How Boston’s Most Popular Local Quiz Show Survived COVID-19
How does a game show operate in the time of coronavirus? GBH’s High School Quiz Show figured out part of the answer — get rid of the buzzers.
When High School Quiz Show, a popular quiz bowl series broadcast on GBH in Boston, Massachusetts, began its 12th season, the production staff found itself in a position that the crews of game shows across the country, and around the world, were similarly navigating. In an age where social distancing is of the utmost importance to public health and safety, how will the show go on? Though episodes of High School Quiz Show are typically filmed in-person with a live studio audience, a hybrid production model was developed to keep students safe during the coronavirus pandemic, with local media personality and host Billy Costa moderating from GBH’s Boston studio and students competing remotely.
Gone, for now, are the push-button lockout systems that have become ubiquitous within the quiz bowl scene—all players answer every multiple-choice question simultaneously. This change to the dynamic of the competition strips away the idea of the “know-it-all” contestant and puts back into focus the core concept of teamwork. Contestants now play an equally viable role in the success of their squad. A thoughtfully-crafted display—replete with each contestant’s Zoom avatar—lets TV and YouTube viewers follow along with each game, sound or no sound. The overall result is a quiz show that has done well to adapt to the changing times in a way that, while modern, stays true to its roots as Massachusetts’ most beloved academic competition series.
I had the pleasure of speaking with GBH Executive Producer and Director of Youth Media Hillary Wells about the success of High School Quiz Show. We discuss the effect the pandemic has had on the show, its enduring appeal in the digital age, Quiz Show‘s relationship with Jeopardy and the late Alex Trebek, and more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
CC: I had a chance to watch a few episodes of the show, and it’s really fun. I’ve become a fan. The pacing is great, the host is great, and the material is great. I’d like to talk for a second, if you could, about what that transition was like when the pandemic began. I feel like a lot of game shows have tried to adapt to the pandemic to varying degrees of success. How did those changes take place?
HW: You’re right, it was extremely challenging. (laughs) We weren’t completely sure we would pull it off, but we’re really excited we did, and we’re really pleased with the results. Fundamentally, we had to check certain boxes in order to ensure we could even go ahead with the show. One of those, of course, was everyone being safe. Anyone working on the show, anyone participating in the show, coaches, students, GBH staff—we had to ensure that there wasn’t going to be any incidence of COVID or coming in contact with someone. The only way we felt we could accomplish that for the students and coaches wad to have them in their homes. We wouldn’t ask them to come to the studio, we wouldn’t ask them to go to a place together, like a school…they were each in their own house.
The other issue was that we had funding in place, and as a requirement for that funding we had to have, not only a digital (component)…but a broadcast-quality product as well, for the sponsors. So what we decided to do was a hybrid—GBH staff and host in studio, and all of the participants at home.
Once we figured out that hybrid model, our big challenge became how to create a show that’s as close to the actual show as possible so that it’s familiar to people, and so that people who were getting ready for it would be ready for this (new) version. The biggest issue we faced right away was latency. The game is built around buzzers and timers, so how (could) we ensure that the game was fair when we knew people were going to be coming from all different modem speeds, all these different factors in play? So we realized that we had to take the buzzer out of the equation. A Harvard professor came up with the only solution, which was to lay copper wiring to every house. (laughs)
And then you get into zoning issues, and you have to go to all those meetings… (laughs)
We ended up creating an interface for the players to play at home…so that the kids could see the show as we were taping. We would feed them the questions at specific times.
We have this whole digital area at GBH, and we have our broadcast area. In order to make this work, we had to bring people together that didn’t necessarily work together and didn’t speak the same professional language. It was really exciting to see that interplay of the digital team saying (to the broadcast team), “Well, we can’t do this, but you can do that”. The overlays of the red and green—the players are creating that glow around their Zoom box. That’s being fed from the interface itself, not from the broadcast side.
That’s a game changer. So it’s not merely a visual effect, but it’s directly related to the players’ input?
It seems like the theme of inclusivity is all around, whether you’re talking about the staff or the players or the material.
Accessibility is always something that we strive for. Having been innovators in the accessibility space as an organization, that factor was always in play. We really loved the inclusivity of having everyone answer. That was a great outcome for us. There wasn’t really a specifically dominant player.
The other thing we really liked was hearing the banter and strategy, which was usually in whispers when we were in studio. People really enjoyed hearing the teams think things out. Are we going to answer? Are we going to toss? Are we going to risk it? What other factors are in play?
We’ve had the chance to talk to a lot of producers and show-runners over the past year as they’ve tried to create TV in the shadow of the burden of the pandemic. What we found was that a lot of question and answer shows had considerable difficulty doing anything close to a virtual or Zoom-type thing, because standards and practices don’t allow it. It’s hard for a show like that to ensure that the game is played fairly honestly. Are there ways that High School Quiz Show does that? Were there safeguards in place (for the digital version)?
