A QUESTION OF THOUGHT
Television quiz shows, once the guilty preserve of idlers and lowbrows, are suddenly fashionable, ubiquitous and admired by media studies gurus. Is there more to the format than meets the eye - or less to our culture?
Sunday 19 February 1995
Quiz shows are the great growth area of our culture. Daytime television quizzes regularly get 3 million viewers, evening shows three times that. There are brow-furrowing quiz show stars like Countdown's mathematician Carol Vorderman and British scrabble champion Allan Saldanha; 10,000 applications a year to go on Fifteen To One; 3,500 pub quiz teams currently competing in a single knock-out competition; and annually quadrupling sales of pub quiz kits. Next week the quiz culture gets its own film: Robert Redford's long and serious Quiz Show, which recreates the question-rigging scandal at the Fifties show Twenty-One as a parable of lost American innocence. From Brazil to India, every country that has popular television is adapting the quiz show format to its one social contours and customs.
Yet people aren't proud of watching quiz shows. They admit their quiz habits guiltily, grudgingly, with excuses and implied irony. Until recently, quizzes have been at the bottom of the television pecking-order, well below soap operas: while Late Review pundits scrap over Brookside, media professors apologise for their ignorance of The Price Is Right - and write about Punk or EastEnders instead.
Part of this is snobbery. Daytime quiz audiences tend to be housewives, the elderly, and the unemployed, while evening shows attract working-class viewers; none of these groups is conventionally seen as significant by taste- makers and advertisers. But the form of quiz shows contributes to their lowly status too: bland and repetitive, or greedy and aggressive. Their addictive little worlds exemplify television's ability to suck us in, to waste our time.
Quiz shows have been a big part of television, and of fears about it, since the medium was invented. The first, Uncle Jim's Question Bee, was adapted from the Thirties American radio show in 1948. Its appeal was obvious: no need for a script, and a chance to involve a public already familiar with party games and competitions in newspapers. The BBC quickly made its own, called Have a Go, which by the late Forties was regularly drawing over half the nation to its wirelesses. But the popularity of this and other quizzes, like that of a lot of mass culture, made the great and the good nervous. The 1962 Pilkington Report into television singled out quizzes as the medium at its most trivial and socially harmful. Critical attitudes to quiz shows echoed attitudes to gambling - winning required no merit; prizes were too much for people to cope with. Prize values were a particular source of anxiety: restricted in 1957, and kept to the price of a modest car until the 1990 Broadcasting Act removed all such limits, they remain modest in Britain compared with the US.
But critics of quiz show venality have had plenty of other ammunition. In the Twenty-One scandal the show's producers gave favoured contestants the answers in order to attract the kind of viewers their sponsors wanted. In the early Seventies Bob Monkhouse was sacked as host of ITV's The Golden Shot for accepting gifts from companies for including their products as prizes.
None the less, television churned out quiz shows through the Sixties and Seventies - with a successful sideline in game shows too. "The great appeal to a controller is that they're unbelievably cheap," says BBC entertainment development head Keith Lygo. "They shoot six Blockbusters shows in a day." The basic question-and-answer formula could be replicated and tarted up with buzzers and stop-watches and graphics. Sets could be re-used hundreds of times, ideas bought in from members of the public.
John Lewis was a British Telecom salesman who invented Fifteen To One in 1985. "I was watching a Barry Norman programme about quiz shows in the US, and I thought, `I can do better than that...' I had this idea for a show called Twenty To One, gave it a nice presentation and picked out five producers' names from the TV Times. Four said no, but Bill Stewart [William G Stewart, now the host] said yes."
Stewart honed down the formula and bought the rights in 1988, since when Lewis has been getting royalties from over 100 shows a year. He no longer works for BT, has an agent, and has had "loads more" ideas - none of them commissioned.
Stewart, meanwhile, has become the undisputed British quiz show guru. He's warmed up audiences for Family Fortunes, asked 17,000 questions a year on Fifteen To One, and reputedly rescued Don't Forget Your Toothbrush from its original over-ambitious muddle. But his big triumph was making Britain love the consumerist studio frenzy of The Price Is Right, the show that began the current quiz boom back in the mid-Eighties. "They thought no one could get a British audience to behave like that. But I'd been a Redcoat at Butlin's and I knew..."
