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For NBC, patience on Million Second Quiz is everything.
The unprecedented 24/7 live trivia game show kicked off Monday against stiff competition, including ESPN’s Monday Night Football, and opened to a modest 1.7 rating among adults 18-49 and 6.5 million total viewers. The demo average matched last summer’s short-lived unscripted effort Stars Earn Stripes. While the numbers mark a decent opener for the Ryan Seacrest–hosted effort, the network faced a wave of criticism from viewers who stumbled while using the show’s interactive application to play along at home when the server supporting it crashed under the strain of live players.
Following a rare company-wide promotion across all NBCUniversal platforms, NBC quickly increased the server capacity to prevent alienating at-home players eyeing a chance to be flown to New York to compete on the live broadcast. Tuesday’s broadcast — facing reduced competition — dipped two-tenths of a point in the demo, registering a 1.5 rating.
MSQ — which airs live every night through Sept. 19 (except Sundays, when the NFL takes over at 8 p.m.) — represents a key piece in NBC’s fall hopes, as the network is using the trivia show to serve as a promotional launchpad for its 2013-14 lineup. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Paul Telegdy, NBC’s president of alternative and late-night programming, to discuss the tech glitches, ratings expectations and what he would have done differently to launch the series.
The Hollywood Reporter: Are you pleased with the ratings thus far?
Paul Telegdy: I am. This is a show that is viral, so we’re tracking all sorts of other metrics beyond the ratings about people’s engagement and their involvement with the show. We had a huge glitch on opening night with the play-along-at-home app, which was driven by a surge in demand that we hadn’t anticipated. I think every person in America can remember a moment in their life when they experienced frustration with a piece of new technology. Overnight, we remedied the situation and we increased our server capacity by 1,200 percent, and Tuesday night’s show was problem-free apart from some user error-generated complaints, which are normally about syncing to the audio track of your television — if you have a large amount of background noise, you can experience problems.
Are you optimistic that the show will grow as viewers and online players continue to learn the format?
In terms of where the rating is, you ask a television executive if he wants more ratings than he got and there’s not a single show to which that doesn’t apply. Every time we wake up wishing we got more. It’s been a long-term strategy at companies like ours; when you think of the touch points we have on a show like Million Second Quiz, the benefits to the company are a bit more than the rating. Last night, on the roof of our set, a Salt Lake City affiliate interviewed a contestant flown in and Ryan Seacrest. The touch points on local news and the network of NBCUniversal continue to pace the involvement of where we source current affairs and video questions. This is a show that is a progressive competition in terms of the amount of money at stake. The stakes grow with every second that passes. The understanding of the social experiment component and the endurance component — which is winner’s row — people are just getting to grips with what it means, both the contestants and the viewers.… This is a show where the cliché applies: It is a marathon but it is also a sprint at the same time because producing a show like this is logistically almost unfathomable. We have hundreds of thousands of actively engaged participants on the digital side and have people who are starting to understand the game. Every hour that passes, they’ll care more about these contestants whose journeys they’ll want to follow. That takes time.
The series has yet to break through in terms of trending topics on Twitter. Is that sort of thing important to you
We are the No. 1 free download at the iTunes store and we have been for a 24-hour period. During the show, 1,000 people a minute were downloading the app. With every bout that we play — and we’ve only played six televised bouts, three in each show plus the one that is continuing online — the number of people playing along at home doubles. At the moment, the rate with which we’re adding new users to the app and new participants who play the game at home are delivering us a different kind of audience. We’re finding fan passion through game play and that’s starting to work. Obviously you want it to be glitch-free on night one, but we are breaking so much new ground here that some glitches were inevitable.
With the app growing so rapidly, what else are you doing to safeguard that online play is glitch-free going forward?
There were no tech glitches Tuesday night. And scaling by 1,200 percent gives us an adequate buffer. Frequently, when you see what capacity you need, it’s a bit like cars braking on the freeway — how much braking distance you have between cars before you crash into the back of one. We put in a bit more braking distance is how I’d put it. We can react to a surge in demand by increasing capacity with a buffer that gives us time to do that rather than crashing into the car in front.
Do you see the issues with the app and the bad press NBC is getting from that as a good thing?
No. We’ve remedied the technical situation and there were lots of very satisfied customers. If you look at the social stream of the first half-hour of our broadcast on Monday, while the app was working great for the people who were logged on, it was transformative for them. They’ve loved it and it was an incredible experience. Then it crashed and it was a very bad experience. We ‘fessed up to it and it hasn’t impacted the pace with which the online phenomenon is growing.
Knowing what you do now about MSQ, would you have done anything differently in the run-up to it?
Of course. A lot of people have recognized the rather stagnant world for new [unscripted] ideas for broadcast television. This show is distinguishing itself as an extremely ambitious project from a logistical point of view, which is what I would change. I’d always want more time to get things right. We are in a very fast-changing world and that requires fast-term action. We could have done with another week to get things ready at the very least, but we’re dealt the hand that we’re given and everyone here is in a rather rambunctious mood because they know they’re part of something completely different than has been attempted before.
What about with the app or the format of the show, anything you’d change?
These things are always subject to the evolution of the show. Between the first and second season of The Voice we made changes. You learn, you implement and you postmortem creatively — it’s the same with every creative process. Yes, we’d do things differently with the app; yes, we’d have probably bought a few more servers for the first night with hindsight. But it’s coming along nicely.
Are you already thinking about a second season of MSQ?
It’s way too early to be talking about that. We’ve got nine more nights of live television to broadcast from central Manhattan. No one is making any presumptions about a second season at this stage.
What do you think of MSQ? Are you playing along at home? Hit the comments below with your thoughts.
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