September 21, 2023

For better or worse, the TV quiz show is the perfect cultural expression of our age. Like the knowledge they require of contestants, they are too easily dismissed as trivial, but you only have to scratch the surface to discover desire, risk, and the mechanisms of power. Besides, we’ve surely moved well beyond the snobbish and moralistic dismissal of cultural objects deemed “low” because they’re popular. If you’re someone that cares about quiz shows, they matter because you care. And if you don’t care about them, like any other form of mass culture, they still matter because everyone else does.

A glance at the Radio Times schedules at the time of writing demonstrates the hegemony: a daily array of mostly quiz-based formats, running from lunchtime onwards: Countdown, The Finish Line, Tipping Point, The Chase, Pointless, Richard Osman’s House of Games, Popmaster TV. Of these, only House of Games is celebrity-only. TV quizzes are apparently democratic: civilians get to appear on the screen. We can all access our 15 minutes on a quiz show. They are a spectacularised form of open combat for the age of the knowledge economy. And the apogee of the form is that great British export, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, 25 years young this month and the quiz-show-format-colossus. Bestriding the globe, it is made in 107 different territories and in more languages besides (there have been nine different language versions for Indian audiences alone).

I must confess an interest: over two episodes broadcast on 31 July and 7 August 2021, I appeared in series 36 of Millionaire, winning £64,000 — 20% above the average, which is £50,200, but that doesn’t account for those who don’t make it into the chair. Much too late for an evening with Chris Tarrant, I was instead interrogated by Jeremy Clarkson, who seems self-referentially informed by this sense of zero-sum competition. Who better to test contestants than a presenter who has nurtured a pugnacious, gloves-off public image, a Seventies denim dream of unleashed masculine libido? In deference to the high-capitalist information economy that governs its mechanism, he’s encased in a suit for this gig. Plus, it helps that he increasingly resembles an Easter Island statue reimagined as a totem to Mammon.

But, for those who have experienced Millionaire, the Clarkson face-off is the last round in a long process. And perhaps one of the most under-sung aspects of the show, and certainly its most ruthlessly competitive, is the fastest-finger-first round, in which contestants compete for the opportunity to play for money by being the fastest to correctly order four options, hitting buttons on a keypad. Of six contestants per episode, only a maximum of three make it into the chair. The most likely outcome is that you go home with your travel expenses in a brown paper envelope. Millionaire is, like most TV quizzes, a game of chance, jeopardy structural to its success.

It represents the perfect distillation of the quiz form that was honed over the 20th century. The whistle-stop history is that it transferred from radio to TV in the early 20th century, with the first quizzes being BBC spelling contests for school children. Unconstrained by such Reithian ideals, the commercial US market rapidly developed new formats geared towards prizes which, with the creation of ITV in 1955, were copied over here. The $64,000 Question, adapted for the British as The 64,000 Question, crossed the Atlantic in the Fifties, awarding a carefully rationed top prize of 64,000 sixpences.

Postwar consumerism, of course, is the economic base to this cultural superstructure. Goods and cash have not only formed prizes, but also the content of the knowledge required. Think of the memorisation conveyor-belt round in The Generation Game or the explicit consumer-good valuation games Sale of the Century and The Price is Right. As this indicates, one key to the success of the quiz format is its ability to hybridise, most obviously by combining the requirement for knowledge with elements of chance, but also with other, more atavistic forms of competition. Take The Krypton Factor, which required contestants to be able to complete assault courses and challenges of co-ordination as well as answering questions. Or Blind Date which, despite its entertainment window-dressing, was a competition for a partner. Should we ignore the evolutionary resonance? I think not.

As has been argued since Joseph Huizinga’s influential thesis Homo Ludens (1938), play is a constitutive aspect of human society. “The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”

Competitive play is, in short, an essential human activity, predating civilisation. Despite the fact that its rewards, in strictly economic terms, are minimal, we take time off from more materially-rewarding activities to play, and always have. But what is curious about TV quiz shows in their contemporary manifestation is that they don’t completely satisfy Huizinga’s description. They are materially rewarding. Indeed, they’ve given rise to an entire professional class of “quizzers”, people like the cool-as-ice Judith Keppel, the first million-pound-winner on British Millionaire, who subsequently enjoyed an extensive career as a chaser on The Chase. Far from idle play, perhaps we should recognise appearance on quiz shows as a form of labour. Certainly in the context of the TV quiz, trivial knowledge is not simply cultural capital — a form of capital which values knowledge accrued in categories admired by bourgeois society — but the key to delivering actual capital.

