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A Grand Unified Theory of Quiz Shows

Cooking up the right format is more complicated than you might think

The history of the television quiz show ranges from dizzying highs to sordid lows, from genius contestants to full idiots. It all started in the late 1930s, here in the U.K., with a show called Spelling Bee. The show was simple, following a well-established format: Contestants, under pressure, try and spell difficult words correctly. Over the years, the game show has come to occupy ever increasing amounts of broadcast space. Here’s a unifying theory of how, and why, it works.

The focus is not on the quiz itself, but rather on the banter and tension created in the gameplay around the quiz.

It’s 2018 and the world is divided. Cataclysmic political events have come down to the finest of margins: Trump takes the presidency with 46.1 percent of the popular vote against Clinton’s 48.2 percent, Britain departs the EU because 52 percent of people want out whilst only 48 percent want to stay in. In both cases, half the people are unhappy with what they’ve got, whilst the other half are battling their own expectations. But the divisions have also birthed myriad theories as to who these two camps are — urban versus rural, middle class versus working class, elite versus grassroots, somewheres versus anywheres, patriots versus globalists. … Endless theories attempt to neatly package this division. I mention this not because game shows are especially tied to politics, but because when I first started to think about why game shows operate the way they do, I appropriated the framework of these political debates to create a continuum from populism to cosmopolitanism.

Populist Shows: Luck and Guesswork

The fundamentals of populism are simple: The game should be accessible to all contestants and viewers. As such, it shouldn’t fit into a simple right/wrong binary; there should be opportunities for guesswork, a diversified portfolio of challenges, and the chance to use risk as the motivator toward greatest reward. If you are constructing a game show at the populist end of the spectrum, then the question, “What is the capital of France?” might be followed by the options, “Paris, Madrid, or Berlin,” giving someone who doesn’t have the faintest clue what the capital of France is a 1-in-3 chance of being on the winning team. A correct answer typically earns you either a cash prize that can be won or lost in a final challenge, or the chance to move toward a separate challenge that dictates whether you win or lose the game. Fundamentally, these games are more convoluted because they often combine the quiz element with physical challenges or elements of random luck.

Cosmopolitan Shows: Skill and Knowledge

Cosmopolitan quiz shows are about the contestant and audience proving their predetermined set of skills. There should never be a luck element built into the game, and gambling should be kept to a minimum. If the question, “What is the capital of France?” is asked, then the contestant should be able to answer, “Paris,” without a multiple-choice prompt. The reward for a correct answer is a set number of points, rather than a cash prize or advancement toward another challenge. At the cosmopolitan end of the scale, the quizzes are about knowledge and have a relationship with the very culture of quizzing. These are simple quizzes, and as such the formats have been tinkered with less over the years.

Purely Populist Vs. Completely Cosmopolitan

A quiz show at the populist extreme would be, for example, The Edge, a BBC programme that ran for a few months in 2015 (and bears no relation to the U2 guitarist). The premise is, roughly, that you answer questions in order to release balls which you are then able to roll down an alley. The closer to the eponymous edge you leave the ball, the more money you bank. It is, essentially, a very easy quiz married to a village bowling green, but typical of the sort of mid-2010s vogue for increasingly complicated variants on the standard pub quiz format. Others in this genre include Tipping Point, based off the arcade game where you shove two pence pieces in to try and dislodge two other pence pieces; The Code, where answering questions earns you numbers toward cracking the security code of a safe; and The Chase, where professional quizzers answer the same questions as contestants, chasing them across the board.

At the cosmopolitan end of the spectrum are the “pure” quiz shows, like British classics Mastermind and University Challenge. These are straight quizzes, where contestants answer right/wrong questions, accruing discrete points. The choice of hosts amplifies the intensity of the rapid-fire questioning: Magnus Magnusson, John Humphrys, Bamber Gascoigne, and Jeremy Paxman are all serious men with backgrounds in political journalism. It is an interrogation of sorts, after all.

The oddity here is The Weakest Link, a brilliant show with some cosmopolitan tendencies, but one that ultimately falls near the end of the populist spectrum due to its rather easy questions and lack of connection between a contestant’s knowledge and chance of winning. (You could, in theory, answer no questions correctly and still make the final round.) The host, Anne Robinson, who also anchored the U.S. version of the show, also played a significantly larger role than a host would in most cosmopolitan shows.

