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The “High” Concept and the Death of The Million Second Quiz

Courtesy http://bonusroundblog.blogspot.com/2013/09/that-weird-space-ship-looking-thing-at.html

Since the early days of TV, several larger-than-life game shows have captured viewers’ attention—but just how far can a flashy set carry a show? 

Television is no big thing. Just ask anybody who’s ever been to a taping of The Price is Right—or any television show, for that matter. They’ll likely tell you that the familiar set they had seen on TV so many times was, in person, downright tiny. That’s because television is a medium that thrives on the perspectives of its viewers. Our screens have the ability to make even the smallest room look as though it extends for miles. Likely influenced by their Broadway counterparts, television set designers are magicians, experts in the art of maximizing their space by any artificial means necessary. By the same token, however, big is good. Whether Adam West’s Batcave, the first televised view from space, the iconic brownstones of Sesame Street or the modern-day epic scenes from Game of Thrones, vast objects and backdrops equal captivating television for kids and imaginative adults alike.

Art James stands in front of The Magnificent Marble Machine

Art James stands in front of The Magnificent Marble Machine

Television game shows are particularly conducive to this idea—since the early years of broadcasting, larger-than-life sets and game objects have had their fair share of screen time. 1960’s Video Village was a giant board game with living pieces. Card Sharks, and Gambit before it, were played with huge decks of cards. The Joker’s Wild featured a slot machine bigger than any you’d find in Vegas. The Magnificent Marble Machine‘s centerpiece was a monstrous pinball machine that required two people to operate. It can be argued, however, that Hollywood Squares, the three-story celebrity tic tac toe quiz, is the pinnacle of the “high” concept game show. It’s been nearly half a century since those big X’s and O’s were lit up at NBC Studios for the first time. However, whether you watched Biz Markie in the center square, Whoopi Goldberg before him, or even the late Paul Lynde, the name Hollywood Squares remains familiar to several generations spanning the last few decades.

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Hollywood Squares

Part of the reason for the show’s enduring charm is the game itself. The object is for the players to get three stars in a row, either across, up and down, or diagonally. It’s up to them to determine if the stars are giving a correct answer or making one up; that’s how they get the squares. Those simple rules, combined with the hilarious celebrities originally led by straight man par excellence Peter Marshall, made Hollywood Squares must-see TV from its beginnings in 1966 all the way up to the high-definition, hip-hop flavored early 21st century. Even as the faces changed and the hosts left and returned, the game remained solid.

MTV2's Hip Hop Squares

MTV2’s Hip Hop Squares

Ah, but that set surely must have also helped to draw some eyes to the screen, no? Well, of course it did—after all, it’s not every program that can boast a 30-foot high piece of scaffolding filled with sitcom stars and comedy writers. But on a show like Hollywood Squares, rather than the big board take preeminence over all other elements, the set exists for the sole purpose of allowing the game to shine. The arena in which the game takes place is as organic as the game itself. It’s not an architectural trade show; nobody is present to marvel at this monument constructed by a team of Burbank union workers. Once the attention shifts from the game to the board it’s played on, it’s not Hollywood Squares anymore—it’s Look How Big We Made This Tic Tac Toe Board. The powers that be at NBC would have done well to remember this lesson from their studies in 2013, when The Million Second Quiz premiered. The big game show in the sky sustained itself for a total of ten days before the $2.6 million top prize was claimed.

The set of Million Second Quiz (NBC)

The set of Million Second Quiz (NBC)

Unfortunately, it seemed as if viewers were still struggling to comprehend the rule book even as the confetti was flying. What was essentially a game of knockout was over-inflated with live visits to contestants’ homes, a Wellsian “money chair” that paid $10 a second to the sitting champ, the ability to play as a contestant via an iPhone app, and a bizarre reality television element in which the four highest-scoring players slept in Subway-sponsored private pods until the last day, sequestered from civilization.

It was a far cry from tic tac toe, to say the least. Viewers tuned out in droves, and as of this year, Million Second Quiz no longer appears on NBC’s prime time schedule. But their set was a giant hourglass stuffed with LEDs and sitting on top of a skyscraper in Manhattan! What went wrong? This is what went wrong: Million Second Quiz made itself out to be a life-changing event, but in truth it was a silly trivia/reality game shoehorned into this huge, light-emitting, Seacrest-helmed space vessel. It was as if the producer walked into NBC’s offices, drew a building with an hourglass on it, said “HEY GUYS I WANT TO MAKE THIS,” and went home and built a game around it once everybody finished complimenting him on his concept and photocopying the drawing for the fridge.

Whether TV executives like it or not, game shows are about one thing first and foremost: the game. When the flashiness of a set overshadows what’s happening on that set, the game show turns into a sculpture, a pretty object from which one can expect no movement of consequence. As a lover of this genre, I long for the days when “thick” games—dynamic, intellectual activities with substance and intrigue—were the norm. However, until another major paradigm shift occurs in the fabric of television programming, game show fans may find themselves stuck in quite a few more hourglasses.

  • Pierre Jason Kelly

    If the CW did a version of the Canadian Match Game/Hip-Hop Squares Hour, it would never work as a high concept.

  • I don’t think the set had much to do with the failure as it viewers not grasping the concept and Seacrest’s star-power being somewhat faded.

    The hourglass set wasn’t the gimmick that would hook people into watching; it was supposed to be the ongoing quiz battles. People eventually stopped caring either way.

