The fine line between a quiz show and a quiz

Yesterday I had been to the third edition of the Landmark quiz in Bangalore. To my utter disappointment, she didn?t turn up. Even if she did, she looks very different now (in which case I don?t have the crush on her anymore) and I didn?t recognize her. The fact that I didn?t qualify for the finals didn?t help matters either.

The landmark group, by way of its annual quiz in Chennai, has come up with a new brand of quizzing ? one that tries to fill the gap between the ?quizzers? quizzes? of Bangalore and Chennai which emphasize on logical reasoning and the more knowledge-based yet ?popular? quiz shows promoted by Calcutta.

Currently the world of quizzing has been fragmented into quiz shows and quizzes. The former try to keep the questions simple and answers complicated and the latter does the vice versa. Quizzes are careful to ensure that most questions are ?workoutable?. And not much care is put to ?trivial issues? such as marketing and formalization. It has a ?community? sort of feel and crowds aren?t too large. Quiz shows try to be showy and involve the crowds, dole out huge prizes and hog the papers and TV channels, but the questions are either downright obscure or downright easy.

The landmark quiz (and its cousin the Odyssey quiz) tries to marry the two formats. It tries to retain the intellectual and reasoning-based nature of traditional South Indian quizzing, while also making an attempt to take quizzing to the masses. Efforts include aggressive marketing in terms of newspaper ads, radio announcements etc (as against the traditional mailing-list and word-of-mouth publicity for other quizzes), a sense of professionalism when it comes to stage settings, organization etc., huge prizes and an attempt at formalization and standardization of processes.

An attempt is made (unless, of course the quizmaster is Derek No Brain) to make most of the questions ?workoutable? yet understandable to the masses. Questions are usually shorter than at normal quizzes. There are also few questions to make sure the quiz doesn?t go on for too long. A few ?audience-oriented? questions are thrown in into the prelims to make sure everyone scores and to keep audiences interested (which can at times seem really inane and vague to the average quizzer ? ?aeroplane paaandi? in Odyssey 2004 comes to mind). The better questions in the finals have something that a large number of people can relate to. There are a large number of audience prizes (which are usually books ? a big improvement over the Eclairs and five-stars handed out in normal quizzes). All part of an effort to keep the audience interested, and to maintain a full auditorium until the end of the event.

I would be grossly mistaken if I were to say that the format has not clicked. The Landmark and Odyssey quizzes have become part and parcel of the average Madrasi?s social calendar (they are strategically placed on national holidays; in fact the IIT Madras Open quiz was recently moved to Gandhi Jayanti to capture the ?national holiday? crowd). Entire families land up at the Music Academy, complete with picnic baskets for an afternoon of quizzing and socializing. One has to register his/her team several days in advance in order to get an opportunity to participate ? limited seating space, you see (the Music Academy is one of the largest auditoriums in Madras). There is a huge crowd and queue at the entrance of the auditorium with volunteers having a tough time controlling the crowds. Enthusiastic schoolkids jostle to get up and answer the audience questions ? to win the much-needed publicity and the generous gift hampers. And the average decibel levels are several notches higher than the usual quiz.

Several outstation teams make the torturous train/bus journey in order to take that shot at the prize packet, and the glory that goes with it. Competition is cutthroat, and the relatively (compared to normal quizzes) easy prelims don?t make matters much easier. Cutoffs are ridiculously high, and even a seemingly minor error can prove extremely costly. Every half chance ought to be taken, and that could make the vital difference between the place among the elite eight on stage, and being consigned to the back rows of the audience. And one needs to be concise and accurate with spellings ? unlike other quizzes, the papers are valued by non-quizzers (the scale of the quiz demands it) and there is no recourse to a revaluation. Once the answer papers are submitted begins the ardous process of announcing the answers and distributing audience prizes (the process is painfully slow, but this is necessary to keep the crowds in), which is by far the most torturous period in the quiz!

It is usually regular quizzers that make the cut, but there is usually at least one non-regular team that makes it, springing an upset. Stakes are high and competition fierce. The lighting (rather the lack of it) adds to the tension. The crowd is noisy and loud cheers and applause are the order of the day. The odd blooper by the quizmaster goes unnoticed. Finals questions are usually tough (compared to the prelims), and there are a few ?special rounds? thrown in to make the thing more audience-friendly. The prize distribution ceremony at the end is brief ? there are thankfully no speeches.

This form of quizzing has created its own set of celebrities. For instance, the Madras crowd goes orgasmic when it hears the team name ?Q.E.D.? (fact that the team has changed 100% – not one member from the original team remains ? is another matter). Few women qualify and teams with women get special treatment too (interestingly a large number of women attend these quizzes ? again unlike normal quizzes; and some turn out to be interesting). Also with a usually large outstation representation on stage, the ?local? teams get huge support.

The audience can?t have it better. So what about the ?players?? The ?serious quizzers? for whom this is yet another quiz and not a social event? The level of the quiz is compromised in order to appeal to popular sentiments. The ?community? feel that is so present in normal quizzes is totally missing. The quizmaster is this distant figure unlike the bloke who does the ?normal quiz? on rotation. It is way too formal and rigid for comfort. There is no guarantee that prelims papers have been valued fairly. The crowd is unwarranted and too noisy. Of course the prizes are great. As is the footage the winners get in the next morning?s The Hindu. And the opportunity to show off.

The standard of these quizzes has been brought down significantly in the last couple of years by way of introduction of non-quizzer quizmasters such as Derek No Brain. They have become too much of a quiz show and too little of a quiz. Sick formats (such as teams being progressively thrown out), inconsistent questions and quizmaster?s histrionics have crept in. The number of ?known faces? I saw yesterday was significantly lesser than usual. Amends should be made soon so as to preserve the format.

There are also other quizzes which have tried to fit into the space between a quiz show and a quiz. Askqance (by the KQA), the QFI open and the IITM Open (co-founded by yours truly) have tried to bring in the crowds without compromising on quizzing standards, and have met with reasonable success. However only time will tell how successful these formats will be in the long run.

?this is not a quiz show, this is a quiz?
– Quizmaster R Mohan at the Saarang Main Quiz finals 2003, while trying to explain a set of utterly complicated and incomprehensible rules before the finals.

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