As Bill McMenamin, leaning on a lectern in front of his Lafayette Hill home’s fireplace, read another trivia question on a recent Tuesday night, live comments rolled continuously beneath his online image like music scrolling through a player piano.
“Read Question #7 again!”
“I can’t hear you real good.”
“This is awesome. When’s the next one?”
McM Entertainment’s Family Trivia Night continued on its Facebook platform for nearly an hour, through five rounds, 50 questions, and an increasingly unhinged tone in chatter among the nearly 1,000 contestants. There are two more sessions each week — one on Thursday that’s focused on TV’s The Office, and a more traditional trivia competition on Saturday.
Like McMenamin and his audience, Americans isolated by the COVID-19 outbreak increasingly are turning to their phones and laptops for social interaction. Streamed video-game usage, according to a Verizon survey, has jumped 75% during peak hours. Esports organizations report booming activity. New trivia or Words with Friends competitions pop up daily.
Recently, when Indy Car and Formula 1 canceled events, a virtual race sponsored by an online motor-sports magazine attracted more than a half-million participants.
McMenamin, a human-resources executive for a local technology company, and his wife formed McM as a sideline a decade ago. The company stages trivia nights for charities, churches, and schools, typically as fund-raisers.
“We were co-presidents of our local home-school association and we got asked to host one,” he said. “I thought, `Wow, I could do something with this, incorporate music and different things.’ We did another and another, then someone asked us to put one on for the American Cancer Society.”
In recent years, McM has hosted about 75 trivia nights annually. There were 15 scheduled for this March before growing coronavirus concerns canceled them one by one. Bored and antsy, wanting to provide entertainment for all those who were feeling the same, McMenamin decided to shift his focus from auditoriums and church halls to the internet.
“We were sitting around at breakfast and I said, `I think I’m going to go through withdrawal,'” said McMenamin. “I’m used to preparing for these trivia nights. My daughter said a friend of hers had done something on Facebook and that maybe we could do the same. At the time, we had maybe 1,600 followers. But when we put out news that we were doing something online, it got shared by something like 6,000 people. Last week, we passed 10,000.”
For the first contest, they expected “maybe 20 people” and instead got more than 100 contestants, most of whom were representatives for larger groups of players. Since then, the interest and participation have expanded with each new event. Last Saturday, for example, the live Facebook video reached 4,000.
“Families and friends form teams. One group created a conference call with 10 players on it,” he said. “We don’t even know exactly how many people we’re reaching, but it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
The trivia contests are low-key and low-tech. McMenamin’s wife records the proceedings with an IPad. His daughters handle online questions and comments. Recently, a few graphic elements were added to replace hand-lettered signs. Teams self-score and are on the honor system. Score sheets are emailed to McM and the results posted at game’s end.
The 10th and final question in each round is called Doo-Dah on the Tens. Because Facebook regulations prohibit the use of unlicensed music, McMenamin has had to hum the tunes players must then identify.
“People love it,” he said. “Recently we announced that we’d be adding some acoustic features and people were like, `Oh, my God, you’re not stopping Doo-Dahs on the Tens, are you?’”
Players pay nothing and prizes are minimal. And while the unanticipated pandemic has created new entrepreneurial opportunities, the McMenamins said there were no plans to make money. In fact, when someone offered to tip the trivia host, McMenamin suggested he give the money instead to a local food bank.
“We were thinking if we got up to 2,000 [Facebook likes or follows], we’d try to monetize it,” he said, “maybe with sponsorships. But we thought, you know what, everybody’s struggling at this point. We didn’t want to add anything.
“What it’s been is a great distraction, and a lot of people have thanked us for doing it. In these times,” he said, “that’s more important.”