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?

TEMPTATION comes in every slot of the broadcast day now, from straight after ITV's breakfast smiles into Sky's long, dark insomniac stretches. Pyjama-clad students skip lectures for Blockbusters' trivia tutorial; freelance journalists delay the day's first keystroke to guess the prices on Supermarket Sweep; young couples stay in for the Saturday night blare of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush; television-scorning pensioners listen carefully to etymological conundrums on Radio Four.

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

GREED SHOW

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

NERD SHOW

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

POST-MODERN

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

HIGHBROW

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

MINORITY/CULT

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)

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks