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baltimoresun.com

No trivial TV show

'It's Academic' demonstrates that challenging high school students to a knowledge throw-down can be entertaining

8:34 AM EDT, June 29, 2013

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My children and I have a long-running joke that the ideal sports competition at the high school or college level would require as much academically from competitors as it would athletically. It's all very well to hit that double into the gap, but once you reach second base, you would have to correctly answer a question posed by the umpire to be judged safe. Something like, "Name six of the nine Supreme Court justices," or "Who wrote the poem that concluded that 'beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'"?

We imagined football coaches spending as much time scouring the physics club for the next star quarterback as they spend scrutinizing the local youth sports leagues, and it tickled our fancy to envision the top athletes we've encountered over the years made to feel like the 90-pound weaklings by, well, the 90-pound weaklings over whom they felt so superior in PE class. Revenge of the nerds, indeed.

But the truth is, the adulation of athletes isn't the problem so much as the lack of respect given those who are unusually good at doing math calculations, recalling important moments in world history or knowing the works of 19th century Romantic poets like John Keats, author of that truth/beauty business in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." We claim to praise those who excel at their studies, yet the media lavish far more attention on star athletes than they ever do on star pupils — by a factor of about 10 million to 1. Rare is the TV show where the high school valedictorian is interviewed; equally rare is the sports reporter who doesn't profile the basketball team's all-conference point guard.

Yet there is at least one exception to that generality here in Baltimore, and it wraps up its 2012-2013 season today. That would be "It's Academic," the world's longest-running television quiz show (started in 1961), the Baltimore version of which airs on WJZ Channel 13 on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m.

The premise of the taped-in-advance, half-hour program is simple. Three teams of three members each, drawn from 81 Baltimore-area high schools, compete each week, with only one team moving on to the next level of competition. They are asked questions ranging from science to history, literature to math, based on the high school curriculum — in five distinct rounds, three of which are toss-ups where the first team to buzz in answers, the other two rounds exclusive to one team at a time. The difficulty of the questions varies, but that's almost immaterial — as the level of the competition rises, it's often the team that buzzes in first — by figuring out the answer before the entire question is read — that wins the points. That makes even the easiest of questions challenging.

Is it as exciting as sports? After witnessing every show of the current season, I can faithfully report that yes, quite often it is. Sometimes, the shows are lopsided — just as high school sports competitions can be sometimes, too — but frequently they are nail-biters that come down to the last few questions of the last round. You want drama? Watch the tension on the faces of all those parents sitting in the studio bleachers. The cameras point in their direction frequently.

We don't know what kind of ratings the program garners, but we suspect they are modest. This is Saturday morning, after all, and the chief competition for use of the family flat-screen is probably the PlayStation or Netflix. It's a credit to WJZ and to sponsors like Giant Food and Morgan State University that the program has continued all these years.

Granted, there are other opportunities for elite students to compete — math and physics competitions, robotics, mock trials and so on, but how many of them are televised weekly? Not a one. Sure, we applaud high achievers, but how often do we truly root for them as we scream and yell for the 3-point shot or the touchdown pass?

I won't give away today's results, but let's just say that the best team won — but not until the final two minutes. Congratulations to them, to host Dave Zahren (who took over the job eight years ago from the great Mac McGarry) and all those involved in the show. My final question is, in this era of reality television and even a cable network devoted to game shows, why doesn't every TV station do something similar?