NBC’s Million Second Quiz’s Biggest Question: What’s Going On?

From left: Wayne Schiff, Ryan Seacrest, and Roger Dasilva on the set of The Million Second Quiz Photograph by Will Hart/NBC

The all-time greatest quiz shows rest on the simplest of conceits, employing objectives so clear-cut they can be conveyed to any able-minded child in 10 seconds or less. All the better to swiftly dispense with tedious explanations, of course, and let the questions get to work teasing sweat out of greedy contestants’ brows.

On Jeopardy!, for instance, contestants race to answer questions in the form of a question—got it. Participants of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, ABC’s wildly successful show that used to draw upwards of 30 million viewers during its monochromatic heyday at the turn of the millennium, answered multiple-choice questions in ascending order of difficulty—even easier to grasp. But as for NBC’s (CMCSA) The Million Second Quiz … Well, it’s perhaps a lack of clarity that’s plagued the quiz show extravaganza from the outset.

Its debut episode, billed as the TV event of the year, attracted only 6.5 million viewers on Monday evening, falling far short of CBS’s (CBS) Under the Dome. The Million Second Quiz’s viewership on Tuesday night fell to 5.8 million viewers. (Although it did have to compete with a presidential address on the subject of war.)

A casual poll of about 10 TV-savvy individuals indicates that a reason for the show’s relative lack of popularity may be that no one can effectively explain it. Twitter was also unhelpful, where those more intimately involved with the show seemed to be at a loss:

But the best development for NBC’s new show is another failure. Perhaps in an effort to capitalize on viewers with a penchant for using the second screen, the network released a Million Second Quiz app so viewers can play along as they watch. During the show’s première episode the app crashed. Instead of apologizing profusely, NBC flashed the crash as a badge of honor. “Last night so many of you were playing along on your MSQ apps that you actually crashed the system,” host Ryan Seacrest said proudly at the opening of the second broadcast. (Unfortunately for Mr. Seacrest it wasn’t his lowest point of the week, as he also opened the NFL season to a chorus of boos.)

As for the structure of the show itself, Grantland.com valiantly published an explanation, but here’s the basic thrust: It’s a quiz show Thunderdome, billed as a “challenge of trivia and endurance,” that takes place in a giant hourglass structure constructed on a roof in Lower Manhattan. Contestants do battle, two at a time, answering multiple-choice questions. The one who sits in the “money seat” accumulates more cash as time elapses. The contest will drag on, around the clock, for exactly a million seconds; at 24 hours a day, it will take roughly 11 days. Throughout the process there will be eliminations and gimmicks as participants “fight” to stay in the chair until time elapses.

Got it? Well, hurry. There’s only about 700,000 seconds left to go.

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