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NBC Online Quiz Show Lets Subway Chase TV Viewers All Day

For Subway Restaurants, NBC’s “The Million Second Quiz” trivia show is no stumper -- it’s a chance to put its sandwiches in front of viewers for almost two weeks straight.

The live game show makes its debut tonight on Comcast Corp.’s television network, running for 12 days without interruption, online and for one hour in prime time. The novel format has shown promise, with more than 300,000 downloads of the app and 11 million playing online before the show started.

“The digital piece combined with a prime-time piece, you don’t find that all too often,” Tony Pace, Subway’s chief marketing officer, said in an interview. “People who get engaged with this will stay engaged, and that frequency of engagement is very valuable.”

NBC and its partners, which include Eveready Battery Co. and Orville Redenbacher’s popcorn, are betting the immersive approach will work. Audience members compete at home for footlong Subway sandwiches and a chance to play on the set in New York, which features a Subway restaurant and Eveready-sponsored Money Chair.

Their success will depend on whether the show attracts viewers and can sustain an audience as the competition progresses, said Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, a New York-based advertising company.

“Having the 24-hour interactive component should help,” Adgate said. “It’s a pretty interesting idea.”

Reaching Smartphones

With “Million Second Quiz,” NBC is trying to adapt a 1960s-style live game-show format to the smartphone-toting audiences that advertisers like Subway want to reach. The network is aware it risks making too many overt references to sponsors and turning off viewers, Jim Hoffman, executive vice president of NBC Entertainment sales and marketing, said in an interview.

“It’s nirvana if you do it right but it can backfire if it’s forced,” Hoffman said. “We collaborate over hours and hours of conversations with brand managers on the show and with our clients to make sure we get everything completely right.”

Execution is the key, said Peter Gardiner of ad-buying firm Gardiner & Partners, where he goes by the title of head guy. Brand integrations can be more effective than traditional commercials if they’re smartly connected to the show, he said. Poorly imagined efforts are more common and can do damage to the brand, he said.

“Like so much else in marketing, with the proper strategy, creativity and execution, integrations can be a powerful and effective weapon,” Gardiner said.

Season Warm-Up

Eveready, a unit of St. Louis-based Energizer Holdings Inc., sponsors a Countdown Clock and “Charged Moments” recap segments. The battery maker was drawn to the program’s interactive nature, it said in an e-mailed statement.

“The digital aspect of the ‘Million Second Quiz’ allows families not only to interact with one another, but to interact with the live show on their television screens,” the company said.

Redenbacher’s, owned by ConAgra Foods Inc., will sponsor the on-air competition clock and run a “Get Your Orville Ready” campaign.

“Million Second Quiz,” hosted by Ryan Seacrest, could give NBC a head-start on the TV season and, potentially, a game-show franchise to rival ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

With the smallest audience of the four major TV networks, NBC is using “Million Second Quiz” to draw attention to its lineup ahead of the official start of the new TV season. The game show’s 12-day run wraps up just as a new schedule of prime-time shows begins airing this month.

Money Chair

The network averaged 6.95 million viewers a night during the prime-time TV season that ended in May, dropping 5.3 percent and trailing CBS, Fox and Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, according to Nielsen data.

Comcast, the largest U.S. cable operator, in March completed its phased takeover of NBCUniversal, first announced in 2009. Shares of the Philadelphia-based company fell 0.4 percent to $42.33 at the close in New York.

Neither NBC nor its advertisers would say how much is being spent on the sponsorships. The network obtained $2.1 billion in advertising commitments for the new TV season, about 80 percent of its prime-time inventory, a person with knowledge of the contracts said in July. For the first time, the network’s so-called upfront advertising sales were negotiated alongside sister cable channels including USA. That helped to spur about a 17 percent increase in commitments from the previous year.

‘Great Buzz’

For each second a contestant on “Million Second Quiz” survives in the Eveready-sponsored Money Chair, they get $10. The $10 million total amounts to “the biggest prize in game show history,” NBCUniversal chief executive officer Steve Burke wrote in a Sept. 4 staff e-mail.

“There is already a lot of great buzz and we think there is a chance ‘The Million Second Quiz’ could really break through,” Burke said in the e-mail. “‘The Million Second Quiz’ is an important initiative for NBC.”

Subway gained the confidence to back an untested game show by working previously with NBC on special sponsorships that kept “Chuck” and “Community” on the air, according to Pace. The sandwich company also has sponsored the network’s reality weight-loss show, “The Biggest Loser,” he said.

“We’ve done a lot of integrations with NBC and had a lot of success,” Pace said. “A live, prime-time game show that happens as much online as on television, was too interesting to pass up.”

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