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Reflecting on the Million Second Quiz.

As I’m posting this, Night 10, the final night of NBC’s nightly game show experience, The Million Second Quiz, has concluded. Questions were answered, people won cash, and the touted “Biggest cash prize in game show history” – Greed from 1999 would like a word with you – was won. I sat through all ten nights, playing along. Hell, I even have the GetGlue stickers to prove it. Now that it’s over, I wanna look back on this whole ride.

I had not heard of the Million Second Quiz until about a week or two before its premiere. Funny, considering the game show nut that I am, you would think I would have known about it months beforehand. I remember seeing an ad for the MSQ app while at PAX Prime in Seattle, which is baffling considering the average age of people who go to PAX are likely in their teens-early twenties. I don’t see them vying to download an iPhone/Android app and try on a game show.

The only other thing I remember about MSQ was talking with my friends on Skype about it. They’re big game show fans and even host their own versions of game shows on the air. Opinions on Night One from my friends on the East Coast was mixed, whereas my west coast self was mildly anticipating it.

Then, the show went live. The set, adorned with a several-story-tall hourglass, had a ticker on the top with the million seconds ticking down. Inside the hourglass set were three podiums, one of which had a seat with a round circle showing a cash value – the amount of money the person playing was winning at that moment. The moment a contestant was in that money chair, they accumulated $10/second, which suddenly reminded me of a different game show. The big-ass hourglass shows the New York City skyline in the background. Unless it’s raining like hell, in which they move the production to a smaller, closed stage that looks like it was done on a local NBC station.

While the camera sweeps down, host Ryan Seacrest greets the viewer for watching, and gives a recap of the player’s quest in the money chair up to that point. A random audience member is chosen to face off against the contestant in the money chair, and the game begins. Questions are asked, correct answers get points, most points wins and takes the money chair to make cash. At any time a contestant can challenge their opponent to answer to double the points, but they could double them back for four times the amount. Each game is timed, which is from 300-400 seconds depending on the bout.

Of course, there’s more to the game than that, but it seems to the average viewer that it didn’t click with them too well. They broke one of the simplest rules of a game show: Explain everything quick and concise. On Night One, they went right into it as if the show had been on the air for years, and only three game shows can get away with doing that: Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy!. I would’ve treated the first few nights a little more slowly and explain things more clearly, then streamline it as the show progresses. Think of many classic game shows, a lot of them started a bit slower to explain things to new viewers, then went into their more traditional format after a period of time on the air.

Even though the show ended at 9PM sharp, segueing into shows like The Voice, Seacrest exclaimed “The show continues at NBC.com!” …unless you lived on the West Coast like I do, in which case I saw the Winners Row players sleeping, or seeing a “stream will be back shortly” message like I did constantly. They continued to do online games with an off-screen host, for 500 seconds, each question equaling a point, and no doublers. It’s dumb to change the rules for the online streams compared to the TV broadcast, because in this bare-bones format, all it takes is two screw-ups and you’re done.

There are several problems with the Million Second Quiz. A lot of the questions are based on current events rather than pure trivia, which reminded me of The Challengers. There’s a boatload of sponsorship, from Hota Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford on Today to Carson Daly on The Voice to Steve Harvey’s talk show – not surprising since they’re all NBC/Universal shows. The inconsistency between the online games and the TV broadcasts. Finally, the rules constantly being glossed over or explained poorly for the sake of having more fancy camera pans and dramatic music cues. Surprisingly, Ryan Seacrest was not bad, he did fine with what he was given. I’ve seen bad game show hosts, even ones that could tell you the rules down pat but had the personality of a dull knife. Seacrest did fine as a host. Then again, I never understood his hate besides “He’s everywhere.” If that’s your argument, I take it you hated it when Dick Clark was hosting American Bandstand, Bloopers & Practical Jokes, The $25,000 Pyramid and a radio show at the same time as well?

Despite that, I couldn’t stop watching. I downloaded the app, playing along with the show and random strangers across the country. While I amassed enough points to qualify as a contestant, nobody from KGW (my local NBC station) was knocking at my door. Funny enough, the concept of “play along at home” game shows reminds me of my brief experiences playing along with lesser known game shows like Paranoia and webRIOT almost fifteen years ago. Maybe I’ll talk about those some time.

Million Second Quiz is a weird concept. It’s a generic quizzer focused on large sums of money, with added social interaction thanks to Twitter, Facebook and GetGlue. NBC wanted this to be their version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – that game show that gets a lot of buzz and gets people talking. Alas, the show’s several faults turned people away, and likely won’t be returning for a second season. It’s sad, too, because I thought the idea was sound, just needed more polish. I’ve seen worse game shows in primetime – Identity, Set for Life, Show Me the Money – and the Million Second Quiz sits firmly in the middle: Not amazing, but not memorable either. At least Ryan Seacrest got to host another game show, even if it took him 14 years to do so.

Meeting Ken Jennings.

