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On a recent edition of the "Million Second Quiz," two very smart contestants gave two very wrong answers to a question that should have been a no-brainer, given their circumstances. How many seconds, they were asked, are there until Christmas?
The question provided a mini-meta moment during a game show where, even with the clock ticking toward the 11-day, 13-hour, 46-minute and 40-second deadline, it sometimes feels as if time is standing still. With each passing second, “MSQ” heads for a potentially dramatic close Thursday, capping a multimedia experiment that’s proven, by turns, bold, odd and exciting.
The differing emotions elicited by the show are a product of experiencing it different ways at different times – there’s the program’s online life, which offers a chance to play along around the clock. There’s the ever-present crowd outside the hourglass-shaped set atop a Manhattan roof. There are the “line jumpers” from around the country – online players who get tapped for the TV contest with the ring of a doorbell, recalling an earlier era where Ed McMahon showed up on doorsteps with a big check.
Then there are the nightly episodes hosted by Ryan Seacrest, channeling his “American Idol” flair for drama into another high-stakes TV affair. Seacrest is most ubiquitous tube presence since Regis Philbin, who hosted "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the last primetime quiz show phenomenon.
Like "Millionaire," contestants on “MSQ” are asked multiple-choice questions that start easy and get harder. “MSQ” tosses in current event queries, which can be deceptively difficult for folks operating under too little sleep - and an excess of pressure that can only be escaped via catnaps in sleeping car-like cubicles. The contestants are subjected to reality-show like conditions, even as they’re thrust into an alternate reality, a netherworld between the Internet and TV.
The format isn't perfect – some of the grumbling about the complexity of the rules rings true (even the seemingly simple “power player” feature can be vexing). There’s little confusion, though, over the old-fashioned showdown set for Thursday night. The final four on the show’s Winners’ Row – Andrew, Brandon, Eric and Devin – aren’t big names in every household. But that’s likely to change for whoever walks away from the "MSQ" Money Chair with millions of dollars (whatever the final total, it’s being touted as the largest prize in game show history).
We’re now less than nine million seconds until Christmas. We’ll see whether the “MSQ” season finale delivers a satisfying present not only to the winner, but to the fans who have given the game show the gift of their time.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.