  • Myke25

    I think that a great use of a dominant set piece was on The $10,000 Pyramid (and it’s descendents). The Pyramid towered over the contestants, becoming a foe that must be defeated. When players made it to the top, the Pyramid would explode with chasers and the flashing dollar amount. It looked like a big deal.

    http://youtu.be/4bEuBc5RJL0

    When TBS shot a pilot for a revival a few years ago, it utilized large video screens as the game board, but did not create a pyramid structure on the set. It just didn’t look or feel the same.

    http://youtu.be/jv4QpbeCv10

    So, while I agree that at the end of the day, it’s the game that will keep viewers coming back, a distinctive and functional set can add a lot.

  • Wayne_Stevens

    The set was the least of this shows problems.

    First, just for clarification, the set was not on a skyscraper, it was on the roof of a three or four story building just outside the Lincoln Tunnel, a former Mercedes dealership. The living area of winners row would’ve been in what was most likely the showroom, which they kept so extremely cold, everyone just sat around trying to keep warm and doing nothing else.

    As for the reason this show died, well there are several reasons, mostly the rules.

    The basic concept was a great idea, incorporating the 2nd screen, giving everyone play along ability, a 24/7 game, and a lottery system where any home player can possibly win their way onto the primetime game.

    The execution just didn’t work out. The main idea was for people to watch 24/7 as head-to-head bouts of trivia were being played, while also being able to play along with an app. In between the bouts, a reality show would take place with those on winners row. The members of winners row would also play along as much as possible, with the player answering the most questions correctly earning the daily Power Player for prime time. The system crashed early on day one (a Sunday), and nobody could really watch or play along. When anyone could watch anything, it wasn’t the trivia games; it was just four people on winners row, wrapped in blankets sitting around talking to each other to pass the time. With the system down, the occupants of winners row were not able to play along, and the Power Player had to be determined through some other method. Because they weren’t ready with anything else, day one was simply Andrew was in first place, so he was given Power Player. The next few days consisted of 50 question quizzes given to us off camera. Once the system was ready to go, the last thing this show needed was me on set (aka “Mini EP”) figuring out problems with their rules. Three times in 24 hours they had to come up with new rules because of me.

    Then the prime time game began, where all the rules changed from the rest of the game. On the first show, no real explanation was given as to why any particular person was playing against the person in the chair. The order was next person in line, then the line jumper (earned by winning a random draw from those playing the app, a different app from the play-along game that wasn’t working), then the Power Player would be asked if they wanted to risk their money to earn more money, or to send someone else to take the risk. Many people watching at home had a difficult time understanding what was going on.

    Game shows need to be simple to understand with a small amount of instruction; this game was nowhere close to that. I still have no idea why anyone felt building a huge hourglass on top of a building was necessary for this game as it didn’t add anything to the game. Then a final prize with a strange total ($2.6 million) just to say it was the biggest ever.

    Finally, I would have to point to the promotion as the biggest problem this show had. It was aggressively cross-promoted and heavily noted that contestants would play for $10 per second for one million seconds, $10 million up for grabs; and that was not even close to the show we were given.

    It’s my understanding this show went from concept to on-air in a very short period of time, and I think with what they were given to work with, the producers did an excellent job of making it happen. The on-set crew was huge, much bigger than a show like Millionaire, and filled with a truly amazing group of people. I think there is room for more high concept games, but they just need to have the time before going on air to make sure the game comes first, then the contestants, then the host (not an emcee, a host, there’s a difference), and finally the set. A great set can very much add something to a game (think the NBC version of 1 vs. 100 instead of the GSN version), but in the end, it’s just the background.

    It’s my understanding this show went from concept to on-air in a very short period of time, and I think with what they were given to work with, the producers did an excellent job of making it happen. The on-set crew was huge, much bigger than a show like Millionaire, and filled with a truly amazing group of people. I think there is room for more high concept games, but they just need to have the time before going on air to make sure the game comes first, then the contestants, then the host (not an emcee, a host, there’s a difference), and finally the set. A great set can very much add something to a game (think the NBC version of 1 vs. 100 instead of the GSN version), but in the end, it’s just the background

  • Kevin Solomon

    This is a good article.

    I ALWAYS think of the “Magnificent Marble Machine” when I think of shows with large sets that suck. Same goes for Alex Trebek’s “Pitfall” from ’81.

  • Neumms

    Great points, especially because you worked on the show and validate my thoughts. Ideally it would have captured some of what “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” had, a shared experience where anyone–even me!–could play and with luck win real money. That’s what they were selling, but instead the game was four trivia geeks stuck living together, struggling to stave off elimination to have a playoff and win a huge but in the end arbitrary sum. Granted, the top winners angle provided a climax, but that’s not where the appeal was.

    In a way, the show wasn’t big enough. They should have played all the games in the hourglass with the same rules. In development, the hourglass was shown at street level. That would have made a huge difference. NBC has a dozen networks. They should have put way more on TV. Seacrest wouldn’t have had to host all of it–hire improv guys, get Todd Newton, bring in Wink Martindale for an hour a day. A live 24-hour game show could have been amazing, but this wasn’t.

  • TheOriginalDonald

    It’s all Matt Scott’s fault! 😛

  • wish all what we are doing are successful

  • antonspivack

    Pitfall wasn’t a bad show, the endgame was actually very exciting. It’s just too bad that the production company went bankrupt.