Quiz Show

By Benjamin Tice Smith — April 01, 1998 9 min read
Forget Jeopardy! Since 1961, It’s Academic has made for smart TV. Now, the program’s just-the-facts brand of learning is making a comeback.

It’s a crisp Saturday morning, game day, and cheerleaders from Herndon High School in Northern Virginia rev up the crowd, shouting “We say Herndon, you say Hornets!”





Not to be outdone, the band from the Landon School in Bethesda, Maryland, blares its signature tune, “Mack the Knife,” and as a thundering pack of fans chants “We want John! We want John!” the players file in, fired up and all decked out in—ties?

So begins the morning’s taping of It’s Academic, television’s longest running high school quiz show program and one of education’s most peculiar rituals. Elsewhere in the Washington, D.C., area, high school hunks in shoulder pads are locked in mortal physical combat, but at the studios of WRC-TV, young gentlemen and ladies in suits and dresses are girding for a battle to prove whose brains are brawnier.

One Saturday each month, teams and fans from 12 schools from Washington, Maryland, and Virginia jam the station to tape four shows to air in the coming weeks, filling the home of such ponderous programs as Meet the Press with the raucous revelry of a state championship football game. During each show, three teams of three students each square off and pounce, Jeopardy!-style, on questions about math, history, literature, and art tossed out by host Mac McGarry. The winners of each show advance to the playoffs until, finally, three über-teams meet for the ultimate gray-matter showdown, the It’s Academic Super Bowl.

The quiz show’s record-breaking 37 years on the air make it a museum piece worthy of study. Even in its early years, It’s Academic was clearly out of step with the times: As its scholars in collars were soaking up esoterica about dead white men, their classmates were slipping on tie-dye and getting ready to tune in, turn on, drop out. Over the years, however, the show has demonstrated a marathoner’s stamina and consistency, outlasting educational trends from open classrooms to self-esteem programs.

Naturally, changes in the culture and country have worked their way into broadcasts: The show’s canon has stretched from Antigone to Alice Walker to the Spice Girls, and teams once made up mostly of middle-class, white boys have morphed to include girls and players named Jayaprakash. But week after week, It’s Academic has challenged students to think and think fast and has remained stubborn in its old-fashioned dedication to two simple, yet oft-maligned, principles: Facts are good, and competition is healthy.

“You can’t make a judgment in life or a decision unless you know what the facts are,” explains Sophie Altman, the show’s founder, producer, and shameless promoter. “Competition is a way of life. It’s part of us, and it motivates. These students do a lot more reading, a lot more research and have a lot more knowledge.”

At the height of its popularity in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, It’s Academic was a national phenomenon. Competitions were staged and telecast in 15 cities across the country, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and the show had the financial support of the major networks.

Today its reach has shriveled to five markets: Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina. It is kept alive only through the largess of Giant Food Inc., a grocery-store chain, and other sponsors that stepped in when network money dried up three decades ago. Its ratings are not what they once were, but it still bests the cartoon competition in its 10 a.m. Saturday slot.

Whatever the show’s commercial success, McGarry and Altman argue that at least part of its longevity is due to the fact that it gives academically inclined kids—those often labeled “nerds"—the chance to feel like football stars. “A man came up to me at a party the other night,” McGarry explains, “and said he was on the show in 1965 and that he never forgot it because in his school no one would have paid any attention to smart kids. We give recognition where it’s due: to people in school who are there to learn.”

Under the lights of the set on this game day, the kids are all ajitter. They adjust Windsor knots, tie loose laces, and jiggle feet incongruously clad in Timberland boots. “Don’t lean in to answer; go through me,” Josef Hapli, captain of the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School squad, coaches his teammates before their round.

A generation of students has passed through the It’s Academic spotlight. The show has spawned one marriage and welcomed a dozen or so children of previous contestants. Alumni include governors, newspaper publishers, heads of state, columnists, and even a first lady. (Hillary Clinton was an alternate for Maine South High School in the 1965 Chicago-area competition.)

A generation of students has passed through the It’s Academic spotlight.

The second taping of the day pits two public schools—Thomas Stone High and Northwestern High—against the Landon School, an exclusive boys’ private academy. Team members sit together at large desks, as somber as TV news anchors reporting a natural disaster. “It’s Academic” flashes overhead in dull orange neon.

McGarry gives the contestants a big Ed Sullivan welcome and then launches into the first round of questions with the caveat: “You may want to ask your grandparents to help you with these questions—Heck, you can ask me; I’m a grandparent four times over.”

The first question: “Congress passed the European Recovery Program named for this man—"

DING! One of the teams has hit its buzzer, setting off a doorbell-like chime that sounds rather like something a group of handy shop students rigged up. Light bulbs covered in chipping white paint indicate which team has buzzed in—it’s Landon—and one of the contestants leans into the microphone and coolly delivers the correct answer: “Marshall.”