The Host-Contestant Relationship

As host of The Weakest Link, Robinson would endlessly mug for the camera, berating contestants about their answers, but also about their lives, their work, their accents. She was famous for being mean, being sassy. She had not only a catchphrase — “You are the weakest link, goodbye” — but a signature physical gesture, her wink. And this brings me to the relationship among the host, contestant, and audience. Populist shows tend to hire comedians or entertainers as hosts. The focus is not on the quiz itself, but rather on the banter and tension created in the gameplay around the quiz. Bradley Walsh, Shane Richie, Alexander Armstrong: These are all men who have been hired not just to ask the questions but to do the patter, to make these daytime shows have an edge of Saturday night entertainment. As such, we are less interested in the contestants; they play second fiddle in these “host-facing” quiz shows.

In “contestant-facing” quiz shows, such as University Challenge, we engage with the characters answering questions more than we do with the host. Alex Guttenplan, Eric Monkman, Bobby Seagull: all examples in recent years of contestants who have moved beyond our fleeting interest. To run a contestant-facing quiz, you need a host willing to divest himself of some of the limelight.

A Populist-Cosmopolitan Blend

A master of the craft of running a contestant-focused show is Regis Philbin, who has hosted many game shows over the years, including the U.S. version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

These shows build persistent gambling into the accumulation of points — you cannot win Jeopardy! or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? without taking risks.

Along with Jeopardy!, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is the great centrist show, combining elements of both the populist and cosmopolitan approaches. Both shows, for example, focus on their contestants and have a difficult, engaging quiz that dominates the narrative. In that sense they are very cosmopolitan. But they also both rely heavily on gambling, a classic populist tactic. Rather than offering a simple all-or-nothing gamble at the conclusion of the game, these shows build persistent gambling into the accumulation of points — you cannot win Jeopardy! or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? without taking risks. For that reason, they are near flawless quiz shows: They offer a density of knowledge-based information for purists, whilst raising the stakes, and reaching out a hand to those who prefer the game to the quiz, through repeated builds and releases of tension.

Philbin is particularly interesting because of his contrast to the original British host, Chris Tarrant. Tarrant was more from the Anne Robinson school, engaging in endless banter and milking moments of dramatic tension to an unbearable degree. Because Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? aired in the U.K. on a private channel, there were ad breaks built into its format, which were used, time after time, as cliffhangers. This was, at least in part, a reflection of the fact that, when it started in 1998, people didn’t have the energy to Google the solutions whilst adverts for home insurance played. But the key difference between Philbin and Tarrant is in the crunch moments. Take, for example, the greatest moment in quiz show history, when John Carpenter became the first person to win the jackpot on the U.S. edition. He did it with such grace and ease, Philbin could only sit back and admire.

The time between Carpenter submitting his final answer and Philbin announcing that he’d won the prize was 9.76 seconds. In contrast, when Judith Keppel became the first person to win the British version — answering with less confidence but a high degree of certainty — there was a 2-minute advert break between the submission of final answer and the reveal, along with 73.10 seconds of Tarrant riffing. Building such excruciating tension created something of a sensation amongst British viewers. The quiz show became a Saturday evening staple, airing in a prime slot and raking in 19 million viewers. It was a fever for TV quiz shows like never before. But there was also a cheapness in the over-reliance on host-facing, constructed drama. The balance was perfect for viewers, but British Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? never quite rang true.

Finding an Enduring Format

The early 2000s were the zenith of the quiz show’s cultural currency. By 2006 the format had been flogged far and wide to international markets, but when Tarrant chose not to renew his contract in 2013, the show died with him (until its abominable 2018 resurrection with Jeremy Clarkson in the hot seat). After 2013, quiz shows in the U.K. returned to the more standard daytime slot where they hold most of their caché with U.S. viewers. In that post-Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? landscape, many populist shows came and went, though some — like Eggheads and Pointless — have been successes in their own right. But the precision-engineered, audience-baiting genius of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was not to be repeated. It is also interesting to note that despite Jeopardy! running for more than 10,000 episodes in the U.S., it has been picked up three times in the U.K. with three different networks (Channel 4, ITV, and Sky), never running for more than three years and having four hosts in that period (whereas Trebek has hosted the U.S. version of Jeopardy! continuously since 1984). Something about it just doesn’t click with British viewers.

Building such excruciating tension created something of a sensation amongst British viewers.

And that’s part of the point with quiz shows. There is no right or wrong answer when cooking them up. The formats that endure often have a simplicity, but there is nothing that really makes Jeopardy! less complicated than The Chase, or Pointless more complex than Mastermind. The successful shows at both ends of the spectrum are the ones that do what they do well, and don’t get bogged down in a quest for originality. Ultimately, they will be judged on the charisma of the participants and the quality of the quiz. But the easiest path to a successful show is to offer a little for everyone: a pinch of host-facing dialogue but with compelling contestants, tricky questions but with a smidgen of gambling to take the edge off, a clear axiom for success but with inbuilt tension. It might not be easy to do, but when it’s done well, it’s a sort of poetry.

Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in politics and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.

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