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Cable Technology Feature Article

September 13, 2013

Million Second Quiz is Waste of Time

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

We all know the phrase “Time is Money.” In fact, that should have been the tagline for what is likely to go down as the ill-conceived, ill-fated and heavily promoted NBC show Million Second Quiz (aka MSQ) that is now in progress.

What is wrong with this program? Let me count the ways, and then feel free to add your own if you have indulged your trivia passion on this.

Let me start with full disclosure. I am a trivia addict. Not only do I watch even the reruns of Jeopardy but I play the popular Hasbro game Trivial Pursuit —which MSQ is based on since it employs a multiple choice question format with four options to be answered (in MSQ’s case on the clock). I happen to be pretty good - if not great. 

I not only applied to be on the show, but a few weeks ago I answered a series of questions and was invited to New York City to meet with the casting directors and be videoed. The session was to see if I had what it took to be what I was told was one of the 1,110 contestants needed to fill up the time. I did my 30 second video. I was informed the next time I would hear from the program would be to come on down to the hourglass. 

Despite an 80 percent win rate in head-to-head combat on the smartphone app, and what appears to be a high answer rate of 70 percent of all questions answered, I am still waiting to be called. I am sure what follows will not endear me to the powers that be.  

That said, this is not sour grapes about not being selected - although there is no way for the producers of the show to spin it any other way. This is a personal critique. If they cannot take the heat they should get out of the hourglass.  

A bad user experience, a failure to communicate and more

Let’s start with the user experience broadly defined and then break it down. I defer to my friend Rich Steeves’ blog on the actual experience of trying to get on air.  Rich spent 13 awful hours thinking he would get on and compared them to the positive experience he had on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. What I do not understand is why he is thinking of going back to try again.

As to the user experience of playing online, here are my observations.

  • The app, which can also be accessed now on your PC, has worked only sporadically. Sessions time out, questions that were answered sometimes are not recorded or credited, and there are other glitches. Shame on MSQ for this. The app crashing during the live telecast shows both poor planning as well as poor execution.
  • The online version does not have the same point totals nor the challenges used in the live game. Dumb!
  • When you use the app when the show is not on live (it is only on one hour per night) you are playing random people online. You are provided with info. either about their history of accuracy or the current point total. Who cares? I just want to answer questions and beat them.
  • At various points you are told you have either reached a point total to be put in line to be a contestant (I already did that), or qualify to be a line jumper. Of course they never give you info. about where in line you are. Again, given the technology at hand, this boarders on cruel and unusual punishment.  

The show has become unwatchable. On the first night, and I will admit I have only caught snippets ever since because it is unbearable, we experienced:

  • Host Ryan Seacrest, who looks like he wants to be someplace else, reprising his role as the host of American Idol. He proceeded to hyper-ventilate over a game whose rules he did not explain. For instance, it is still not clear if people who win a lot of money but not enough to be one of the four people living in the hourglass for a chance to be the big winner at the end of the show get to keep what they won. This is one of the nice features of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, where contestants reach certain plateaus where they have the chance to walk away with what they won or wish to risk it all. It raises the issue as to why play if the chances of winning any money seem to have the same odds as winning the lottery.
  • The show managed to squeeze in three bouts in an hour. This is too little content for that amount of time given how fast it is. Plus, could Mr. Seacrest practice reading the questions before stumbling through them?
  • The feature of doubling the point total if you think your opponent cannot answer and them redoubling if they think you don’t know and are willing to see if you are just bluffing, is great game theory. However, it too was not explained as a feature.
  • When the show first aired, the first contestant was a nice young man who it was revealed had been on Jeopardy and Millionaire. Really? Millions of people are itching to play and you go with somebody who has won on other quiz shows? Why create instant contestant dislike when what was needed was somebody the viewers could relate to?
  • It appeared that the contestants were drawn from people who stood in line at the venue. It was not explained that the reason they were there was through a weeding process leaving the impression that all of the hoops to jump through to get on could be circumvented by just showing up and waiting. Again, the failure to explain was aggravating.
  • The line jumper idea is nice, but there has been no explanation as to why they have been selected. This gives little solace to people who have been doing nothing but playing the app since it first appeared and have racked up huge scores.
  • Speaking of those people with the huge scores, they need to get a life. Do the math. If in a given bout, which last roughly four minutes (10 questions at five seconds each with time for getting started, some stats, presentation of the questions, answers and scores with a total of 180 points available and a small point bonus for winning) somebody with 900,000 points literally has probably not slept in a week. They have no guarantee of being on the show, and it is impossible to tell how good they are at anything other than staying awake.

A failure to use technology

The reason I am writing this is I am stunned by the show’s failure to use the technology they have at their disposal. All one can ask is, “What were they thinking?”

Here are three thoughts for the producers as they contemplate the dive in the ratings and face the formidable challenge of getting an audience in the face of the football season, the start of powerful counter-programming from other networks with the beginning of their fall seasons, and the fact that MSQ does not even trend on Twitter (News - Alert).

  1. Why not over the course of the hour when the show is live show how many people have answered all of the questions correctly. The person who should be allowed to jump the line and be in the challenger chair could then be drawn from a pool of those who got everything correct. This could also be tied back into how people are doing playing online when the show is not aired to encourage a larger audience than pure addicts to keep playing.
  2. Explain how and who wins money. It is too late to fix this by putting in plateaus of success if it is in fact true that the only person eligible for anything is the last person standing. It appears only they and Mr. Seacrest are going to be millionaires if in fact everyone else who was in the champion chair lost everything when they were knocked out.
  3. If I am in line, let me know where and what the odds are of being a contestant. My time is valuable and to not inform me of my odds is insulting.

I could go on, but time is a finite resource that we cannot create more of. In this case it is money lost and not money won.

The real shame is that the producers of the show have a relatively good idea. We all like to test our knowledge of trivia, and we like to compete. It turns out in fact that the app when it works is addictive. What the show missed was the chance to properly use technology to make the live show watchable. This was so unavoidable. 

One would have thought during all of the trials and focus groups done in preparing to get something that clearly was deemed critical for getting NBC back in the race for ratings, that the obvious flaws in the functioning of the app, and the unintelligible rules about who gets on and how much they could/would win, would have popped up. 

There is real promise in real-time interactive entertainment that engages audiences. The proof is that near-real time voting on shows like American Idol, for example, have generated over 100 million votes (albeit you can vote more than once) for their finales. People want to participate, want their voice heard, and in the case of quiz shows want a credible chance to win something. MSQ has failed on all fronts. I have at least cut my losses. I have even stopped playing the app since the psychic pleasure of seeing how many I can get right and how many times I can win has worn thin. 

If you are still playing it is up to you to see how many seconds you are willing to invest given the risks and rewards involved. For me the time spent was time better spent elsewhere and that may be the tag (News - Alert) line for MSQ when it finally goes off the air.  I do wish to thank you for spending your very valuable time reading this. Hopefully it will save you a lot of pain and suffering. Plus, the Powerball is now $317 million if you want a shot at real money.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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