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The Million Second Quiz:
The Show I Want to Like, But Can't

September 12, 2013


We're three days into the game show experiment that is The Million Second Quiz. In what is easily the most ambitious game since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire back in 1999 (yes, it's really been that long), NBC has devoted over 11 days of its prime-time schedule to a game that amounts to little more than two people answering questions against each other.

That's not bad, per se. But while Millionaire managed to capture the imagination of the country by presenting an otherwise simple quiz in a way that produced some of the most organically dramatic and tense moments the genre's ever seen, MSQ is much more about the destination than the journey. Odd, given that the entire premise of the game revolves around someone accumulating money as each of those one million seconds passes.

The million-second timeframe is divided into digestible chunks known as bouts, in which the reigning king or queen of the hill is challenged to a 500-second trivia showdown. Standard operating procedure: both players get the same question with four answer choices, five seconds to lock in an answer. Right answers score a point; highest score at the end of the time (finishing whatever question is in play when it happens) is the winner, and either assumes or retains control of the "Money Chair", the enviable throne which allows its occupant to accumulate $10 for every second that the player is there. That's $600 a minute, or $36,000 an hour.

Of course, those are the rules for the bouts that aren't broadcast on network television. And that's where this otherwise intriguing concept starts to go off the rails.

You see, once a night, the game is aired live on the network. And the televised bouts are much more dynamic than the vanilla trivia sprints they show online. When the show's on the air, questions begin at one point and grow in value as the time ticks away, to up to four points. In addition, either player can play a "doubler" on any question, and force their opponent to answer for double score. (But be careful, because he can always "double back" for four times the amount, and everyone else has already done the joke now, so I won't.)

The fact that the bouts have two different sets of rules depending on when they're being played really rubs me the wrong way. As does the fact that Ryan Seacrest will clearly speed up his reading as the clock ticks down in an attempt to fit in as many questions as possible, but the off-screen reader for the livestream bouts reads the last question of a bout just as deliberately and as slowly as the first. Rarely does a livestreamed bout get beyond 15 questions, which puts the average at around 33 seconds a question. That's way too slow for a game where time elapsed is such a huge consideration.

The other rule regarding individual bouts that strikes me as underplanned is the tiebreaker (which obviously comes into play online much more than it does on the air given the point-swings that escalating point values and doublers create). If the score is tied after time expires, one final question is played, with the winner being the first to lock in with the correct answer. The problem here is that there's no obvious cue as to when answers can be locked in. No light border around the question like they do on Jeopardy!, not even a sound effect. Thus, players essentially have to guess when they're supposed to lock in their answers, which makes the process look really unfair to the viewer. I haven't yet seen anyone poke frantically at the screen as the choices are being read to try and pre-empt their opponent, but I don't see what's preventing that from being a viable strategy either.

It also needs to be mentioned that the money that's swirling around the chair isn't real. Only the four highest money-earners after the million seconds have elapsed get to keep what they've earned, and if you don't make it into that leaderboard, then the money just disappears as though it was never there. I have a really difficult time with game shows that dangle huge dollar figures in front of contestants that they aren't really entitled to. My big gripe with the Blender version of WWTBAM is that the contestant spends 10 questions building up a "bank" that they aren't fully entitled to unless they get through all 10 questions. (And then if they answer 11 questions, all the effort spent building up that bank is promptly flushed from memory, as a flat $25,000 serves as the safety net from then on.) Here, you could literally spend two hours in the Money Chair, fending off challenger after challenger, and bank $72,000 in the process, but it's not real money because four other people sat in the chair longer. And if you don't outlast at least one of them, then you weren't really earning $10 a second, now were you?

I know what you're thinking. "But Tim! You don't expect NBC to give away $10,000,000 worth of winnings to everyone who plays, do you?"

No, I don't. But I do expect them to give something to people who've accomplished the salient goal of the maingame at least once. Especially if the only reason they didn't make the leaderboard is because someone got $108,000 for essentially waiting out the west coast tape-delay.

Oh, I forgot to mention that part, didn't I?

The boardcast portion of The Million Second Quiz runs live at 8:00 PM Eastern time. They play three bouts (with plenty of commercials sprinkled between, and even during, the bouts themselves – pausing the bout clock when they go to break, but it's still just as tacky), and the night always ends with someone from the Winner's Row going back up on stage to face the current Chair occupant for the combined total of both their scores; loser goes home with nothing. At which point, they bring one more player up to start a new bout as the show goes off the air.

You would think that this would dovetail into an hour of livestreamed bouts in preparation for the Mountain time zone airing, at which point they'd go into a fresh episode, with another set of bouts held the same way as the first hour, a new Line Jumper, a new Winner's Defense, and so on, with the process repeating again for the Pacific time zone. And all the while, viewers in the other time zones would be invited to watch it all go down on the livestream, so they could see what transpires immediately before or after their assigned hour of prime-time.

But no, the whole country gets the same episode on tape delay, and while the tape delay is going on, no livestream bouts take place. Which means whoever wins that charade of a continuation bout is going to get to take it easy and soak up over $100,000 in free money while they wait for the Pacific airing of the show to finish.

Granted, we've seen at least one quizzer buck the trend so far, and actually survive enough challenges to the throne to get on Winner's Row just through sheer quizzing endurance rather than just being the lucky dog who's sitting in the chair at 9:15 PM EDT. But it's still grossly unfair that certain people get such a huge amount of money for doing nothing when others will get nothing if they can't defeat the dozen or so opponents that the 9:15ers would've certainly had to face otherwise.

The big difference between The Million Second Quiz and that original August 1999 run of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is that every night in 1999 could have been the night. Someone could have won the million dollars on the first night, or the second, or the ninth, or the thirteenth. And even if they didn't, they were winning $1000, or $32,000, or $250,000. With The Million Second Quiz, nobody really wins anything until the last night of the show. What we're watching right now is just an enormous preamble. Sure, the game itself is passable, but there's literally nothing at stake until next Wednesday. Then, and only then, do those dollar figures in front of Winner's Row become tangible, and only then does the supposed "biggest prize in game show history" truly come into play.

I do give credit to NBC for trying this. They're the only network that apparently has enough faith in game shows as a viable prime-time genre. (Maybe that's because so many of their episodic shows end up tanking, but let's not get tangled up with details.) But while it's certainly a more challenging game than the hand-wringing money-shovelers the network has attempted in the past few years, it's no less superficial.

Addendum: Chad Mosher points out that the livestream bouts in fact do resume before the Pacific airing, so whoever owns the Chair after the continuation bout is only getting about $36,000 without having to work for it. For what it's worth, I'm starting to have more of a problem with the way the leaderboard consists mainly of players who have absorbed some portion of their score through the Winner's Defense bouts. Lizzy, the only member of Winner's Row to have earned every dollar on her own, is in fourth place with about $162,000. Everyone else has been a beneficiary of a WD bout to one degree or another, and have practically no chance of being displaced at this point by a genuine challenger. Anyone who earns as much as any of them during their original stint in the chair won't get the luxury of WD bouts because they've already been outscored.

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