NBC Counts Down to 'Million-Second Quiz' on Roof of Ex-Mercedes Lot


In one of the most eccentric ventures in recent broadcast history, NBC is mashing together high-tech, old-school and lots in between with Million-Second Quiz. The hour-long show will air live for 10 nights in primetime from Sept. 9 to 19, taking a one-day pause only on Sunday the 15th.

On Wednesday evening, the network invited press to visit the set — a low-slung former Mercedes-Benz dealership near the Hudson River never before used for film or TV production. On hand were host/executive producer Ryan Seacrest and creator/exec producer Stephen Lambert and exec producer David Hurwitz. Standing on the rooftop in the requisite hard-hat and orange safety vest gave the strongest sense yet of the show’s unusual blend of elements.

For one thing, there’s the weather. It’s not quite next February’s outdoor Super Bowl (which was in the news again this week when the Farmer’s Almanac predicted bitter cold and snow on game day). Even so, the plan calls for an audience of about 400 for each live broadcast, sitting in bleachers encircling the eye-catching stage.

Set on a high riser on a third-story roof affording 360-degree views of New York’s visual splendor, it features a 50-foot hourglass centerpiece. Around the hourglass is a circular, tent-like structure that resembles a twist on Philip Johnson’s New York Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. And while it’s not truly “rain or shine” — Hurwitz said the production would move to a secondary, ground-floor set in seriously inclement conditions - there is an open-air element that will give the show a unique feel. At least, that’s how it felt on the roof, a long way from Rockefeller Plaza or Steiner Studios or any of the city’s usual TV haunts.

The show is an amalgam of many parts: Nik Wallenda tightrope walk, David Blaine endurance magic, 1950s game show, modern reality competition, and ESPN spelling bee telecast. It’s the first live quiz show to air daily in a primetime week since the 1960s.

It already has significant traction in the digital realm. An app released earlier in August has already racked up 5 million questions answered. The show will feature a heavy second-screen element, enabling viewers to play along at home and even possibly get selected as contestants based on their input on the app.

Seacrest, no stranger to outdoor spectacle from his years hosting ABC’s coverage of New Year’s Eve in Times Square, conceded he isn’t quite sure what to expect.

“This is intense. It’s a sporting event,” he said. “And if you look at the amount of money that’s guaranteed at the end of this, almost $2 million, there is considerable emotion.” The top prize per day is some $864,000 — were a Ken Jennings-like phenom to catch fire, it could add up to more than the $2 million guarantee.

For NBC, which has struggled in the ratings, the financial and scheduling risk isn’t exactly at Revolution levels. This time of the summer, leading into premiere week, is typically slow. So Quiz gives the network an event to tout during a typically fallow period and, in success, a nightly platform that becomes a valuable promotional boost for other shows. The producers confirmed that other key properties and talent from across the NBCUniversal spectrum would be woven into the broadcasts.

The project has taken shape quickly. Lambert and his partners at All3Media America conceived of the idea last summer, pitched it to NBC in December and got a green light early this year. Given the logistics and the need for some 20,000-plus questions to be written, researched and fact-checked, if Quiz becomes a hit, its return would take a while. No one would offer a timeline of when a followup season could air, but producers noted how quickly — in little over a month — they had taken over a car lot and turned it into a working TV set.

One undeniable bit of baggage the show carries in the minds of veteran TV observers is ABC’s infamous decision to strip Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? across its primetime schedule a decade ago. That game show wore out its welcome by popping up so frequently and went from ratings giant and cultural phenomenon to old news in short order.

Hurwitz waved off the comparison, noting Quiz is a very limited event. “They burned out over a long term, not in the first or second week,” he said.

Added Seacrest, tongue firmly in cheek: “I spoke to Regis the other day and he said, ‘You’re doing this live?’ I said, ‘I’m going to have to call you back.’”