Absolutely. Integrity of the game is everything. If we can’t preserve the integrity, we’re not going to do the show. We ended up doing a couple of different things. We had discussions with the coaches and students about our expectations, and how they’re an important part of preserving that integrity—and how important that was to us. In some of the rounds, we really tested the time limits to make sure players didn’t have enough time to cheat. We had GBH staff purposely try to cheat, and we measured how long it took for them to cheat. We also did a sweep of each room before the matches, so that we could make sure phones were put away. And frankly, a huge part of it is trust. We’ve really been impressed with the students who have participated over the years, and felt that…we could count on a certain level of trust, both from the students and the coaches. They’re not only representing themselves., they’re representing their team, their school, and their larger community, which means a lot to the people playing.
Scare ‘em into being honest. (laughs)
Plus, they want to play again! (laughs) They don’t want to be disqualified!
I imagine there’s also a certain level of achievement you’d have to reach in order to be considered for the show anyway, so you’re dealing with a lot of kinds who have that knowledge. The show has been around for a while, hasn’t it?
This was our 12th year. We started in 2009.
And the show has fans not only in Boston and Massachusetts, but across the country?
Around the world!
And what has your experience been maintaining relationships with these fans from around the world?
We have great pride for our representation, so we’ve had people from India, for example, who may or may not have a connection to a student, and they follow along and become these huge cheerleaders! “Why can’t we have High School Quiz Show in our country?”
I feel like that’s the sign of a good format—people want to get involved with it.
One of the biggest challenges and greatest sources of pride are the questions, and the great care we take to write the questions. Quiz bowl questions are not television questions. They’re long, they’re arduous, they’re not punchy, and there’s a certain formula to how you answer them. So, we knew right away that that wasn’t going to be a source of questions for us. We researched across the country, in Canada, in England, and we couldn’t find the type of questions we wanted, which were questions that are tied to current students’ curriculum in an authentic way. And then, also really thinking about inclusion, and making sure not all the scientists in a category are men. Representation—making sure that if a question isn’t necessarily about something that perhaps someone who hasn’t traveled the world or had opportunities that other people have had, we put another hint in that question. So if you haven’t been to the Louvre, you’ll have some other way of being able to answer that question.
I feel like that’s what good quiz material does. It helps you realize you know something. It re-contextualizes the fact in a way that makes you say “oh, I did know that”! When I think of material like that, and of inclusivity when it comes to quiz shows, the North Star of that arena is Jeopardy. What has been the relationship between High School Quiz Show and Jeopardy?
Well, (late Jeopardy host) Alex Trebek actually did a video question and an open to one of our seasons some time ago, which was fabulous, and we were incredibly appreciative. We also dedicated this past season to him, and our entire final category round was made up of questions that were tied to him in some way, shape, or form. We watched Jeopardy closely, which is how we got the integrity of our buzzer system… by studying theirs and learning how to make it fair, what the timing system is like, when you reveal a question, what the contestants see, what you see at home. We really studied what they were doing as well as other quiz shows across the country. We’ve taken a lot of notes when it comes to their approach, and then we put our own spin on it.
How much time goes into the preparation for a season’s worth of material?
A lot. We’ve already written our qualifying round for next season. We have a qualifying event called Super Sunday, and that’s how you get onto the show, basically. The 15 highest-scoring teams automatically make it into the bracket, and then we have criteria for a wild-card match for the final team. That has to do with ensuring that a team that hasn’t been on the show for a while, or has never been on the show, has a shot at it…so that it’s not the same teams over and over again. So Super Sunday is typically at GBH, and the teams all come and they lover it. It’s this big one day event in our studios, and it’s just packed with teenagers from all over the state.
It has to be inspiring or encouraging for you to see all these students celebrating knowledge and intelligence. That has to have some positive effect on you.
Sure. When we first thought of the concept for the show in 2009, (student) athletes were getting a ton of opportunities to be highlighted and acknowledged and celebrated, and we were sort of scratching our heads and saying “Well, why don’t the people who are really excited about academics have a platform? Why can’t they be celebrated or highlighted in some way?” And so it was really giving a platform to those students, and hoping it would become an institution across the state. We’re really proud to see that happening. We get resumes that have High School Quiz Show participation listed on them. It’s really a badge of honor now, and we really take pride in that.
A lot of the COVID-19 restrictions are winding down, and the show has clearly succeeded with a hybrid format. Are you heading back into the studio this upcoming season?
Our plan is to be back into the studio. We’re in the process right now of thinking about what we really liked about the hybrid version. One of the things in particular that we were very excited to see was the number of girls that are participating. We typically haver fewer girls participating, and they’re also typically not as aggressive on the buzzer, and so we’ll have less participation over the course of the season overall from girls. One of the things that really stood out for us this season was that the girls are front and center, right in the game in a way that they haven’t been, so we’re really giving some thought to that. It’s more inclusive. It’s not about answering the fastest and it’s not about having a go-to person who answers everything. It’ll be interesting to see how we adapt.