On the tape, the Princeton boys come off as a caricature of what we would expect from Ivy League men. Suited up in matching black jackets, they look right out of a Mad Men episode. They introduce themselves with breezy self-assurance, with names like Jim, Steve, and Frank. They ooze self-confidence.
Their opponents? Four young ladies from a women’s college in Decatur, Georgia, wearing brightly colored dresses and nervous smiles. The students from Agnes Scott have spent months preparing for their debut on College Bowl, telecast live from Radio City Music Hall on NBC. The year is 1966. General Electric College Bowl is in its heyday, pitting teams of university students against each other in an intellectual gladiator match.
The host, veteran broadcaster Robert Earle, announces the competition’s opening whistle, pronouncing his “wh” in the old Atlantic style of “hwh-istle.” And one of the biggest upsets in quiz history is underway.
America’s anti-intellectualism can be traced through the decline in popularity of the American quiz show. Most viewers think of Jeopardy! as the peak of quizzing aspirations. But Jeopardy!, while challenging, is still geared toward the viewer, feeding the audience accessible clues and manageable categories.
Take a look at Britain’s University Challenge in comparison. The program, whose format is based on the midcentury GE College Bowl, is aggressively uncharismatic. The quiz itself is notoriously difficult, tasking contestants with identifying obscure Indian cities, deep-dive classical compositions, and even failed American vice presidential hopefuls. University Challenge is still wildly popular, anchoring a Sunday evening slot on BBC. While the college quiz bowl continues to exist in the U.S., American television stopped broadcasting the event in 1970.