Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Million-Second Fizz

The Million-Second Quiz wraps up tonight. It was anticipated by NBC that this news would mean your night is basically spoken for. Instead, after only a week and a half, it's quite possible that you've forgotten the show even existed. The ratings tanked immediately and is being written off as a failure before the money has been handed out. NBC is probably wondering why. What happened? Why didn't this work? Why is this just one more failure to add to the ever-growing pile? Didn't the concept of a limited-run mega-money quiz show work out for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Why didn't it work here?

Well, first and foremost, the major failure point, as anyone who walked away from the show will tell you, was the rules. They were too damn complicated. It was rules on top of rules on top of rules. Grantland's Mark Lisanti made a run at it and descended into farce before he could complete the explanation, but let me see if I can break it down:

*You start with one person in the 'Money Chair'. How they decided who was in there first, never explained and really doesn't matter much in the end. The occupant of the chair earns, as the show keeps saying, $10 a second, though it's more precisely $1 every tenth of a second, starting the second they first put their butt in the chair and ending the second they lose.
*The person in the Money Chair is presented with an endless string of challengers, whom they face in a procession of one-on-one bouts. They're both asked the same multiple-choice questions and given 5 seconds to answer. The exact mechanics of the bout depend on whether the bout is being broadcast on the live show or not (we'll get to this later; for now just go with it). The winner of each bout gains or keeps control of the Money Chair.
*An off-hours bout lasts 500 seconds (aka 8 minutes, 20 seconds) and questions are worth 1 point each, and the higher score at the end wins. There is no penalty for a wrong answer. After time is called, the current question is played to completion. From my estimation watching the livestream, bout time plus setup time between bouts works out to about five bouts an hour.
*A live-show bout (live shows contain three bouts) might last 300 or 400 seconds, with question values starting at 1 point and going up by 1 point every 100 seconds. Contestants in live-show bouts are given 'doublers' to use as many times as they see fit. When a contestant doubles, the other contestant is given the option to answer the question for double the points, or 'double back' to the first contestant for four times the point value. If you are doubled back, you are forced to answer. (You may recall this as the way Double Dare worked, with the same rules as to who got the points.)
*If, at the end of your stay in the Money Chair, you are one of the four high scores, you are shuffled off to 'Winner's Row' next to the stage, where you eat, sleep and live until such time as you are knocked out of the top four.
*The Winner's Row contestants play along with the bouts, answering as many questions as they are physically capable of answering within certain time windows. On the last bout of the live show, whoever has answered the most questions correctly within those windows is given the ability to nominate anyone on Winner's Row to play the Winner's Defense bout, defending their winnings against the current occupant of the Money Chair. The winner of that bout is given the current earnings of both contestants, as well as control of the Money Chair and, by design, a guaranteed spot on Winner's Row whenever it is they get knocked off. The loser goes home, though losing contestants are always welcome to try out again.
*Whoever is in the top four at the end of the million seconds keeps their winnings, and then those four enter into a playoff for a $2 million bonus.

That's a lot of words. Meanwhile, Millionaire's explanation to the first contestant, David Korotkin, worked like this, starting at 3:36:

"15 questions away from winning $1 million. The rules are quite simple: the more questions you get right, the more money you win. If you get to the $1,000 or $32,000 level, you're guaranteed to walk out of here with at least that much money. We want you to win as much as you possibly can, David, so we're giving you three lifelines, which is really terrific help: 50:50 is where the computer will take away two of the incorrect answers, leaving the correct answer and one wrong answer; you can Ask The Audience, if you dare; the audience will vote on their keypads and tell you what they think the answer is; and finally, my favorite, Phone A Friend, sponsored by AT&T, you can make a call to anyone in America for help. Okay, you ready? Let's go. Let's play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"

And that was pretty much the whole thing, save for the 'final answer' lock-in, the ability to walk away and the specific mechanics of Ask The Audience and Phone A Friend, all of which could be handled when the appropriate times came. Nobody needed it explained very much, to the point where the spiel eventually got reduced to "You know the rules, you know the lifelines, let's play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"

The Million-Second Quiz might have been able to get this to work if they'd simplified things a bit. I think the doubler was too much. The off-hour rules are in fact very simple, as simple as can possibly be. Here's 500 seconds, here's a bunch of questions, 1 point a pop, no extra nonsense, whoever answers more correctly wins. There was an extraordinarily low-budget Game Show Network program that worked exactly like that in the late 1990's, called Inquizition. (They never did reveal the host's name or face, even years after cancellation, so don't bother asking. According to the YouTube comments, due to his contract, it's still unknown, though word is that if you saw him, you'd understand why they didn't show his face on TV.) Here is how that looked:

(For winning Inquizition, for the record, you won a whole whopping $250, later $500. Millionaire is in the questions-with-joke-answers territory range at that dollar amount, and on the Million-Second Quiz, you earn that much by just sitting in the Money Chair and letting Ryan Seacrest prattle to you about how you're now earning $10 a second. By the time your first defense of the chair begins, you're probably up into the $3,000 range.)