I know I update this blog about once every six months at this point, but it’s because I usually have nothing interesting happen in my life that’s blog-worthy. Wednesday changed all that.

I heard Ken Jennings was coming into town at Powell’s Books to talk about his new book, Because I Said So!, which talks about myths and legends that you might’ve heard from your parents. For those not quite in the loop, Jennings was the guy who went on Jeopardy! back in 2004 and won over $2,500,000 thanks to the show’s then-new rule of staying a returning champion until you were defeated. Since then, he’s wrote a book about the experience — Brainiac — as well as a trivia almanac and a book about maps titled Maphead, so he’s been keeping busy with telling his trivia knowledge to the masses. One of these days I need to pick up Brainiac just so I can do a compare-and-contrast with another book written by another former Jeopardy! contestant: Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris. Never finished Trebekistan, but it’s still a great read.

So, the event was mostly Jennings repeating stuff from the book and interjecting with a good amount of humor. I follow the guy on Twitter, so I’m used to some of his jokey, sometimes groan-worthy humor, but there were plenty of laughs here and there. After that, there was a book signing in which I snagged a copy and got him to sign it. As well as a picture.

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Normally I usually don’t do photo-ops with famous people, especially since a picture in 2009 with a games journalist-turned-game designer looked painfully uncomfortable from his point of view. But I really couldn’t pass this one up, since it’s Ken freakin’ Jennings. Afterwards I hopped on a train and went home — it was pretty late, and I’m usually not out and about at night.

I don’t really give myself time to read books, but I’ll likely read Because I Said So! in the near future and maybe write about it. We shall see.

Game shows and gaming the system.

Game shows are a fascinating thing to me. Ever since I watched those huge 6-to-8 hour blocks of game shows back on USA before they became “The Law and Order: SVU Network,” I’ve always loved them. Jenn Frank wrote a wonderful article on Infinite Lives about gaming the system. While largely about gaming in general, she mentions Roger Craig and his history from being a computer scientist to Jeopardy! champion, even mentioning his system on choosing subjects and categories. J.P. Grant wrote a fantastic response to her article about that incident on The Price is Right where somebody made a perfect bid on the showcases, only to find out that a former contestant gave him the exact price. (Interestingly enough, Ted, the guy who gave him the exact bid, later went on Price is Right fan site golden-road.net the day that it aired, slightly bragging about him giving the perfect bid.) These two articles made me think about the other ways game shows have been used to “game” the system.

Before I continue, I recommend you read Frank’s original article on Infinite Lives first, as well as J.P. Grant’s response that mentions the Price is Right incident. They’re both great reads.

One immediate thought of “gaming the system” on a game show came to a lesser-known example: A man by the name of Neil Bines appeared on the short-lived NBC game show Caesar’s Challenge around 1993. Caesar’s Challenge was an anagram game: A word of 7-9 letters appeared scrambled. Correctly answering a trivia question gave you a choice of a letter to place in the right spot. The player then had to guess what the word is, based on what letters are in place and the category associated with it. One of the letters was also designated “the lucky slot,” choosing the letter that fell into the lucky slot gave a chance for a player to win a jackpot that started at $500 each day and increased by $500 for each word it went unclaimed. Bines gamed the system by choosing the letter that’d go in the lucky slot, correctly guess the word, win upwards of $1,000-$2,000 for each successfully guessed word.

It’s more interesting during the bonus round. Letter balls rolled around in a cage and were chosen one letter at a time until a certifiable nine-letter word could be formed with those letters. The winner would then place one letter — more if they were a returning champion — and have 10 seconds to solve the word. Successfully solving it won you a car and retired you from the show. Naturally, Bines pulled it off. He walked away with over $38,700 in cash and prizes in a single day. Knowing his way around anagrams made him a big money winner on a simple little show. It’s a really fascinating watch, however the only video to surface is a highlight reel presumably by Bines or a friend of his.

There’s another one involving an 80s game show called “Wipeout.” (Not to be confused with the current game show with the big balls.) In the bonus round, a player had to choose six correct answers out of twelve to win a car. The player had 60 seconds to choose six of the answers they thought were correct, hit a button, and find out how many they have right. If they had all six, the car was theirs. This guy used a system of hitting six in a certain pattern, regardless of whether or not they were actually correct. He’d find out how many he had, go back and change only one, and either change it back if the number was lower or move on to the next one if it was higher. Note this wasn’t always foolproof, this guy was lucky they chose the six right answers in the right pattern. Likely if somebody tried the same strategy it wouldn’t be as perfect as this guy did it.

