The rise and rise of the TV quiz show

Benjie Goodhart / 13 July 2015

Why do quiz shows pull in the huge viewing figures? We answer the $1m question.

You might not realise it, but we are living in a golden age. An age that, for millennia to come, our descendants will speak of with awed reverence when, in many ways, humankind reached its apogee. Its perfect moment. The acme of human achievement. We’re talking, of course, about the golden age of TV quiz shows.

With brilliantly creative, amusing, intellectually challenging formats, ranging from the traditional (Mastermind, University Challenge) to the inventive (Pointless, The Chase, Only Connect) to the adversarial (Fifteen to One, Eggheads, The Chase again!), there is something to suit all tastes. Unless you hate quiz shows, of course, in which case, well… you’re just wrong.

The quiz show has been a TV staple since grainy footage of some posho with a tux and a cut-glass accent first beamed out from Alexandra Palace. In 1938, TV’s first knowledge-based competition was broadcast – Spelling Bee, in which a panel of guests were asked to spell various words, and then, um… were asked to spell more words. Riveting.

Post-war watching

With the Second World War interrupting the progress of televised entertainment (another reason to despise Hitler, were one needed) it wasn’t until the Fifties that the quiz show became a TV staple. Well-funded by advertising, ITV – the new kid on the block – was able to offer prize funds on its shows, and thus Take Your Pick and Double Your Money became two of the biggest hits on the box.

Early prize funds were relatively meagre: The $64,000 Question, for example, in fact only offered a prize of 64,000 sixpences (which would have made for a slightly less glamorous title). The biggest prize on offer was £1,000, on Double Your Money. In 1959 a young, up-and-coming footballer named Bobby Charlton won the top prize. (The series also featured a young Maggie Smith as a hostess.)

Not everyone was enamoured with the quiz show, however. The 1962 Pilkington Report, set up to assess the value and future of broadcasting, was particularly sniffy, arguing that such programming encouraged consumption, exploited voyeuristic tendencies, rewarded trivial knowledge, and offered little more than ‘watching one man in a large arena being baited’.

Challenging stuff

Fortunately, broadcasters didn’t listen. That same year, the peerless University Challenge began – a show in which contestants seemed to be able to answer questions about Greek linguistics one moment and neurochemistry the next. The ensuing decades saw the debut of long-running classics Ask the Family and Mastermind. By the Eighties, quiz shows were everywhere. So much so, that a concerned government placed a prize cap of £6,000 on quiz and game shows.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a cap on bad ideas, and so keen were broadcasters to find the new hit quiz that, over the next decades, we were subjected to some terrible formats. There was the bizarre Going for Gold, which featured contestants from across Europe answering questions in English; Space Cadets, a sci-fi quiz; a quiz about religion called, naturally, Heaven Knows; another about punctuation, Never Mind the Full Stops; and even a quiz show about sex, entitled Carnal Knowledge.

Making millions

The prize restrictions were lifted in 1993, and prizes immediately began to mushroom, culminating in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and, today, The Million Pound Drop. And yet, for all of their money and razzamatazz, these quiz shows are not popular with real quiz aficionados. For many, the intellectual rigour of shows like Mastermind and University Challenge trumps the more obvious temptations of the big money shows. Today, with those shows being joined by the likes of The Chase, Pointless, Eggheads and the re-launched Fifteen to One, there seems to be a move away from the lure of the lucre to a world where a quiz show isn’t made attractive by the amount of money on offer, but by interesting formats, well-thought out questions, and the thrill of the game.

With questions getting harder, and formats getting ever more inventive, there’s never been a better time to be a fan of TV quizzes. Whether you like to pit yourself against the contestants (and who among us can deny having had a frisson of smugness when answering something on University Challenge), bask in their encyclopaedic knowledge, or simply watch the drama unfold, as far as TV quizzes go, this is indeed the golden age. Or, in Greek, the Chryson Genos, as University Challenge contestants would doubtless tell you.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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