NEW YORK - A giant hourglass structure being built on the rooftop of an abandoned Manhattan car dealership may look like Godzilla's futuristic toy but instead represents NBC's hope for the television event of the season.
It's the set for "The Million Second Quiz," a prime-time competition with Ryan Seacrest as host that will play out over two weeks starting Sept. 9. Someone adept at trivia will win a $2 million prize on the Sept. 19 finale.
More than a game, the event is a peek into the future of broadcast television.
With the sources for quality content expanding along with the ability of viewers to watch when and how they want, showing big live events like football games and awards shows is becoming the most reliable way broadcast networks can draw a big crowd and distinguish themselves from rivals.
"The rewards of doing the same thing every day are relatively small in TV land these days," said Paul Telegdy, head of alternative and late-night programming at NBC Entertainment. "We have to be taking risks. We have to be doing things to scale. We have to do everything we can to energize the audience."
NBC moved quickly to build the show from scratch after Telegdy heard a pitch from executive producer Stephen Lambert last December. There's the physical structure, which includes a chamber for the top four players to stay day and night, and a duplicate indoor set in case of rain. Three truck trailers provide 600,000 watts of generator power.
Producers also needed to build the infrastructure of the game: composing nearly 25,000 quiz questions, processing applications for the estimated 800 to 1,000 participants in the round-the-clock contest, and building an app that allows people to play at home. The free tablet app became available two weeks ago; NBC won't say how many have been downloaded, but estimated that 4.5 million "bouts" have already been played online.
With the play-at-home app, NBC hopes to capture the imagination of people who have grown accustomed to watching television with a second screen open.
"If things play out the way we hope things play out, we could be changing the course of television" with the integration of digital and viewer participation, said David Hurwitz, an executive producer.