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TV quizzes - John C. Kirk

Oct. 18th, 2007

01:13 am - TV quizzes

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I remember reading an article about TV quizzes a while back, observing that the value of the prize was often inversely proportional to the difficulty of the questions. I don't think the article is online, but quoting from memory: "If you win the grand final of Mastermind then you get a cut glass bowl, whereas you can win a two week holiday on Cannon and Ball for guessing that a banana is something you eat." In other words, winning something like Mastermind is considered to be its own reward.

However, are these "highbrow" quiz shows really a good way to measure intellect? I haven't watched Mastermind recently, but I always found the specialised subject round fairly dull because it wasn't my speciality so I wouldn't know any of the answers. Similarly, I remember watching Connoisseur with my family (under protest). The idea of that quiz was that the contestants would see a small portion of a picture and they had to identify which painting it came from. My view was that you either knew the answer or you didn't, so there was no real challenge involved either way, but this attitude can be taken as sour grapes: "You're just saying that because you don't know the answer!" In fact, it tends towards an irregular verb; I have a good grasp of general knowledge while you just know useless trivia. Coming back to Connoisseur, I recognised one picture as "The Fall of Icarus". My family were quite impressed, since this wasn't obvious; the portion only showed some people standing on a hill, rather than a person with wings plummeting from the sky. However, I said that this wasn't an achievement; I only recognised the picture because I'd seen it in one of my Latin textbooks recently.

More recently, Paul O'Brien discussed a Mastermind contestant who'd chosen the life and career of Jennifer Aniston as her specialised subject. He makes some good points, so I recommend reading the whole post, but his key point is that it's all just a memory test, so you don't have to display any real understanding of the subject (unlike writing an essay). I agree with this in theory, and I think that it's useful to have a good memory as a general-purpose talent, but specialising in Jennifer Aniston still feels trivial.

I think there's a deeper issue here, namely what is the purpose of the test? Is it simply a more challenging version of the conveyor belt in The Generation Game, where the subject matter is completely arbitrary? I think that some subjects are intrinsically more worthwhile than others, but the true value of those subjects doesn't rely on the trivia facts that you can reel off.

For instance, I've read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (I must get round to reading The Gulag Archipelago sometime) and I think that it's given me a better understanding of Russian prison camps but I'd be hard pressed to name any of the characters now. Similarly, I re-watched the DS9 episode Children of Time last night: I think it's one of the best episodes of the series, where the characters have to face a terrible choice, but I have no idea what the stardate was.

Taking this to an extreme, I think that it's better to read one novel thoroughly, rather than reading a synopsis of five others. However, it's also better to read five novels thoroughly than just one. So, leaving aside blatant cheating (the equivalent of braindumps for computer exams), it seems reasonable to say that if someone does well at general knowledge tests then they have a well rounded mind, presumably by making an effort to educate themselves on a broad range of subjects. This is why I admire people like rjw1 and overconvergent (the ICSF "Trivial Pursuit" champions!), who aren't limited to scientific knowledge.

Nowadays I don't watch quiz shows on TV very often. This is mainly because I don't care about the contestants, I just want to play along at home and test my own knowledge; Blockbusters was good for that. However, nowadays most programs like to draw out the suspense on each question, which means that you won't get through very many in a given episode. I'm inclined to blame "Who wants to be a millionnaire?" for starting this trend.

Recently, Sky One have launched a new quiz: "Are you smarter than a 10 year old?" I've watched brief sections of the first two episodes, but I haven't been particularly impressed: it seems to follow the same glacial pace as other recent programs. Mind you, there are a few good points. It isn't a direct contest between adults and children; this video gives an example of one question (ignore the sniggering at the start). The basic idea is that the adult contestant has to pick a subject and age group from the national curriculum (e.g. "8 year old Maths"), and then they'll be given a question on that subject. Meanwhile, a 10 year old child will write down their answer to the same question. If the adult doesn't know, they can choose to look at the child's answer (a bit like the "lifeline" strategy in Millionnaire).

On Sunday's episode, I caught the end of a French question ("What is the French word meaning 'to eat'?"). I could easily answer that ("manger"), but I didn't start learning French until I went to secondary school at 11, so I'm impressed that 10 year olds are now learning that; it's a nice counter-point to the normal claims of dumbing down. After that, there was a question about English grammar: "What is the adverb in the phrase 'Bart brushed his teeth vigorously'?" They literally spent five minutes on this one question, but there wasn't any suspense for me, since I knew the answer immediately. It was more interesting when the contestant (a 63 year old woman, former executive PA) went through her thought process: "Well, an adverb is a word that describes a verb, and a verb is a doing word, so what's the doing word? 'brushed'. But 'vigorously' is an adjective, so it can't be that. The adverb must be 'brushed'." Noel Edmonds said that he wasn't allowed to help, but he did encourage her to think through this again, since she seemed to be contradicting herself. She then thought that the answer was "vigorously", but she wasn't at all sure, so decided to peek at the 10 year old girl's answer (which was the same). Noel did say at this point that the 10 year old might not be correct, so she shouldn't necessarily rely on that answer, and if the answer was wrong then she couldn't blame the girl for it because she shouldn't need to copy off a small child in the first place. This led to a lot more faff, but in the end she settled on that answer (which was correct).

Mind you, while it's easy for me to be smug, I have no idea about the answer to the sample question on the Sky website: "What are the three distinct sections of a river called?" Presumably I did know the answer to this at some point, so it's a bit disappointing that I've apparently forgotten it. Based on that, I think that the board game version of the program could work quite well, i.e. letting a bunch of adults go through the questions at their own pace.