’t even that much quizzing. Each episode has three bouts totaling about 18 minutes of quiz time. The rest of the episode is 18 minutes of commercials and 24 minutes of filler. The allure of game shows has always been the desire of the viewer to put themselves into the shoes of the players. That doesn’t mean I want to watch a Seattle news anchor stumble his way through an unscripted “surprise” of tomorrow night’s “line jumper” contestant.
Not everything about Million Second Quiz is terrible. Ryan Seacrest is, unsurprisingly, a great host. His work on American Idol goes largely unrecognized, but being able to wrangle such an unwieldy construct and bring it in largely on time night in and night out is a difficult skill to master but he is probably the best at it. There have been a few foibles here and there so far, but they’re largely been the fault of the technology, such as tonight’s attempt to show the answer to the final question even after time had run out, resulting in a producer shouting it out from off-screen. It’s a tough job, but nobody’s better at it than Seacrest.
I also like the format of the actual bouts. Watching players go head-to-head is usually better than one person against the game and MSQ is no exception. The fact that the show is live also gives a nice immediacy to the questions asked. For example, on Wednesday night players were quizzed about President Obama’s Syria speech on Tuesday night and which actress announced that she was pregnant that morning (answer: Emily Blunt). It’s a fun twist but seems a little unfair in some cases. Last night’s line jumper was plucked straight out of dinner, almost immediately flown to New York, and spent the morning on the Today Show. When, exactly, was he supposed to learn that Hillary Clinton was given the Liberty Medal last night or that Blunt made her announcement this morning? The currency aspect seems weighted toward the Winners’ Row, whose contestants basically sit around all day consuming news and playing the game.
Ultimately, as a quiz game, Million Second Quiz is okay. The head-to-head aspect makes things interesting, but the doubler twist is only there to cause chaos, keep the game close, and confuse contestants (as it did on Wednesday when the woman in the Money Chair stupidly doubled back on the final question when she could have instead just given an incorrect answer and won anyway). As a television show, MSQ is merely bad. Seacrest keeps it from being awful, but there’s just so much filler and too many gimmicks to keep track of. As a live event, the show fails spectacularly. I watched Wednesday’s episode on DVR and, thanks to the utter disaster that is the MSQ app, the experience was no different from watching live on Monday night, except that I only lost 42 minutes of my life instead of 60.
One spare thought -
This show also has a problem that I'm not sure they're aware of. Last night, one contestant went on a six hour, twenty-plus bout run that put him in second place. I'm sure it was exhilarating and precisely the type of thing NBC was hoping for. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the game, they're rapidly approaching the point where the only way to realistically enter Winners' Row is to be one of the lucky contestants (two per day it seems) who gets to play a Winner's Defense, in which the player in the Money Chair can beat a Winners' Row member and take all of their money. Unless they significantly increase the number of Winner's Defenses moving forward, the game will be largely meaningless for 23 1/2 hours a day.
So thoughts? Comments? Just want to tell me my blog sucks? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.