Some visitors to my household in years past found it curious that my wife and I insisted the children eat off placemats featuring the flags of foreign nations, lists of world capitals and the periodic table. I would feign surprise or say something like, “They came with the kitchen” or “I found them on sale at Target.” These were outright lies, of course, and I’m not proud of them. But when you are raising children to compete on the quiz show “It’s Academic” you can’t be too careful of potential competitors stealing your training techniques. Did Richard Williams explain how he molded daughters Serena and Venus into dominant tennis champions? Well, there’s a biographical film “King Richard” coming out about that very thing in November starring Will Smith, but besides that? Probably not.
My kids are college graduates now, but even today, with their heads still over-stuffed with scholarship — like what famous poem features an albatross and what was the name of the peace treaty that ended World War I — they are saddened by the recent decision to put “It’s Academic” on hiatus in the Baltimore area this season. In years past, dozens of teams from around the region would be gathering at WJZ-TV studios on Television Hill beginning this month to tape multiple half-hour shows to air on Saturday mornings on Channel 13 between October and next spring. The decision of Giant Food to withdraw its sponsorship changed all that. Only the intervention of billionaire financier David M. Rubenstein spared the flagship “It’s Academic” program in Washington, D.C., taping its 61st season starting on Sept. 26, from an identical fate.
One can certainly understand those in charge of a supermarket chain deciding their extra cash might be better spent addressing food insecurity during a COVID-19 pandemic. And I must concede that “It’s Academic” might strike the casual observer (assuming it had many in its less-than-primetime broadcast slot) as a bit antiquated and old-school. Last season’s shows, managed entirely on the Zoom video conferencing platform because of the pandemic, were probably not the program’s finest, no matter how much long-term host Dave Zahren gamely tried to liven up the proceedings. And, to be fair, Giant’s withdrawal doesn’t actually put most afterschool “It’s Academic” teams out of business — thankfully. Many will continue to compete in non-televised local tournaments known as Quiz Bowl.
But here’s the thing: We shower all kinds of attention and positive reinforcement on youth athletics. High academic achievers may get some moments to shine as valedictorians or merit scholars with reserved applause at graduation ceremonies or a few sentences in the back of the local newspaper. But where are their Friday Night lights? Where are the cheering fans in the stands? Where are the cheerleaders? When can they claim victory in such a public fashion? “It’s Academic” brought a small measure of balance, a “Revenge of the Nerds” moment to every high school student who could neither pass, punt, kick, summersault or even play in the marching band but knows the order of U.S. presidents by number. (Quick, who was 14th? Franklin Pierce, duh. Millard Fillmore was unlucky 13th).
That’s not to say I have anything against high school athletics. Well, beyond the risk of serious head injury and other physical ailments, the pressure to perform, the cliques, the distraction from learning and the social pressure and anxiety they induce. Other than those things, it’s great. One of my children played a varsity sport while serving as captain of her “It’s Academic” team. Hint: It wasn’t football.
In a recent commentary in this newspaper, Pikesville High “It’s Academic” coach Ethan Goodman lamented the uncertain fate of the show but also referred to it as a “trivia” competition. I would respectfully correct him. In trivia competitions, you might get asked about the Kardashians or how long hit songs were on the Billboard charts. “It’s Academic” has always been drawn from high school curriculum. It’s never been about information of little value. Granted, some may not realize that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has that albatross and the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the Great War, but that information is not trivial. And the essentialness of the knowledge is part of what made the show great.
Sure, Americans still have “Jeopardy!” and, most recently, a 10-episode revival of “College Bowl” on NBC this summer that featured absurdly easy questions and was hosted by the Mannings, Peyton of football fame and a little-known brother whose name I didn’t quite catch (Oh, wait, Cooper Manning — whatever). But these high-competitive and nationally televised programs are not usually within the reach of a 14-year-old from Baltimore’s Western High School or Baltimore County’s Eastern Tech, both of which fielded “It’s Academic” teams last season. The show’s producers expect to produce a YouTube version soon, but they also hold out hope that a sponsor may yet be found and the 2022-2023 TV season saved.
I really hope they get one. I’d be willing to donate my placemats to the cause. I’ve got the progeny now focused mostly on online trivia competitions, and, so, most of my attention is on acquiring back issues of Billboard and monitoring Kim Kardashian’s career path. Hey, even overzealous parents have to adapt to the times.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.