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

Yes there's Jeopardy!, but let's face it: we're a Wheel of Fortune country.
  • Peyton and Cooper Manning host NBC's Capital One College Bowl. (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)
    Peyton and Cooper Manning host NBC's Capital One College Bowl. (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)

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

    The revival of the series feels like a no-brainer, especially since game shows are everywhere on network TV this summer. But the new College Bowl bears only surface similarities to the original series, with the new version — hosted by Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Peyton Manning — straining so hard to pitch this quiz show to the football-loving mainstream that you half expect the quizzers to come out in full pads and a helmet. It goes without saying that the new College Bowl is significantly dumbed down from the original, but this is just the latest reminder that game shows in the United States are petrified of seeming too smart.

    The one important caveat in this conversation is Jeopardy!, the long-running game show and staple of daily syndication. Jeopardy! has never been afraid of being brainy, and its longevity in American culture might be our one great example of valuing intelligence in this country. But as the years have gone on and American game show culture has advanced, Jeopardy! seems to be the exception that proves the rule. We are much more of a Wheel of Fortune country. Truly challenging trivia tends to be diluted by either a lot of easy questions leading up to it (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) or, just as often, an emphasis on the human interest stories of the contestants or, even worse, the hosts.

    College Bowl is kind of a grab bag of all the different ways American game shows dumb themselves down. The questions are infuriatingly easy, far too much time at the top of the show is taken up learning about the contestants, and most egregiously, Peyton Manning (who makes for a mostly fine host) is joined on stage by his own brother as a sidekick. And if you're thinking, "Oh, you mean two-time Super Bowl champion and one-time SNL host Eli Manning," I have some terrible news for you. Peyton is joined by his other brother, Cooper Manning, who appears to be there to chime in after every question and reveal that he doesn't know anything about anything.

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

    The first two episodes feature classic college football rivalries from some of the biggest schools — Auburn vs. Alabama; Michigan vs. Minnesota; Mississippi vs. Tennessee — and Peyton calls the teams by their school mascots. You almost forget that you're watching the kids who take the tests for the football players and not actual football players themselves. Not that the kids need to be brainiacs to succeed at the new College Bowl, given that the questions are generally at about Jeopardy! Teen Tournament levels.

    One fun fact about the original College Bowl is that it helped birth a far more enduring televised quiz show, though not in the United States. University Challenge has been airing in the U.K. since 1962 and remains one of the most consistently brainy game shows on TV. This is because British quiz shows allow themselves to be challenging for both the contestants and the home audience, which is expected to keep up. They're only available via YouTube in the States, but shows like Pointless (contestants must give the answers to surveyed questions that are both correct and yet uncommon) and Only Connect (teams of three compete to make esoteric connections from a series of increasingly baffling clues) are tremendously entertaining for anyone who's into quiz shows. And it's their difficulty level that makes them so great. In any given episode of Only Connect, I've got at most two correct answers in me, but the feeling of deep pride I get when those moments happen is like no other.

    Still, American TV networks seem resolute in their belief that truly, brain-teasingly difficult quiz shows could never make it here. The depressing thing is they may be right. Maybe American audiences wouldn't tune in to whatever the Yankee equivalent is of Victoria Coren Mitchell asking teams to select an Egyptian hieroglyph that represents their next word puzzle. (You'd get that reference if you watched Only Connect on YouTube, which you should.) But it's our loss, and the loss of all the American quiz nerds who would kill for something challenging. Anything but Peyton Manning's idiot brother and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

    Capital One College Bowl premieres on NBC Tuesday June 21st at 10:00 PM ET

    Will you be watching Capital One College Bowl? Talk about it in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: College Bowl, Only Connect, Pointless, University Challenge