Intelligence under the lens of quiz shows

From billionaire triumphs to TV scandals, quiz shows have transformed throughout the years, shaping our collective perception of the very idea of knowledge

by Filippo Ferrari


Illustrations by Marco Brancato

Media 20 May 2024

If you ask someone what they remember about 2001, they will probably say, “That was the year the Twin Towers were brought down.” That’s how it works. Terror attacks, wars, deaths, and pandemics overshadow everything else. I was born in 1986, but for my parents, it is still the year of Chernobyl, and the child that can compete with a nuclear disaster is yet to be born. 2005? Pope John Paul II died. 2020? Covid. And so on.

Ask Francesca Cinelli what she remembers about the year 2001; her answer might surprise you. Suffice it to say that Francesca won a lot of money that year (one billion lire) because she knew the profession of Albert King, who is not Stephen’s lesser-known brother, but certainly a familiar name for fans of blues music.

In fact, Francesca, a secretary in an industrial vehicle dealership, was the first winner of the Italian edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a game show that has achieved the remarkable feat of being on the air in Italy for twenty years.

Some time after her big win, a journalist asked her whether her life had changed. She replied, “I don’t subscribe to the idea that if you win a lot of money, you should drop everything, absolutely not.” If she’s happy with that, fantastic. She added: “I enjoy my job, my colleagues are great people, and I get along well with truckers. They are down-to-earth people like me.”

There is little doubt that she is down-to-earth: with her calm and determined demeanor, she worked her way through the game’s 15 questions to reach the billion-lire final question. “If you were Albert King, what would your profession be?” “A musician.” “Light it up.” “Wham.”

Her record rightfully earned her a place in the show’s history. However, TV quiz shows have come a long way to reach that level of prize money. You have to go back in time a long way, more or less to the era when Albert King, the musician worth a billion lire, was barely ten years old.


How quiz shows evolved on TV

The first quiz shows hit the airwaves in the United States in the ’30s. Specifically, in 1936, CBS Radio broadcast what is considered the first quiz program in history, aptly named Professor Quiz.

Contestants were asked to pose questions to Professor Quiz, i.e. Arthur E. Baird, a university professor. If Baird couldn’t answer, the contestants would win $25 in silver dollars. While a far cry from a million-dollar prize, it was a significant amount in the ’30s.

It wasn’t until the ’40s and the advent of commercial television that quiz shows made their way to the small screen. Within just a few years, they took off, leading to a boom decade for the genre. The original purpose was rather noble: to bring a little lightheartedness into people’s homes after the war while spreading knowledge simultaneously. Popular shows like Break the Bank, Stop the Music, and Hit the Jackpot captivated audiences across the United States.

Contestants had to answer questions but also guess songs, and were rewarded with the experience of appearing on television, which at the time was like going to the moon. It changed the lives of some, just like it did for Francesca. With the influx of sponsors, the prize money skyrocketed (Break The Bank offered a grand prize of $250,000). At one point, the FCC even questioned whether these game shows were a clever cover for illegal lotteries (spoiler: the law ultimately sided with the quiz shows).

In 1956, Twenty-One introduced a new dimension to the genre. It was no longer enough to answer questions; contestants had to do so while isolated in a glass booth. This seemingly minor addition marked a significant turning point. The show offered a prize of well over $200,000, a huge sum at the time. Sponsored by a pharmaceutical company promoting oral hygiene products, the show not only fought bacteria but also took on an even more crucial battle — the fight against boredom. The sponsor deemed the initial format “too boring” and “lacking drama.” As the ones footing the bill, they were undoubtedly right.

From that point on, quiz programs began to be rigged. Contestants were not only trained by the show’s writers but also coached on how to dress, what to say, how to answer questions, and when to feign surprise, fear, or stress. In short, the whole thing slowly became what we know well today: an excuse to entertain by selling a story — preferably a dramatic or revenge story. All topped off with a few questions and a few drops of sweat on the forehead. Apparently, one of the most common tactics used on Twenty-One was to deliberately turn off the air conditioning in the contestants’ booths to make them perspire and look like they were struggling. Climate change before it became cool.

Like all fun things, however, this little trick was short-lived. Newspapers revealed widespread collusion between producers and contestants, and photographs of notepads containing answers surfaced. The scandal even reached the halls of the US Congress. From a trivial form of entertainment, quiz shows had become the subject of government investigations.

As a result, quiz shows virtually vanished from American prime time overnight. The remaining shows offered significantly reduced prize money, and contestants could only win a limited number of rounds. It wasn’t until the ’70s that the genre gradually regained its footing. Despite the setback, quiz shows persevered and proved resilient in the face of the scandals. In fact, we still talk about them today.


The triumph of entertainment

They evolved, improved, and diversified, but at their core remained the concept of notionism, a term that refers to knowledge based on a body of notions, in the sense of non-in-depth facts. Knowing a lot about a lot of subjects was practically the only way to win a lot of money by spending an hour on television. This system quickly gave rise to a new breed of celebrities: the quiz show champions, highly educated individuals who became real stars, but only for a month or two.

However, over the years, as mentioned earlier, television’s intrinsic logic gradually overshadowed the wave of know-it-alls: ratings were paramount, and achieving them required entertainment much more than teaching math, history, or science.

In the ’70s, a new era dawned, ushering in a wave of major redesigns. The New Price is Right, Match Game ’73, and The $10,000 Pyramid emerged with bright, colorful, flashy sets. As lighting and video production costs escalated, so did the value of the prizes on offer. Every major television network had at least one quiz show, resulting in programs that continue entertaining audiences today.

Most notably, Wheel of Fortune, which is comparable to the Super Bowl in America. Well, perhaps not in terms of viewership, but it’s undeniable that the show has endured: with 7,000 episodes airing until 2019, it has become a staple of American television. Wheel of Fortune exudes entertainment, a dash of notionism, and the illusion that wealth is within anyone’s reach. You don’t need a formal education to win; you just need to be smart. So you, your brother or your neighbor could have a chance. The program has been exported to almost every corner of the globe. A veritable colonization of this entertainment genre that distanced itself from its roots in Professor Quiz and his university. Notionism faded into the past, becoming a marginal matter; the focus shifted toward games, acronyms, word puzzles, and stories about people.

Elements of this classic style persist, largely confined to English-speaking television. Both the UK and the US still have shows like The Chase, where contestants compete against a trivia expert, someone who knows everything about everything (they still exist, and I doubt they are on TikTok). In other parts of the world, attempting such a feat would probably get you arrested for cheating. There is also The 1% Club, a game designed as an IQ test where questions focus on “logic and common sense” rather than general knowledge.

Aside from those, the focus has definitely shifted to entertainment, with questions more likely to revolve around pop trivia such as “What is the name of David Beckham’s wife?” rather than “In what year was War and Peace published? Or “What container is used for drinking,” rather than “What is the first number in English with letters in alphabetical order?”

Does culture scare people? Does a little brain-racking? Perhaps. Or are we simply so accustomed to passive entertainment that wielding a bit of brain seems insurmountable, akin to the feats of superheroes like Francesca Cinelli? Twenty-two years have passed since she aced the Billionaire’s fifteen general knowledge questions, and yet we seem to be veering more and more toward the realm of crossword puzzles. Are we living in an era where everyone believes they’re smart, yet nobody truly is? Only time will tell. And by the way, David Beckham’s wife’s name is Victoria.