It’s no coincidence that the quiz show format has grown in parallel to the development of tertiary economies in the developed world, as post-industrial nations have increasingly traded in and valued information as opposed to goods. The skills required by quiz shows are information-economy skills — quite literally hitting keypads fast, being able to calculate approximate probabilities on the fly, a working knowledge of game theory, co-operating with others. Until co-operation is no longer required, of course, at which point clear decision-making and/or ruthlessness might be required. The Weakest Link made this process structural to its gameplay, as contestants were required to identify the poorest performer for expulsion and use the elimination mechanism for pruning the competition. Millionaire is similarly a perfect reflection of its time: a game for the individual, with some concessions made to co-operation in its lifelines.

The most exciting of these is the phone-a-friend lifeline. Believe me from experience when I say that this is also the most fraught — who of your network of acquaintances would you trust not just to know an answer you don’t, but not to over-estimate their knowledge? Who would you forgive if they lost you half a million pounds? Since the advent of the internet, the phone-a-friend lifeline has also become a significant logistical undertaking for the show. Typically, each contestant has two phone-a-friends. With two shows filmed a day, six contestants for each, at any one time there are 24 security guards at residential addresses around the UK watching assorted acquaintances and soon-to-be-disowned friends who may or may not receive a 30-second phone call. And the possibility of cheating is in fact the single-most co-operative aspect of Millionaire history. Ruthless competition for large sums has prompted a number of collaborative efforts to win, most famously Major Charles Ingram, convicted in 2003 of “procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception”. But there are also syndicates that have formed to provide professional quizzers with phone-a-friends in return for a share of profits.

Millionaire is, then, the exemplary manifestation of late-capitalist economic ethics, a product of the deregulation of prizes in the late-Nineties, which had previously been limited by the Independent Broadcasting Association to the “value of a small car”. As the number of millionaires in Britain exploded, making money quick on the markets or online, every pub-intellectual wanted a shot. And Millionaire displays an aesthetic that perfectly reflects this new political economy. Think gladiatorial arena for the computer age: the circus maximus via Tron. The contestant and quizmaster sit on three-foot-high Pietranera Arco All chairs, an LG computer monitor before each, in the pit of an amphitheatre which houses the audience in seating high above. The colours are black and neon blue, with shards of blinding silver and gold. Contestants have to wear bright colours so that they don’t disappear into the background, and zany patterns fritz the cameras.

This aesthetic is now ubiquitous across prime-time TV, having been imported into the high-octane Syco world of talent shows and idols by British-born set designer Andrew Walmsley, who designed sets for the illusionist Paul Daniels when he was 15. Walmsley, who now lives in Vegas, wanted to shake up the staid appearance of previous quizzes: “They were still using video walls made out of plain glass TV screens, instead of the flat plasma screens. It was so Eighties-looking.” A doff of the cap also to the composers of the music beds, father-and-son duo Keith and Matthew Strachan. The sound is designed so that its rhythm mimics a heartbeat, while the pitch increases by a semitone for each subsequent question, the music getting higher in line with the stakes. A pyramid scheme of sound and fury and trivia.

Where does the viewer sit in all of this? They are a voyeur. For an essential element in the playing of the quiz — the jeopardy of getting an answer wrong — has its obverse in the voyeuristic mockery of failure. We experience this most keenly in the reality hybrid game shows that have flourished post-Big Brother. But it was a phenomenon noted as early as 1962 in the Pilkington Committee Report which described watching a quiz as like “watching one man in a large arena being baited”. It’s something we like to watch, just as the Romans liked to watch the circus.

However, the baying mob at the contemporary circus are not in some Colosseum, but safely ensconced in their isolated homes, the spectacle a media-networked communion between siloed viewers gathered at an online water-cooler. As Guy Debord’s fourth thesis informs us: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Those images — chains of ones and zeros — become the units of exchange in a spectacularised society. The producers duly pump them out as gifs on social media, and I treasure mine. I read the Twitter comments responding to my appearance with wry amusement (“the poundshop John Barrowman” is a moniker I’ll happily have etched on my gravestone). And is there a German compound word for being nevertheless flattered by obvious catfishing?

The quiz show viewer can mock the contestant, participate in the quiz with none of the jeopardy, or even roll the dice themselves. Without even leaving the comfort of their sofa, they can text to enter one of the many prize lotteries that proliferate around ITV quizzes. Because what is being a participant in late-capitalism other than taking part in an astronomically high-odds lottery? Perhaps they might even sign up for a 3000:1 chance of participating in the spectacle of Millionaire, momentarily seizing for themselves the means of information.