NBC’s large scale live event gameshow Million Second Quiz has ended after nearly 12 days of continuous competition and handing out the biggest prize in network history. But what does the show say about the future of the future of primetime reality shows? Jesse Whittock reports.
Stephen Lambert’s London-based development team first conceived NBC’s Million Second Quiz after the reality TV guru had decided that 2013 schedules were lacking “something really big and ambitious”.
The Ryan Seacrest-presented and coproduced show finished its first run on September 19 after 11 days and a half days, or nearly 278 hours of continuous gameplay.
Sitting at the heart of NBC’s primetime schedule each evening at 8pm, the All3Media America, Studio Lambert and Ryan Seacrest Productions series required a major commitment from NBC Entertainment’s alternative and late night programming president Paul Telegdy. It was, and is, according to All3Media America president Lambert (below, left), “the biggest and most ambitious new entertainment format I’ve ever worked on and certainly the biggest and most ambitious entertainment format in the world this year”.
That accolade would normally go to the latest launch of reality shows such as Big Brother, and though that format still finds new homes, MSQ’s inception suggests network executives may be taking primetime commissioning in a new, more daring direction.
It also marked a new type of format blending the jeopardy of a gameshow, the spectacle of live event programming, round-the-clock live-in elements from the reality genre and digital interactivity. In Lambert’s words, the concept was to “turn a quiz into a sporting event with very broad appeal”.
He adds: “We hit on the idea it could be two weeks long, and realised it would end up a mix of quiz and reality. Then we had the notion that the four best players would live there 24/7 and only the best would survive until the end and convert their winnings into hard cash.”
In that sense, the show marks the latest evolution of the 24/7 programming category, as contestants on the show were put into four battle rounds an hour every hour during the million seconds. Players around the country competed digitally before, during and after each programme to gain a spot at the massive Manhattan rooftop hour glass structure and a chance to win millions of dollars.
But, according to Banijay International’s managing director Karoline Spodsberg, many broadcasters still see classic reality formats as a key primetime programming alternative, as “they are still commissioning them”. The key reasons for the endurance of primetime reality programming can be attributed to the cheap cost, attractive young adult target demographic, room for product placement experiments and local casting opportunities as seen in shows such as Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex, she adds.
Lambert himself has created numerous experiments in the reality genre and is behind show including Channel 4’s short-run Seven Days and now Gogglebox, a UK format that films people as they watch and react to primetime TV.
“I never understand how people think you can reach saturation point [for unscripted programming],” he says. “The only limit is the limit of your imagination and belief of what can be done.”
Googlebox, he continues, is in some respects a direct result of Seven Days’ failure to rate. The latter show, an interactive Studio Lambert format that filmed the locals of London’s Notting Hill each week, was hyped by many as Channel 4’s Big Brother replacement, but failed to take off. It was dropped after a season but Channel 4 executive producer Tania Alexander was sure a reworked show would work. Gogglebox launched earlier this year, has been recommissioned and is now selling as a format, notably to Bravo in the US, where a three-part series launched in October.
Endemol’s managing director, creative operations Iris Boelhouwer agrees that reality formats tap into that desire for the now.
For example, Big Brother (above) took up on Channel 5 in the UK after leaving Channel 4 in 2010 and has led to improved channel ratings; and in the US the Endemol format was recently commissioned for a 16th season in the US on CBS.
“Everyone says Big Brother is old and questions why it is still out there but we still have new series launching in new countries every year. For example, we launched in Canada last year, where it got huge ratings and a second season is coming, and there is a new one in Vietnam next year.”
“Endemol has tried similar things in the past to Million Second Quiz with 24-hour quizzes, so the idea has been in the minds of producers for quite a while. Ultimately, everybody’s trying to crack that really new, really refreshing new series.”
Spodsberg adds: “The opportunity – which, as is so often the case, is also a challenge – is to keep round-the-clock programming relevant by bringing in elements of other successful TV trends and by reflecting the changing society that consumers of these shows live in.”
Banijay’s latest foray into the competition reality genre is Opposite Worlds, a Chilean format from Channel 13 in which contestants living in a house together are divided by a glass wall – with one side offering a futuristic life of luxury and the other the ‘past’ – a life of hardship and adversary.