He still gets sent dozens of ideas every week, but says: "Too many people start with an idea like, `Let's have a show based around golf.' A show succeeds because of production. Who'd have thought of the Mastermind chair?" Studio tricks certainly helped The Price Is Right, which clambered rudely over Coronation Street to the top of the ratings within three weeks. Its gold set, cue cards with pound signs on and screaming, dancing, arm-waving audience perfectly caught the spirit of the age - and finally caught the attention of the media academics. In his 1987 book, Television Culture, John Fiske, a pioneer of Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, attributed The Price Is Right's success to its canny egalitarianism: it tested everyday consumer knowledge, and made its contestants act as conduits for studio opinion, not as a lucky lite plucked from the audience. Fiske also spotted the appeal of quiz shows in general: participation. As well as watching contestants struggle or triumph, viewers could "play along", testing themselves against them. Middle-class viewers used quizzes to check their education; working-class viewers to reassure themselves over their lack of it. (Raising and lowering the value of prizes, it was found in the US, had little effect on ratings.)
This participatory quality - anticipating interactive television by decades - makes quiz shows a clear window on society too. They're revealing about class (Mastermind is considered respectable, The Price Is Right vulgar), and capitalist competitiveness. And, showing their music hall and Variety roots, quiz shows send out old-fashioned social signals through dominant, smartly-dressed male hosts and ornamental female assistants (even the younger, hipper Don't Forget Your Toothbrush has one) and their mostly white contestants.
Since the mid-Eighties, however, a new quiz genre has emerged to challenge this analysis: the nerd show. Starting with the rigorous number-crunching and word-forming of Channel 4's Countdown, a succession of deliberately difficult, unglamorous, anti-telegenic quiz shows has taken over late-afternoon television. Contestants can be any age, class or race; they can mumble and blink, have time to think. Prizes are tiny - all that matters is being the top quiz nerd. If The Price Is Right was the shopping binge of Thatcherism, Countdown and its imitators were its Victorian schoolroom, says Roehampton Institute media lecturer Gerry Whannel: all graft and steely self-improvement. Pub quiz questions are having to be made harder, say their major suppliers, Burns & Porter, who have 300,000 in their database and are desperately thinking of more.
But even these brain-tiring quizzes have a certain shallowness. Their contestants are mostly male, as is the crossword and pub quiz milieu that feeds them (Burns & Porter estimate that 95 per cent of their players are men), while their moral horizons are scarcely more elevated than Supermarket Sweep's. Although Mastermind host Magnus Magnusson says, "The reservoir of general knowledge has expanded enormously," is this cause for satisfaction? Is knowing disconnected, contextless facts, reasoning-free trivia, socially useful? "Knowledge is a matter for TV games," wrote French philosopher Jean- Francois Lyotard in 1984, but I don't think Blockbusters is going to replace college. Yet.
! A "Quiz Show" competition appears on page 21.
QUIZ SHOWS MADE SIMPLE
Example: Catchphrase (Mon-day, 7pm, ITV). Game: decipher unsubtle visual clues to find tabloid-style phrases/ clichs. Prize: big glamour holiday. Who's playing? Middle-aged C2s wearing jumpers and false smiles. Who's watching? The same - hence Fifties-quiffed host Roy Walker and his xenophobic gags. Other examples: Big Break, Play Your Cards Right, Supermarket Sweep, Family Fortunes, The Price is Right
Example: Fifteen To One (Monday-Friday, 4.30pm, C4). Game: tread carefully through a general knowledge minefield. Prize: a vase if you win the Grand Final; nerd prestige.
Who's playing? The retired, unemployed, bored. Who's watching? Students, quiz nerds. Other examples: Blockbusters, Catchword, Take Your Pick, Telly Addicts
Example: Don't Forget Your Toothbrush (Saturday, 9pm, C4). Game: answer deliberately banal questions about exotic holiday destination. Prize: go there. Who's playing? Artificially stimulated young couples. Who's watching? C4's trash/irony niche audience. Other examples: Lose A Million
Example: Mastermind (Sunday, 10pm, BBC1). Game: have as wide a general knowledge as possible, choose as narrow a specialist subject as possible, and keep your nerve. Prize: engraved glass bowl. Who's playing? Steely middle-class retirees. Who's watching? ABC1 families wanting entertainment disguised as education. Other examples: University Challenge
Example: Bollywood Or Bust (Saturday, 11.20am, BBC2). Game: Unique. Identify famous dance sequences from films made in Bombay (Bolly-wood), then perform them convincingly. Prize: A trip to Bollywood. Who's playing? Indian film freaks. Who's watching? Their families, shy Bollywood fans, bemused hangover sufferers. Other examples: Sticky Moments
Spot the quiz show hosts (opposite, clockwise from top): Chris Evans (Don't Forget Your Toothbrush), Leslie Crowther (The Price Is Right), Paul Coia (Catchword), Dale Winton (Supermarket Sweep), Roy Walker (Catchphrase), Magnus Magnusson (Mastermind), Michael Miles (Take Your Pick) and Noel Edmonds (Telly Addicts)
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