It would be fair to say that Britain is a nation obsessed with quizzing. University Challenge regularly draws in three million viewers an episode, and at one point, 5.1 million people were watching The Chase, one-sixth of the British population. But what makes a good quiz show? The diversity and the sheer number of Britain’s quiz shows mean that it’s difficult to narrow it down to one factor, but regardless of preference, there is a quiz show for everyone.
One might imagine that a major draw of watching a quiz show is being able to play along at home. You can test your general knowledge skills against the members of the public on the shows, and on the increasingly common celebrity specials, the quiz show provides the opportunity to see how much more you know about 1980s pop music than a C List celebrity. It also allows you to show off the depths of your obscure knowledge in front of family and friends when watching together. For some shows such as Pointless or The Chase, it’s even possible to keep score for yourself with little effort.
the quiz show provides the opportunity to see how much more you know about 1980s pop music than a C List celebrity
However, this doesn’t explain the popularity of shows such as University Challenge or Only Connect, which take pride in their obscure questions and the difficulty that both viewers and players can have in answering them. This is probably due to the reverse effect. When watching a show with questions such as “what is the lowest positive integer to contain the letter ‘C’ when spelt out as a word in English” (the answer is decillion), it is an achievement to get even one question right. Instead of counting points in the hundreds, playing along at home becomes a matter of ‘did anyone answer correctly this episode?’ When a string of questions on a subject you’re familiar with comes up, there is a certain pride in being able to answer all of them correctly.
While the questions are, naturally, a big part of what makes a quiz show good, it is equally important to find the right presenter as a match. Whether this is the easy camaraderie between Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman of Pointless, or the savage condescension of Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge. While Paxman’s exasperation at the contestants sometimes borders on patronising, it is nonetheless entertaining to see him hold his head in his hands in frustration at a particularly incorrect answer, and no episode would be complete without him exclaiming “no!” at a pitch several octaves higher than usual.
While Paxman’s exasperation at the contestants sometimes borders on patronising, it is nonetheless entertaining to see him hold his head in his hands in frustration at a particularly incorrect answer
An honourable mention is also deserved by Bradley Walsh, who often defends the (occasionally clueless) players of The Chase against the condescension of the chasers. However, and at the risk of this turning into an “I don’t like Only Connect” article, this again doesn’t explain the popularity of the aforementioned. The host, Victoria Coren-Mitchell, often mocks the contestants, and it is difficult to tell whether their laughter is genuine amusement at the banter or more out of politeness. Her scripted asides between rounds and at the beginning and end of an episode are often unfunny and delivered woodenly and yet, Only Connect remains popular. If anything, the sheer variety of quiz shows on television and the inexplicable popularity of Only Connect only demonstrate that there is no such thing as an objectively ‘good’ quiz show. Rather, it is up to the viewer to find one that fits their tastes.