Earlier this month I learned that when a bird poops on you, it really does bring good luck. For over 13 years, one of my most sought after goals has been to become a contestant on a broadcast quiz show. Finally, a couple of weekends ago, that dream was realised. I competed — and won several matches — on the NBC network’s game show, “Million Second Quiz” (MSQ). And it all started with a defecating pigeon.
Overview: the basic rules of the game
To understand what follows, it will be helpful to have a brief familiarity with how MSQ worked. Admittedly, the rules were complicated and are difficult to explain concisely (which partly explains why MSQ attracted a relatively low number of viewers); but I’ll do the best I can.
The show ran 24/7 over a period of about 11 days, from September 8th through September 19th, 2013, comprising a total of 1 million seconds (hence the show’s name). At the heart of MSQ was its continuous series of 1-on-1 matches, known as “bouts.” In each bout, the contestant who’d won the previous match sat in a seat called the “money chair”; the challenger, who was entering the arena for the first time, stood at a lectern. Each bout lasted for 500 seconds, during which the two opponents were read a series of multiple-choice questions on a wide variety of trivia topics. (Although wide-ranging, the question sets included a heavy concentration of pop culture.) After a question was presented, each player had to push a button corresponding to the letter choice of the answer within 5 seconds; a player would be awarded 1 point for each correct answer. In a typical bout, a total of 14 or 15 questions would be asked. If both players had accumulated the same number of points when the 500 seconds had elapsed, a tiebreaker question was provided. Whichever player buzzed in first on a tiebreaker got first crack at answering it, and if his response was correct he won the match. If he missed, his opponent received an opportunity to answer the question and steal the bout.
If the player in the money chair emerged victorious in the bout, he remained in that seat to take on a new challenger. But if the challenger won, the incumbent was ejected from the money chair (and was finished playing), and the challenger replaced him in it. The money chair displayed a numerical counter that was reset to zero dollars when a new player took his place in it, and increased by ten dollars for each second that a particular player remained in the chair. Thus, if a player went on an extended run of victories, his tally of accumulated money would continue to climb. However, being knocked out of the chair by losing to a challenger would, under most circumstances, cause a player to forfeit all of his accumulated earnings. (Yes, I said “under most circumstances.” I told you the rules were overly complex.) 🙂 After MSQ’s finale this past Thursday night, only the top four players, out of the well over 1,000 contestants who played at least one bout on the show, got to keep their money; the first place finisher also grabbed a sizable bonus and walked away with a total cash prize of over $2.6 million dollars. But most of the participants left with no cash winnings at all, no matter how many bouts they won.
As the 1 million seconds ticked off, most of the bouts were live-streamed over the internet by NBC, literally around the clock. The exception was a small number of bouts that were played on selected nights between 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm, eastern time; instead of being watchable online, those prime-time bouts were broadcast live on network television, and were hosted by Ryan Seacrest. In general, qualifying to play on one of the televised bouts in prime time required winning an insanely large number of live-streamed matches.
Oh, and one other wrinkle: the four people who at any given juncture had accumulated the greatest amounts of money had to live, Big Brother-style, in an apartment in the studio. Because MSQ was sort of a hybrid between a game show and a reality show.
Initial steps of the audition
The casting process employed by MSQ was very different from the mechanism typically utilized by game shows in the U.S. to find contestants. Continue reading →