It’s a Monday afternoon, and you are at a loose end. So make yourself a mug of coffee, and settle down in front of the TV for some entertainment. Start off at 3.15 with Perfection on BBC1, then when that ends at 4.00, switch over to The Tipping Point on ITV. That will take you through to 5.00, and you’ll have a fifteen minute wait until Pointless starts. That will take you round to 6.00, when you can avoid all that nasty stuff on the BBC News by flicking over to BBC2 to see the Eggheads in action. Phew, time for a break and a light snack, a tea interval like they have in Test Matches. But make sure you are back in your chair for 8.00, when University Challenge starts, and when that stops change channels quickly so as not to lose a second of the delicious Only Connect. At the end of that ? Well, settle back and ‘well done to all of you at home’. You have just survived four hours of interrogation, more if you took in Classic Mastermind at 1.00 and The Weakest Link at 1.30.
What is so attractive about quizzes, and why are there so many on television ? I can see the supply side reasons – they must be pretty cheap to make – one set for years, no location shooting, no expensive actors or (less expensive) script writers. But there must also be a demand side reason – the shows would not be programmed unless there was a substantial audience out there. What do they see in them, and what should be our attitude to the quiz industry ?
One factor must be a sense of identification – seeing people you like succeed, or (less praiseworthy) those you dislike lose. That must be the reason for the desultory introductions at the start of each show – “so where do you come from ? What do you do ? And how do you spend your leisure time ?”. The sense of identification is strengthened, I guess, by the fact that the contestants’ default answer is support for a football team – “For my sins (horrible phrase) I support Ipswich Town/Swindon/Blackpool”. The sense of identification is helped by the way most quizzes now have multiple choice questions, usually with only three options: and one of them is usually nonsensical. This allows a much wider range of people to quiz along with the contestants. It also contrasts starkly with my favourite French quiz Questions pour Un Champion, where no such help is given: you either know, or (under competitive time pressure) you don’t.
There could also be the reverse of identification – realizing that you know something that the contestants do not, and being able to feel a sense of superiority as you explode “why do they let these idiots on television ?”. A brief look at Private Eye’s Dumb Britain will give you a few wonderful wrong answers, and there are more every week. I can forgive someone not knowing that Portsmouth hosts the Spinnaker Tower, but thinking that it hosts the Mary Celeste is a little harder to pass. Just yesterday we had a contestant who placed Boris Johnson in the last Labour Cabinet. Hmmm. Having said that, many of the apparent bloopers are generational. There is really no reason for a teenager in University Challenge to know who was in Harold Wilson’s cabinet, thirty years before they were born. It is the equivalent of asking me who was in Bonar Law’s cabinet: I don’t know, and I am a politics nerd.
Is there a more worthy reason for the success of quizzes – perhaps, the idea that we value knowledge and learning and want to see it succeed ? This rests a little on whether we see the sort of general knowledge that quizzes need as part of our cultural heritage or important to the understanding of science or politics. Often, there isn’t. If you understand American history you will know who was President during the Civil War; you need to know about the periodic table to understand chemistry. But such questions are the minority. There is no value knowing how far horses run in the Derby, or the most popular Steve McQueen film. I would argue that, whilst reading or art appreciation are important for a rounded human being, this doesn’t give any particular importance to knowing who won the Booker or Turner Prizes in a particular year.
I used to be a member of a pub quiz team. Indeed, I was a semi-finalist in Brain of Britain many years ago. I reckon you can divide keen quizzers into two categories – those who like to show off their general knowledge, and obsessives who like winning and are prepared to put in the hard graft learning lists of Oscar winners and Austrian monarchs that makes that more likely. I will now avoid the attentions of my learned friend by suggesting which members of the “Eggheads” fall into each category. Many keen quizzers can tell you which is the longest, or shortest play by Shakespeare, and which one has a character run off chased by a bear, but most would themselves run in terror from actually attending a performance.
 When I took over a troubled college, the local council included this information in its PR handout, prompting a member of staff to ask why they hadn’t been sent someone who could get to the final.