By Gary Levin, USA TODAY
Million Second Quiz, an elaborate (and elaborately promoted) live game show, was supposed to rival Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as "big-event" TV. Instead of Regis Philbin, it signed on American Idol's Ryan Seacrest as host and producer, who'd help fuel a much-needed promotional platform for NBC to hawk its new fall shows. And it promised a potential $10 million payout if by some miracle a single player could last for the duration of the nearly 11-day event.
"No one has run a game show non-stop for 24 hours days and days on end," executive producer Eli Holtzman said last month. "It's extremely ambitious on every level," added Seacrest.
Quiz was a "big swing" for the fences, says NBC reality chief Paul Telegdy, and a badly needed one in an age of declining ratings and competition from rival media. But the batter whiffed.
The game, televised on 10 of 11 consecutive nights ending Thursday (8 ET/PT), opened last week with a modest 6.5 million viewers. But instead of building momentum through word of mouth, as Millionaire did back in 1999, it declined each night, sinking to a low 2.9 million Saturday and raising questions about Seacrest's seemingly Teflon-coated appeal. (Monday's episode rebounded slightly to a second-worst 3.6 million.)
Critics and -- privately -- other NBC executives conceded that the show's confusing format, technical glitches and lack of drama didn't help. The network eagerly signed up for the project, created by Stephen Lambert (Wife Swap, Undercover Boss), before it had been tested in other countries, an unusual tactic in this age of risk-averse television. And it produced no extended test episodes that would expose the game's flaws.
The 10-day stunt was "a really good idea," says Andy Dehnart of website RealityBlurred.com, and the questions were "well written and fast-faced. They just misstepped big time by not making the game clear. A lot of decisions made it too complicated."
The multiple-choice trivia game pits a champion in a "money chair" after daylong play against challengers plucked from a "winners' row" in a three-story, hourglass-shaped glass studio on a vacant car lot in midtown Manhattan. A big social-media campaign included a play-along app, downloaded by 1.9 million people, that offered the chance to be greeted at home by a camera crew and flown to New York as "line jumpers" to join the game. But the app repeatedly crashed early last week as servers were overwhelmed. And even longtime players lose everything if they're beaten in a single match. To win much cash, you'd have to be one of five to play in Thursday's finale, which guarantees $2 million.
Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, among trivia champs invited to juice up the game, says he declined the offer because he didn't want to pay travel expenses. But he didn't mind. "A web of unnecessary rules and gimmicks (made) the format confusing to an audience, so viewers lost interest," he told Parade. "When I watched, it felt like they were making up rules on the fly."
But Telegdy, looking for a silver lining, says NBC learned much from a joint marketing effort that involved many parts of the company.
"It's really hard when shows don't do as well as you want them to, but in this case the company has learned a multitude we can apply to future launches of shows and collaboration."