“We’ve sold Opposite Worlds into the US, where a local version will launch on Syfy in the new year, as well as Turkey, Croatia, Colombia, and across the Middle East. There is a clear demand for the genre,” says Spodsberg.
Electus CEO and seasoned reality producer Chris Grant (below, right) says the fact many classic formats remain popular is down to familiarity. “The fact is that wherever you find success with a format, people are going to try to take advantage of that success and find shows that mirror it and squeeze some of that success. Big Brother is at the forefront of reality programming: it’s been here for so long and is still going strong, so it’s no surprise [that is remains a key schedule driver].”
Paul Lee, president of ABC Entertainment, says networks are becoming increasingly attracted to what he calls “four quadrant” programming – shows that draw in young and old, male and female audiences. “Our established reality brands are showing extraordinary resilience and buzz – show like Dancing with the Stars, thanks to a great cast, and The Bachelor. Shark Tank now has a passionate four quadrant audience.”
Furthermore, it is wrong to see any primetime programme as simply filling a one-hour slot on a schedule in a world of second screen interaction, online add-ons and growing on-demand audiences, Lee adds. “The reality is that shows now last for more than hour on TV; they live on when our talent tweets and on ABC.com and [on-demand service] Watch ABC.”
ABC has, of course, been stung by the 24/7 reality TV genre this year. Glass House, which the network launched last year, was immediately accused by rival CBS of being a Big Brother clone and a court case was brought against ABC and the producers, some of whom were ex-Big Brother staff. In August, ABC agreed to pay “financial compensation” to the Eye network. Doubling the pain, Glass House was a ratings dud.
Chris Philip, CEO of US-based indie producer Sierra/Engine Television, says that success breeds success regardless of genre. “If one [network] announces they’re doing a particular style, you’ll see everyone else throw their hats in the ring. The nature of the business is development executives really don’t want to miss out on anything and concept creators will try to be in that same space naturally.”
The trick appears to be to make a new version of an existing concept that is sufficiently genre-bending that broadcasters cannot pass it up. Sierra/Engine scored a straight-to-series commission from NBC for Siberia, a one-hour scripted series based on the reality TV genre. Philip bills it as “Hunger Games meets The Blair Witch Project with a little Survivor”.
“At the end of the day, there’s a considerable amount of acting in reality TV to keep shows sensational. We thought, ‘why not give the viewer exactly what they want’ and start killing people to give them shock television.”
This attempt at reality-themed drama has been attempted before. In 2008 scriptwriter Charlie Brooker wrote the BAFTA-nominated Dead Set, a Zeppotron-produced scripted series for UK youth-skewed net E4 in which fictional contestants on Big Brother become embroiled in life-or-death battle against a zombie invasion.
“The whole genre of reality is evolving into a soft semi-scripted genre,” says Philip. “As it matures, producers become desperate to outdo one another. And the average person in a reality show is trying to stay on the show – they know exactly how to push the buttons and say the right things.”
This is certainly true of scripted reality shows such as TOWIE, Berlin: Day and Night and Jersey Shore but Banijay’s Spodsberg doesn’t see it becoming part of other types of primetime reality shows.
“You’d have to be very careful going down this route,” she says. “Authenticity is very important to viewers, and even when it is clear that some situations are constructed the audience wants to feel that the interaction between characters is spontaneous and real.”
For MSQ, the jeopardy is centred on the four times hourly trivia battles that ultimately decided the winner of the huge cash prize, but Lambert notes: “You’ve got the game going on but then there’s also the drama of people living there.”
Distributor All3Media International was in Cannes launching MSQ to the global business. Lambert says there are three versions offered: one designed to be in line with a cost-effective competition reality budget, another for networks with slightly more money to play with and another much closer to NBC’s massive investment. “This isn’t cheap programming but you could do a cheaper version,” he adds.
The format will appeal to channels looking for “big-scale, event TV” to compensate for the fact 2013 has offered no major sporting event. The US ratings were disappointing, presenting the sales team with an added challenge when pitching the show. At MIPCOM All3 International had days – or 259,200 seconds – to convince buyers. The fact FremantleMedia and Shine carved up production rights to the show across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Latin America before the market suggests MSQ could the right format at the right time.