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 Monday, 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.
Seacrest is a big "get" for producers. Sure, the "American Idol" host seems to be everywhere, but his presence will signal to many viewers that "The Million Second Quiz" is worth checking out, Hurwitz said.
"It was something that really stood out to me as big and different and ambitious, something I had not truly done to this level before," Seacrest said. "I've hosted game shows in the past, but none to this caliber. I love the live event aspect of it."
During the prime-time broadcasts, local NBC personalities will arrive at the door of a person playing online somewhere in the country and send them to New York where they will play on TV the next night.
The game continues even when not on TV, and is designed to test speed and endurance. A player's goal is to stay in the "money chair," where the number of seconds they control the game corresponds to a cash prize. The chamber for top players includes cots and televisions because some of the quiz questions are plucked from the day's headlines.
Even though she'd never seen the game yet, one woman from Orlando, Fla., flew to New York to apply and waited outside the NBC Experience store all night, Hurwitz said.
"We've seen a different kind of contestant than we've seen in years past on different shows," said the former "Fear Factor" producer. "They're enthusiastic to be on TV and go for it, but they're also an intelligent group."
The event is timed for a two-week fallow period for television before the introduction of new fall programming and, if it works, will give NBC a platform to promote those shows. NBC isn't talking publicly about expectations. Telegdy would say only that he'd like to beat NBC's ratings for the same time slots a year ago, which seems relatively easy. His real hopes may been expressed in a conversation with the architect who helped turn an idea into the tons of steel and flashing lights rising into the sky of Manhattan's West Side.
"I said, 'You're spending an awful lot of money. I do hope we're going to use this thing several times over,"' he recalled.
If it does work, "The Million Second Quiz" will appear again as a special event, not a regular series. The design of the game -- the million seconds -- locks that format in, Telegdy said.
Success could also mean a potential conflict for Seacrest, who has a well-known TV commitment that sucks up his time during the winter and spring. "I haven't even crossed that bridge yet," he said.