The questions continue, and the rounds speed by. “This heavyweight champ, called the Brown Bomber, retired from the ring—"

DING! Landon again: “Joe Louis.”

“What is the next number in this series: 256,64,16—"

DING! Thomas Stone this time: “Four.”

Suddenly, the show’s electronic scoreboard goes on the fritz. A frustrated technician tinkers briefly with some hanging wires but gives up. In desperation, the show’s associate producer, Joel Kemelhor, tallies the score longhand (he’s a former contestant, so the math is not a problem) and holds it up after each round for McGarry to read on the air.

Then, as abruptly as it had died, the scoreboard springs back to life. “Hallelujah, it looks like the scoreboard is fixed!” McGarry bellows into his microphone.

Turning to the audience and cupping his hands around his mouth, he says in a stage whisper, “We’re getting a new scoreboard soon.”

“I heard that last year,” the techie whispers for real.

So little has changed at It’s Academic over the years that it’s a veritable icon of retro-cool, like martinis and Frank Sinatra. McGarry has hosted the show since its inception; his still-tawny hair, he admits, is due to “Clairol science.” He won’t divulge his age, but his American Bandstand on-air persona and selective use of aw-shucks words like “heck” and “hallelujah” date him like carbon to television’s Beaver Cleaver era.

“It’s different from playing soccer,” says one contestant. “There’s no prime level you can reach because there’s always something you don’t know.”

McGarry, Altman, and other creative minds behind the show may be getting on in years, but they’re not likely to turn over the reins anytime soon. At today’s taping, Peter Scott, a 38-year-old advertising manager at Fortune magazine and a four-time Jeopardy! champ, is auditioning to be McGarry’s backup. Scott brushes off a suggestion that his tryout might mean the host is ready to quit; after all, he jokes, McGarry’s been around so long that many who have waited for him to retire have retired themselves.

Nor is It’s Academic likely to abandon its guiding principles. The show debuted four years after the Sputnik launch threw American education into crisis. Schools since then have been a revolving door of reform, ushering in one radical plan after another. But It’s Academic has never wavered from promoting its facts-driven style of learning, and over time, it has won over a number of educators, as well.

About 15 years ago, It’s Academic clubs began popping up in schools around the Washington area as school officials recognized the power of competition-oriented studying. These clubs are veritable farm teams, with as many as 30 students practicing regularly in the hopes of being selected for the televised competition. Many of the clubs also travel to other high schools for non-televised competitions. “The same things that are stressed in It’s Academic carry over into their lives, such as competitiveness, the desire for excellence,” says Doug Tyson, a chemistry teacher at Banneker Academic High School and a veteran It’s Academic coach. “You have to will yourself to want to be the best in the room. Those things mean something when they’re out there.”

The kids themselves agree, saying preparing for It’s Academic inspires them to build an ever-expanding core of knowledge and to internalize lessons and concepts they might have slept through in class. The show’s questions, they argue, are structured to emphasize reason, not just reflex. “It’s not learning by rote,” says Rachel Courtland, a contestant from Maryland’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Rachel set out to study “every piece of literature in existence” in preparing for the competition. “There’s a personal challenge to it. You have to delve into your own personal store of knowledge and see what’s in there.”

The kids also say that It’s Academic is an effective motivator, with each victory whetting their appetites for more. The competition is more consuming and more engaging than playing sports, they say, which offer grand, but quickly faded glories. “It’s different from playing soccer,” says Banneker’s Josef Hapli. “There’s no prime level you can reach because there’s always something you don’t know.”

For schools like Banneker, a predominantly African American magnet school in inner-city Washington, It’s Academic also acts as a great equalizer, dispelling myths by throwing students of all backgrounds into the same ring to see who comes out on top. “There are not many D.C. public schools participating, and I feel an obligation to represent them,” Josef says. “It’s Academic is something everyone knows about. When they see an African American male on TV, who would typically be the captain of the football team, or that’s not associated with violence, that’s positive.”

Judging from the crowd at today’s taping, it’s clear that the show’s future is secure. About 20 5th and 6th graders from Washington’s Miner Elementary School cram the bleachers to watch Banneker perform. Miner guidance counselor Sheila Holt used the video of Banneker’s last victorious appearance on the program as “a motivational and test-taking tool,” she says, and now she’s brought the kids to feel the excitement of game day on the set.

One of her charges, 11-year-old Gerald Guest, says he wants to be on It’s Academic someday and praises the performance of his heroes, whose 520 points thrash the competition. “I like the way they took their time answering the questions,” Gerald says, adding that he learned President Clinton’s middle name is “Jefferson” from the day’s taping.

Holt says an exchange with Banneker is planned where the older kids would help her students learn using a format not unlike that of It’s Academic. “We want them to look at where you can get and how success looks,” she says.

Michele Kayal is a writer based in Washington, D.C.