NBC’s College Bowl Revival and the Rise of the Dumbed Down Quiz Show


Peyton and Cooper Manning host NBC Capital One University Bowl. (Photo by: Chris Haston / NBC)

From tonight, NBC is bringing back one of its oldest game shows with Capital One University Bowl. The original College Bowl aired from 1959 to 1970, and featured teams of four from colleges in the United States competing in general knowledge games for scholarship money.

The series’ revival looks like a no-brainer, especially as game shows are all over network TV this summer. But the new College Bowl bears only surface similarities to the original series, with the new version – hosted by NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning – striving so hard to present this quiz to the mainstream football fanatic that you half expect the quizzes to come out in full blocks and a helmet. It goes without saying that the new College Bowl is dramatically simplified from the original, but this is just the latest reminder that game shows in the US are petrified of appearing too smart.

The only important caveat in this conversation is Peril!, the longtime game show and the staple of daily syndication. Peril! has never been afraid to be smart, and its longevity in American culture might be our one prime example of valuing intelligence in this country. But as the years have passed and American game show culture has progressed, Peril! seems to be the exception that proves the rule. We are much more one Wheel of Fortune country. Really difficult anecdotes tend to be diluted by a lot of easy questions leading up to them (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) or, just as often, an emphasis on the human interest stories of competitors or, worse yet, hosts.

College Bowl is sort of a catch-all for all the different ways that American game shows get dumbed down. The questions are maddeningly easy, far too much time at the top of the show is spent learning about the contestants, and most blatantly, Peyton Manning (who makes an excellent host) is joined on stage by his own brother as a sidekick. And if you think, “Oh, you mean twice Super Bowl champion and once SNL host Eli Manning, “I have terrible news for you. Peyton is joined by his other brother, Cooper Manning, who seems to be there to step in after every question and reveal he doesn’t know anything.

It’s impossible to miss what NBC has to offer with College Bowl. From Al Michaels’ opening voiceover to the Mannings as hosts, to the fact that nearly every college featured on the show has a major college football program, this is a game. televised for football fans.

The first two episodes feature classic college football rivalries from some of the bigger schools – Auburn vs. Alabama; Michigan versus Minnesota; Mississippi vs. Tennessee – and Peyton calls teams by their school mascots. You almost forget that you are watching the kids taking the tests for soccer players and not the real soccer players themselves. Not that kids have to be smart to be successful in the new College Bowl, since the questions are usually about Peril! Teen tournament levels.

A fun fact about the original College Bowl is that it has helped the birth of a much more sustainable TV quiz, but not in the United States. University challenge has aired in the UK since 1962 and remains one of the smartest game shows on television. Indeed, the UK quizzes allow themselves to be a challenge both for the contestants and for the local audience, which should keep pace. They are only available through YouTube in the US, but shows like Useless (applicants must provide answers to survey questions which are both correct and yet rare) and Login only (teams of three compete against each other to make esoteric connections from a series of increasingly baffling clues) are extremely entertaining for anyone who enjoys quizzes. And it’s their level of difficulty that makes them so great. In a given episode of Login only, I have at most two correct answers in me, but the feeling of deep pride that I feel when these moments occur is not like the others.

Still, America’s TV networks seem determined to believe that some really hard-on-the-brain quiz shows could never get here. What’s depressing is that they might be right. Perhaps the American public wouldn’t listen to the Yankee equivalent of Victoria Coren Mitchell asking teams to select an Egyptian hieroglyph that represents their next word puzzle. (You would get this reference if you looked Login only on YouTube, which you should.) But it’s our downfall, and the loss of all the American quiz nerds who would kill for something hard. Anything but the silly brother of Peyton Manning and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Capital One University Bowl Premieres on NBC Tuesday, June 21 at 10 p.m. ET

Will you watch Capital One University Bowl? Talk about it on our forums.

Joe Reid is editor-in-chief of Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. Her work has been featured in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AV Club and more.


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