Fresh from a round of boos in Denver before the Broncos-Ravens game Thursday, Ryan (“American Idol”) Seacrest moves to his next challenge. He’ll try to rescue the huge Comcast/NBC/USA Network outfit’s sluggish ratings with a new gimmick that involves a million-second quiz show, eleven days of non-stop exposure, and a large outdoor set looming above the Manhattan skyline.
If the gimmicks work, it’ll be largely because of the hype. NBC (owned by Comcast cable) is trusting that regardless of the programming, millions will tune in just to see what all the buzz is about. The show will even come with its own app and interactive site where visitors can test themselves in five-minute quiz “bouts.”
New films often get the “buzz” workover. The box office haul may depend on the quality of the cast or writing. But just as often, it’ll hinge on the lemming theory. Follow the leader without a clue where he or she is going because it beats sitting around. How many times has each of us seen a new film just to see if it’s as bad as they say?
This is the game network television must play this century. Programming has been in the doldrums. Ratings, with the exception of a few reality shows, can’t escape a gradual decline that comes with the splintering of choices on cable TV. The more the merrier. That’s good, except for major networks that depend on viewers to power the cost of a 30-second spot that advertisers buy.
The “Million Second Quiz,” which starts Monday night and lasts 11 and a half days (a million seconds), is built to be worth the hype, even if viewers just drop in for a few seconds. The format is like “Millionaire,” which had the advantage of a test run in Britain before coming to the U.S. It’s the best-of-four quiz format, staged in mini-bouts, in which the goal is to stay in the “money chair” for as long as possible before getting booted by another contestant— not unlike the game of life, in some professions.
NBC will use every ounce of programming muscle it has for the effort, or “all hands on deck,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. The new show will be promoted on “Law and Order SVU.” Its quiz format has already been used in a spot used promoting an upcoming episode on “Royal Pains,” whose USA Network is owned by NBC/Comcast.
Ryan Seacrest will host, and the game boasts the largest cash pot in “game show history,” which may not be saying much, though a “perfect game” is being hyped at a theoretical $10 million. Network executives are so proud of the cross-promotion strategy that they’re calling it their “symphony.” They say that almost five million “bouts” have already been played online.
Remember as we’re plunged into this symphony of mini-quizzes that it’s not about the show — yet. It’s about the hype. The network is testing the strategy to see how well it could work with other programming, though they certainly hope that “MSQ” will have a life beyond the next two weeks. They’re even building an outdoor set that’s supposed to pulsate above the New York City skyline.
The show is supposed to test speed and endurance, but the real test will apply for both attributes at the network. NBC has had one big hit, “The Voice,” going for it the last two years. Viewers are said to be skittish about new shows, but the network executives are likely even more skittish than viewers. After investing in blocks of new episodes for “Ready for Love” (NBC) and “The Job” (CBS), execs scuttled both after only two episodes, according to the Reporter.
The sudden disappearance of a new television show involves putting it “on hiatus,” a gentle term disclosing that chieftains haven’t a clue what to do with it. One show, “Unforgettable,” actually returned to the air a month ago after being “hiatused” last season. But even legendary multi-season hits often don’t hit their peak during their first 22-episode season. And that’s if they’re allowed to get that far.
NBC’s new quiz show will have to be built to withstand short attention spans. The show will cull its new entrants from walk-ons and online/app victories. Each bout will run only five minutes, and features two competing “money chairs,” a bit like the twin-course formats used by World Pro Skiing. It’s intended to add to the dramatic effect. The network’s banking on the idea that if viewers become over-saturated by the total blitz, it’ll be over in 11.5 days. But not before every available second of airtime used for “in-house” cross-promotions goes to entice viewers to stick with NBC for its upcoming regular season, which starts Sept. 23.
The test of “MSQ” will be a big tryout for NBC. For viewers, it’ll be a fascinating lesson in how far hype alone can go in creating a foundation for a new television format before we see how far the show, on its own merits, can survive.
The writer (email@example.com ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.