Mainstream Knowledge

I’ve already written in a previous blog post about how much I enjoy the BBC show ‘Pointless’ – one further positive I didn’t mention is that it actually serves as a fairly effective market research tool. So yes, I can watch the show as part of my job, which is nice.

The show’s premise is based on finding out how much a group of 100 unseen people know about a certain category. So, for me as question-writer of both corporate quiz events and databases of quiz content for multiple choice “quiz game” projects, finding out what people will name within a category can give me a reasonable idea of the extent to which subjects and things within subjects are common knowledge.

The results can be a little surprising initially, but make sense when you think about it: extremely high results might be (these are examples i vaguely remember, though not necessarily exact):

  • Name an English footballer beginning with D, and 95% will say David Beckham,
  • Name an American city, and 97% will say New York, that kind of thing.

Knowledge of Geography, household matters, popular TV from a few years ago, extremely famous celebrities, very general knowledge, tends to be pretty good.

There are striking gaps in knowledge though – the first one that amazed me was actually when, of the 8 studio contests, 6 of the 8 of them could not name one, not one, Robert de Niro film. The same pattern followed for Robert Redford films and films starring the Fiennes brothers. Seemingly huge gaps in knowledge, both for the survey of 100 people and for the studio guests.

Likewise, when people were asked to name a song by either Coldplay, Snow Patrol or Muse. Pretty odd, you might think, since those are, for better or worse, as big as British rock bands get these days.

But it does make sense, when you think about how culture is compartmentalised these days. You don’t need more than about 50,000 sales in a week to have a number 1 album. If you follow a band, and see that they’ve got to Number 1, you might think they’ve crossed over into the mainstream, but, even if an album’s sold 200,000 copies, or indeed a single (that’s an awful lot for a single), that’s 2% of the people watching Coronation Street every week, and a fraction of a per cent of the people who learnt a few capital cities when they were at school, or whatever.

Likewise with films. A massive blockbuster will be watched by a few hundred thousand or maybe pushing into the low millions at the cinema. That still leaves the vast majority who haven’t seen it, and there’s no particular reason why knowledge of it will filter into people’s lives.

And there’s no Top of the Pops anymore, and the concept of TV film events, where we’d all sit down and watch a premiere on terrestrial TV, has pretty much gone.

A tiny number of modern films and songs really cross over into mainstream popular consciousness these days , and this is noticeable when I do an Entertainment or Music round at a corporate quiz. Everyone will recognise, say ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears, or ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna (when i say everyone, in this example, I mean a majority of people between 20 and 40), people will get a question about ‘Avatar’ or recognise the theme to ‘Lord of the Rings’, but even something like a Red Hot Chili Peppers single (from their biggest album), or, say, the theme to ‘Inception’, will have quite a small percentage of correct answers.

On the other hand, knowledge of stuff from the past, where there was Top of the Pops, where we did all watch films and they’ve been on TV lots of times, is excellent. ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain? ‘The Sound of Music’, ‘Groundhog Day’, ‘Die Hard’  or ‘Big’? Widespread recognition.

It’s all pretty obvious stuff, but only when you actually take time to think about it (which is my job), but for me, it was a lesson to learn for me starting out running quizzes and writing questions.

First of all, what I’m into, even if I think they’re quite big, like a band I go and see where the audience is 5000, they’re still, in the scheme of things, tiny. Likewise, with films. If you’re a film fan, Robert de Niro or Robert Redford is about as big as it gets – you wouldn’t think they were minority subjects at all – but actually it’s still going to be quite a small percentage of the population who have both seen and can remember seeing any/many of their films.

That’s why Entertainment and Music rounds, though absolutely key to a fun quiz in my opinion, need to be carefully handled to avoid blank looks.

Have you ever come across really surprising gaps in knowledge at quizzes? Times when you’ve thought “How can you not know this?”

What other factors affect how one thing is in popular consciousness and another thing isn’t? I’m sure I’ll have missed a few key things.

My Pointless Friend

“It’s like Family Fortunes. In reverse” – not the most promising tagline for a quiz show, and I do admit I have some difficulty explaining the peculiar magic of my current, indeed probably all-time, favourite quiz show, ‘Pointless’, to people. But it is clearly a show with a burgeoning fanbase, after its switch from BBC2 to a later slot on BBC1.

It’s not my intention to compare other shows unfavourably to ‘Pointless’ – different people want different things from quizzes. I know my colleague is a big fan of its ITV rival ‘The Chase’, a show on which you get plenty of questions for your money, and having watched it in full for the first time recently, I agree it’s a pretty good format. Since the end of ’15 to 1′ I’ve shared the feeling that a lot of the big shows don’t give a real quiz fan enough questions to get their teeth into, so why then am I so enamoured of ‘Pointless’, which really only has four questions all show?

Well, for starters, I think it’s a very nice premise and a very nice format. Obscure knowledge is rewarded, which appeals to the quizzy quizzer, but there is a sliding scale of reward, so just knowing something about the given category can be good enough. There is right and wrong, but not just one right answer (or one wrong answer). The knowledge starts off very general, but becomes more and more specific as it moves on, so that you tend to actually have to be pretty smart AND lucky to win the jackpot, which is just what you want.

But who am I kidding? Why is ‘Pointless’ great? Because of the banter. I may be wrong, but Alexander Armstrong is one of those genially funny men who is thoroughly undivisive. Who could hold it in their heart to loathe him? He’s funny, of course, and very charming to the contestants, albeit sometimes in an ever so slightly bemused, superior way.

But he’s not even the star of the show. In the standard role of quiz sidekick, we have “my pointless friend” Richard Osman (brother of Mat Osman from Suede, fact fans) who, unless i’m very much mistaken, is a genuinely hilarious man. Ben Miller needs to watch out, as this is a great double act – both are clever and prepared to mock the contestants, but always in a gentle, good-natured way.

Add to that the fact that the show provides great opportunities for viewer participation, as you’re not in a race against the contestants – there’s plenty of time to think about your answers, and to feel pleased and smug if you better them.

I haven’t been this excited about a teatime TV show since ‘Home and Away’ returned to our screens on Channel 5!!!

Have you seen ‘Pointless’? Any flaws? Not a fan of Armstrong? Or Osman? And are there any other quiz show gems out there I’m missing?