Smart and dumber: Quiz shows for the best and brightest are in jeopardy

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On a recent airing of the "1 vs. 100" game show, the first question was:

"Jeopardy," hosted by Alex Trebek, below, is "the game show that has dumbed down the least," says Ken Jennings, who won 74 matches in a row in 2004.
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"If Tammy Faye Bakker got arrested by the makeup police, which of these counts could they charge her with? -- a) too much foundation; b) too much drywall; c) too much bedrock." The contestant got it right, but seven of the 100 "mob" members got it wrong, including the star of a TV judge program.

Now flash back 41 years to a Sunday evening in March, when Agnes Scott College faced off against Princeton University in the "GE College Bowl."

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In his urgent, staccato delivery, host Robert Earle gave the two teams their first question: "The year in which Napoleon made his last bid for power was also the year Andrew Jackson won a famous battle."

Princeton buzzed in quickly with the correct answer: 1815.

That is one admittedly extreme example of how much the difficulty level of TV quiz shows has fallen since the early days of television.

And while it may be unfair to compare a "play along" game like "1 vs. 100" to an "experts" game like "GE College Bowl," many aficionados of the game show genre say that even "Jeopardy," considered the most challenging of today's quiz shows, has gotten increasingly easier.

One of those critics is Ken Jennings, famous for winning 74 "Jeopardy" matches in a row a few seasons ago.

While " 'Jeopardy' appears to be "the game show that has dumbed down the least," Mr. Jennings said on a National Public Radio interview, "I sort of feel like 'Jeopardy' has gotten a little lighter, a little fluffier."

Once you get past "Jeopardy," it's obvious that shows like "1 vs. 100," "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" and the venerable "Wheel of Fortune" are hardly designed to tax the best and the brightest.

For many game show fans, no series was tougher than "GE College Bowl," which ran on network TV from 1959 to 1970. The program pitted four-member college teams against each other in a half-hour format, and if a team could win five games in a row, it retired as a champion.

The University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University all placed teams on the program at one point or another.

The most successful local squad was Pitt's 1968 team, which lost to Furman University in the last few seconds of its third match and recorded the highest losing score in the history of the program.

One of that team's members, Mike Brourman, who today is a celebrity divorce attorney in Los Angeles, believes the "College Bowl" questions "were much tougher" than the ones on "Jeopardy" today because there was almost no pop culture trivia on College Bowl.

On the other hand, he acknowledged, because "College Bowl" used teams, no individual player had to know as much as the best "Jeopardy" players might today, and "College Bowl" players could specialize in certain subject areas.

The "College Bowl" still exists today as a regional and national quiz show tournament for universities, but it is no longer broadcast.

Tom Michael, program manager at the College Bowl Co. and a former contestant on both "Jeopardy" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," said it's important to remember the cultural and historical context that "GE College Bowl" grew out of before putting it on too high a pedestal.

The program first aired in 1959, the same year that Congress held hearings targeting Charles Van Doren and others on the rigging of the TV game show "21," and two years after the Soviet Union had started the space race by launching the Sputnik satellite.

Robert Earle, second host of the "GE College Bowl," shown about 1965, says that easier questions today entice more people to watch a game show.
Click photo for larger image.Associated Press
Vanna White and Pat Sajak of "Wheel of Fortune," which probably doesn't increase too many people's IQ scores.
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"I don't think it's any coincidence at all that the show got picked up not long after the Russians put Sputnik up, and there was all this anxiety that 'Oh, maybe we're not as smart as we think we are,' and right after the game show scandals, where it turned out those people weren't as smart as they seemed," Mr. Michael said.

"GE College Bowl" went to great lengths to prove its integrity by bringing in several sets of questions in sealed envelopes and having the teams pick their envelopes right before air time. By doing that, he said, "College Bowl really saved the game show genre."

It also had the goal of promoting the value of higher education and showcasing America's brightest students, he said, as if to say, "this is the new generation that's going to help us win the space race and beat the Russians."

Pop culture vs. liberal arts

Any viewer watching "GE College Bowl" kinescopes today might find the questions extremely daunting, but that's not just because of their intrinsic difficulty, said Thomas Doherty, an American Studies professor at Brandeis University.

It's also because in that era, there was a liberal arts canon of knowledge that all well-educated college students were expected to know, he said.

"You could assume that students then would have read certain books like 'The Scarlet Letter' or 'Great Expectations,'" he said.

He believes the students he teaches today are just as smart and hard-working as those from earlier decades, but "if you walk into your average freshman class, it's hard to gauge what they know in common.

"You don't know if they've read 'The Scarlet Letter' or 'Great Expectations,' but they all know the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy pretty well and they've all seen 'The Office,' so pop culture is now the common connection."

Gary Johnson, the head writer for "Jeopardy" and a former "College Bowl" contestant himself, agreed.

"I think a lot of those questions on 'GE College Bowl' would appear far tougher today than they actually were at the time. Forty years ago, you could ask anything you wanted about Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser, and people would jump on it. You can't ask those questions today because people don't read those authors anymore."

As to whether Mr. Jennings is right in saying that "Jeopardy" itself has become fluffier in recent years, he diplomatically answered:

"I came here 10 years ago, and even with people in the game business who like the show, half will come up to me and say, 'You're dumbing down the show,' and the other half will say, 'My God, are those questions getting tough.' "

In all TV game shows, "College Bowl's" Mr. Michael said, there is a tension between wanting viewers to be able to play along and wanting to impress them with how smart the contestants are.

One show that works hard to strike that balance is "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," where the opening questions are extremely easy, but the higher-value ones can be very tough, he said.

On the other hand, "Millionaire" puts no time pressure on contestants to answer, and one reason the "College Bowl" players often seemed so dazzling is that they buzzed in and answered questions before the host had finished reading them.

It's TV, after all

Robert Earle, the second TV host of "GE College Bowl," now retired at age 81, said he had no problem with the move by TV game shows toward easier questions.

By "broadening the basic appeal of a show to include larger and larger numbers of viewers -- it's the name of the broadcast game, after all -- the result might be a concomitant lowering of the intellectual level of the whole enterprise," Mr. Earle said in an e-mail.

"In any case," he wrote, "one of the characteristics of modern game shows is the increased engagement of the viewer and more opportunity for viewers to join the fun of the games by answering the question a split second before the on-screen contestant does."

That satisfaction, he added, "was offered in lesser measure to viewers of "GE College Bowl," where players had to answer questions in a swift exchange with the moderator, leaving many home viewers way behind and feeling a little dumber."

But feeling dumber is not all bad, said "Jeopardy's" Mr. Johnson.

"There are people out there who can't answer the vast majority of our questions," he said, "but you know, I was watching Tiger Woods the other day, and realized, I admire him and his ability to do what he was doing even though I don't know how he does it. I enjoy watching skillful people doing something I can't do."

And that can be thrilling, Mr. Earle admitted, no more so than in that Agnes Scott-Princeton game he was moderating in 1966.

As that match entered its final seconds, Princeton's all-male Ivy League squad had a 15-point lead over the tiny women's college near Atlanta, but on the last bonus question of the game, Mr. Earle said:

"Bucephalus and Roan Barbary were steeds. What were Balmung and Durandal?" and Agnes Scott team member Karen Gearreald answered, "Swords!" giving the school a five-point win.

"That young lady, by the way, was the only person in the theater who could not see the clock," Mr. Earle wrote. "She is blind."

Mark Roth can be reached at or at 412-263-1130.


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