The last one is the famed incident on Press Your Luck featuring Michael Larson. Larson, a former ice cream truck driver, found out that the “random” board patterns on the giant board were actually predetermined, thus giving him an edge by knowing exactly when to hit the button and stop the board, on two important spaces that gave cash and an additional spin at the board. He ended up amassing $110,237, a staggering amount of cash in 1984. As a result, the producers were unsure if it was fixed or just dumb luck. They aired the episode in two parts, complete with host Peter Tomarken giving an interstitial between the two parts. Once Larson got the money however, he continued to scheme and scheme. One incident was him taking out all his money in $1 bills just to match a certain code on the bill that would award him a trip. With several bags of money in the house, someone broke in and robbed him of about $40,000. Years later, Larson got involved in illegal lotteries and thus was on the run from the IRS and the FBI. Larson died of throat cancer in 1999.

Larson’s trickery ties in very much to Frank’s article talking about “losing” the system. Larson thought he could get away with making more money after winning over $100,000. Unfortunately he lost the game when he tried again and subsequently was a fugitive of the law as a result. The episode where the incident occurs is an exciting moment to watch, but to know what happens afterwards makes it a depressing tale. Instead of a man that could be mentioned in a game show legacy in a positive light, he ends up being no better than the cheaters that Frank mentioned.

There are probably countless other incidents in game shows of people gaming the system, such as Charles Ingram, but I think what I’ve mentioned is enough. It’s really interesting to see people attempt gaming the system on a game show, and even find ways to master it. Hell, I own two books — “How to beat the Wheel of Fortune” and “How to get on Jeopardy! and Win” — that talk about professional game strategies for those respective shows. Despite the simplicity of game shows today, there is a way to use them to your advantage and basically “master” the game. But I think it’s more fun when somebody wins a car on The Price is Right by blind luck. That’s more interesting than somebody making that exact bid.

My love and hate for the modern game show.

Some people who know me know that I had a knack for game shows. Others know I have a massive 70-tape collection of game shows from the 1950s to 2006. But what they all don’t know is that I’ve fallen out of favor of game shows. Perhaps this is just age, me “growing out” out of my childhood fascinations. I wish it was that. In reality, it’s because game shows, to me, have gotten too gimmicky.

I look at shows like Minute to Win It and $1,000,000 Money Drop. Not content with making a game with fun, engaging gameplay; they opt for excess drama and tension over whether or not the contestant chose the right answer. This was charming in the days of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but that was twelve years ago. Even then, Millionaire didn’t rely on the “Did you give the right answer? We’ll find out AFTER THE BREAK!” gimmick in the several years I watched that show on and off.

I guess I might as well segue into the classics that are still on today. Wheel of Fortune is still mildly entertaining to watch, although Pat Sajak is going through the motions at this point, probably waiting for the inevitable retirement a few years down the line. Jeopardy! is doing a gimmick where they trot out Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings for the umpteenth time to face off against a computer. The Price is Right somehow has gotten goofier since Drew Carey took over, and the revival of Let’s Make a Deal is going the same route with Wayne Brady. Granted, I still watch these shows on occasion in spite of the complaints I just made. And I realize that it’s not the past anymore and that change is inevitable for these shows.

Hell, I haven’t tuned my TV to GSN in months. It seems all they air there is six hours of Deal or No Deal and 1 vs 100 reruns coupled with occasional episodes of Lingo from six years ago and Catch 21. There’s no variety on their schedule anymore, just the same 6-8 shows repeated through their 20 hour broadcast day. I have to resort to YouTube and game show fansites like the Game Show Vault for my random classic game show fix. Hell, I remember back around 2001 when I used to go to my dad’s work, slap a VHS tape and tune the TV to GSN and record six hours of shows. That thrill of not knowing what to expect or watch from GSN has been gone for years, opting to see the same episode of DoND where the lady wins $5 in her case for the hundredth time.

So I’ve been looking at random game shows instead, some of them outside the US. For instance, I was fascinated by an episode of the UK game show Bullseye. Unlike the US game show, which was an over-dramatic quizzer produced by Barry and Enright, the UK game show is a darts game with a quiz element. I found it compelling because I used to be obsessed with darts at one time, and the game had tension. Actual honest-to-god tension, something that wasn’t fabricated or oversaturated. Seeing if the player was gonna win another prize or forfeit all their prizes if they stuck a dart in the same place… it was fascinating stuff.

To me, the experience of finding something “new” out of game shows today is gone. It feels like gimmick central on every game show that I watch. Instead of a good game wrapped around a great host and format, it has to be buried in flashy dramatics and gimmicks hosted by a washed-up comedian/actor who’s desperate for a paycheck. Perhaps this may just be the pessimist in me, but to quote a song by B.B. King, The Thrill is Gone.

Also, to be fair, I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the new shows I mentioned. Maybe my opinion would change if I actually sat down and watched them. Failing that, does someone want to give me a reason to watch modern game shows again? Because I really want to live the days where I was excited as all hell to see someone win the big grand prize.

Wait a second, I got the answer: Somebody needs to revive The $25,000 Pyramid. It’s my favorite game show, and we’re long overdue for a new version. At least, one that doesn’t blow goats like the Donny Osmond revival did nine years ago.