I think maybe if they'd removed the doubler, removed the whole Line-Jumper thing which just put at-home players on the show and did nothing else other than to add to the confusion, and standardized things so the same rules applied to off-hour bouts as applied to live-show bouts, it could have worked a lot better. And for God's sake, they needed to have standardized the rules for all the bouts and refrained from making two different rulesets. The doubler and increasing-point stuff had to have been because they didn't want bouts to become foregone conclusions. Well, that happens. Sometimes it's a blowout. Just keep things moving. This bout's a runaway? Oh well, maybe the next one will be closer. If you needed bouts to be closer at the end, just standardize the 'point values increase by 1 every 100 seconds' rule to every bout. If it's still a blowout, well, forget it and just keep things moving.

And don't go to break in the middle of a bout. That doesn't make anyone happy at all.

As for the big money on the line, yes. It worked for Millionaire. But then, Millionaire had a couple things going for it. First off, Millionaire was the one to reintroduce the big-money quiz show to television, something that was out of vogue since the Twenty-One scandal. Offering a million dollars for 15 questions? That's crazy! But, as discussed when we dissected the demise of The Job, the price of poker has since gone up. In fact, it's gone up so much at the high end that there is almost no amount of money that can be offered by a game show that will, by itself, intrigue people enough to watch a show on that basis alone. It doesn't matter if you're offering the most of anyone in the field. 7-figure amounts are common, a phenomenon boosted by reality show prize pots, and the concept of a million, or even multi-million-dollar payday is no longer impressive. The only kind of place these days that can excite people by the prize money alone is the lottery, and even then the lottery typically only really gets attention after a couple hundred million dollars have been chucked into the pot.

Big paydays can get buzz, but not that way. They get buzz by happening organically. Degree of difficulty counts. When everyone knows that SOMEONE is going to walk away with X amount of money, it is not impressive when someone does so. But when someone just comes along one day and takes a gigantic wad of money from you, that gets attention. Millionaire pulled this off... but only really the one time, with original million-dollar winner John Carpenter. Someone had come along and finally won the million so many others had failed to win. It's like an explorer planting their national flag on uncharted land. This land is claimed. The glory's been meted out already. Go launch an expedition somewhere else. No other million-dollar winner could generate the same buzz; it wasn't as special anymore even after long strings of time where nobody made it.

For you to score the really big attention from a payout, you basically have to not want it to happen. Someone needs to come along and win far more money than you ever imagined you'd be paying one single contestant, or otherwise effectively lap the field. If someone has done so well that you find yourself talking with legal to discuss whether you have to actually pay them off, you've found yourself in the promised land, much as you might be cursing it at the time:

*Thom McKee lapped the field in Tic Tac Dough and won $312,700 over 88 matches (and subsequent bonus rounds), $199,450 of which was in cash.
*Michael Larson mugged Press Your Luck, a show that at the time was 'retiring' their winners at the $25,000 mark, for $110,237, caused production to have a discussion with legal, and forced them to revamp the game board.
*This generation knows full well the name of Ken Jennings, who entered legend by hitting up Jeopardy, which had recently stopped retiring their contestants after five wins, for $2,520,700 over 74 games, not including his later alumni appearances, and Jeopardy wound up changing their practices to downplay advantages returning contestants might accrue over their stay, including changing out the guy who determined when players could buzz in (though there wasn't much they could do about the intimidation factor).
*Terry Kneiss became the first person in Price Is Right history to record a perfect bid in the Showcase, and on the tape Drew Carey is seen as announcing the fact in dejection because what the tape didn't show is that Drew and the staff were convinced there was a ringer in the audience feeding bids to Kneiss- which there was, but Kneiss couldn't hear him and wasn't connected with him- and that the FCC was about to come down on them like a ton of bricks and get the show cancelled. Since Kneiss' appearance, The Price Is Right has built more luck and a wider variety of more esoteric items into the show, and begun altering the exact specifications of some prizes (an added floor mat here, a removed car stereo there) in order to change the announced price on repeat items.

That is basically what it takes. Win streaks in the 70's and 80's. The Million-Second Quiz's longest streaks seem to conk out in the 20's or 30's; though I don't have the exact numbers. The way the show is structured, even a Ken Jennings streak wouldn't be enough. In order for them to get the buzz we're talking about here, someone who closed out the live show in the Money Chair would pretty much have to begin the next night's show still in the chair $864,000 and nearly 100 bouts later, bedraggled, exhausted, half-loopy and still hanging on to beat all comers somehow. As of now, a few hours before the finale, the current leader, Brandon, has $339,416, which translates to only about 9.4 hours of chair time and, by our 5-bouts-per-hour estimation, approximately 47 bouts, not all of which was done in one sitting (he's been through at least one Winner's Defense), and not all of which was even done by Brandon (remember some of the Winner's Row money is earned through swiping it from vanquished opponents). Through, I daresay, over 1,000 bouts, there will be some damned impressive streaks racked up sooner or later, and you'd expect some rather large numbers, but to be buzzworthy, you don't need large. You need eye-poppingly gigantic.

I'm not here to disparage anyone who sat in that chair at the ungodly hours of the morning rummaging through their brain in turbo mode over and over again while fighting off the sandman, trying to do in one night what most game show contestants are asked to do over a period of months, if they're ever asked to do it at all. In isolation, those top winners, the ones cashing in today and even some of the people who've been shoved aside and left empty-handed, some of them more than once, ought to get a hell of a lot of respect. I'm not going after the players. I'm going after the setting.

True buzz can't be forced. NBC's mistake was trying to force it.

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