At best, Million Second Quiz is perplexing. NBC’s new gameshow is so convoluted that Grantland devoted a whole article just to trying to comprehend the rules; it seems like there are four or five different games smashed together to create the show, a Frankenstein of manufactured competition. It’s not interesting, it’s confusing, and it reeks of desperation. In its efforts to be hip, digital, and savvy, NBC has created a show that practically yells “I’m hip, digital, and savvy!” every five minutes.
Million Second Quiz is, in no particular order: 24-hour, staged live, and hosted by Ryan Seacrest in a giant hourglass. It puts some players under constant surveillance and makes them answer questions against each other all night. It is a trivia quiz, an audience-participation show, and a program that simultaneously can be viewed online or in an app. It is a head-to-head tournament game. It is an endeavor so saturated with product placement that it reads like a commercial. (It is “powered” by Subway.)
The show is trying too hard. Way, way, too hard. In its efforts to respond to the demands of the viewing public, it has created something that responds to none of the demands of the viewing public. It’s such a wrongheaded, sloppy approach to a nuanced problem that it would be pathetic if it weren’t so obviously careless. Not careless like it was produced in a rush. Careless thinking, careless ideas. A very well-made failure.
On the first night of viewing, the companion app crashed; as ratings steadily declined last week, execs at NBC almost cast Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, then pulled him at the last minute. The show’s dynamic interactive page, encouraging viewers to participate in various different elements of the game, also pipes in tweets with relevant hashtags. At publication time, most of those tweets were expressing confusion, disappointment, or frustration with the show.
There might be more to say about the show, but it almost doesn’t matter. Inane as it is, it’s not mean-spirited, just bizarre. And the show is so deeply flawed and so universally unpopular that it is not going to remain in anyone’s memory for long. But the real story here isn’t about the show, it’s about the network. In this wildly expensive failure, it’s possible to see so many of NBC’s flaws, all in the same package.
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For some reason, rather than focus on making quality programming, NBC is in the business of trying to be “America’s Network,” or something like that. There’s this shrill, upbeat tone of positivity around the Million Second Quiz—“largest prize in gameshow history,” “America is playing along at home,” “everyone wants to be in the money chair,” “thousands of fans lined up outside the hourglass!”—which belies just how bad everything is for the show, and how low participation is across the board. It’s not a show, it’s a press release—a week-long brainwashing retreat to be indoctrinated into the cult of NBC. There’s this creepy sense that NBC doesn’t just want to be a television network, it wants to be the only network you ever watch. So the network pulls out actors from its sitcoms and hosts from its daytime programming to awkwardly present Million Second Quiz’s increasingly ridiculous trivia questions. The message is constant, in between the ticking of the clock and Ryan Seacrest’s incessant, positive chatter. NBC. NBC. You’re watching NBC. NBC loves you. Please love NBC. Oh, and also buy a sandwich from Subway! Tell them NBC sent you.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be loved. There’s nothing wrong with selling your product. But this language is something you expect out of television commercials, not 10 days of primetime programming. And outside of the effort to make people excited about the show, there is no heart to it whatsoever. It is all spin and no substance. Think about it: In spite of the ridiculous editing and manipulation that happens behind the scenes at shows like Big Brother, Deal Or No Deal, or Project Runway, there is a unique game element that each show is about. Surveillance, negotiation, design—take your pick. Maybe they’re not very sophisticated ideas. But there is a vision. A central concept. A voice.
Million Second Quiz is just a hyped show about hype. Every moment is designed to be “tweetable” by studio execs who are cynical about social media and see it merely as something they have to conquer or pander to. Everything is glitzy and soaked in lens flare, when it’s not surrounded by a ticker-tape of LED lights. Everyone has an iPad, for some reason. There are videos online that let you watch clips of the “charged” moments, as if even Million Second Quiz understands how silly the endless 10-day ordeal is. Even technical difficulties on the set have plagued the show, underscoring just how poorly thought out this whole enterprise is. NBC is perfecting the expensive, rigidly controlled belly flop, and everyone else is changing the channel.
Worst of all, though, is that Million Second Quiz has quiet disdain for its viewers. There’s the assumption that this kind of lowbrow pandering shininess is all that the viewing public is looking for, a confidence in the lowest common denominator as being more than enough to net tens of millions of fans. It’s not nearly as cruel as Ready For Love nor as abrasive as The Marriage Ref, but Million Second Quiz honestly thinks that by gilding a bloated corpse, you might not notice how bad it stinks. It’s just confusing—this is the television-watching public that is obsessed with prestige drama and subtle, snarky sitcoms. Who signed off on this, and what reality are they living in?
- Perhaps the most painful part of the show is watching actors and news hosts from the rest of NBC’s programs delivering questions. Nick Offerman, Al Roker, Suze Orman, Sean Hayes, Jimmy Fallon, and Blake Shelton all make appearances, gamely trying to be positive about the fact that their parent network has strong-armed them into a humiliating exercise.
- Million Second Quiz does have one thing in its favor: good casting. In a world where so many reality-show participants are chosen for their reprehensibility, NBC seems to have opted for friendly, relatable contestants. And perhaps because a 24-hour show is coercion enough, Million Second Quiz disposes with the psychological manipulation that often took over Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.