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Brain Matters

Turning the tables on high school quizmaster Bill Schiffman

By Kevin J. Elliott

Published March 1, 2013
"I’d love to get to 40 years, but by then I might look worse than Brent Musberger does on television. Nobody wants to see that." (Credit: Chris Casella)

Big Bird, the Count, Mr. Rogers – all three probably had a hand in most youth’s informal education. That’s all well and good if you’re learning your times tables or how to tie your shoe, but who taught you how to identify a Debussy concerto, or who lead the North in the Battle of Shiloh? For any kid raised on WOSU-TV’s programming for the past three decades, it was In the Know and that show’s venerable host, Bill Schiffman, who made you smarter. 

For 30 years now, Schiffman has stood behind the podium for In the Know, challenging central Ohio students to a match of “scholarship and quick recall” – accent on the scholarship. In the Know’s learning curve might make even the avid Jeopardy viewer stumble. Schiffman’s rapid line of questioning volleys between obscure names of philosophers and poets, identifying operas and impressionist art, elements deep down the periodic table, distant constellations of stars, and the dreaded “grab a pencil and paper” segment in which nervous students scribble out calculus equations in front of cameras and a live studio audience.

Quiz shows like In the Know are nothing new to television, but the concept of intellectual matches between high school teams was invented by the late Carl Papai for WBNS 10-TV in the mid-’60s. Serving as judge and head-question writer all the way up until his passing in 2010, Papai moved the show to WOSU in 1983, where Schiffman debuted as the new host and has remained ever since.

Having been that nostalgic PBS nerd keeping score in my pajamas on a Sunday morning all those years, the prospect of interviewing Schiffman left me a bit dorkstruck. I was going to include a few of those impossible questions into my own catechism of Schiffman. After all, shouldn’t an interview with a quiz show host involve some model of trivia? But I thought better, knowing Schiffman was bound to beat me at his own game.

Why do you think that the show has endured for 30 years now?

I think of a lot of it has to do with the Jeopardy effect. People like being quizzed. People take great enjoyment in seeing what they know and sometimes sadness in seeing what they don’t know. Those people who watch shows like Jeopardy and In the Know like to be challenged.

I think In the Know has a special difference to it in the sense that it’s all kids. People watching can see the future of Columbus and the future of our country and get a very positive handle on who will one day be the best and the brightest.

And the show is much more difficult than most quiz shows...

Significantly. The biggest thing is that all of Jeopardy’s clues are visual. We have a few visual clues and questions, but most of the time the kids just have to listen very carefully. So, A) the questions are much tougher and B) they have to get the information aurally. I think the kids have just done an extraordinary job through the three decades and continue to do it today. We’ve got some phenomenal teams this year.

Have you noticed any trends as to what types of questions pose the biggest challenge to students over those three decades?

People always ask me how the show has changed and have the kids changed, and the answer to the first part is “no.” The best and the brightest were the best and brightest 30 years ago and they still are now. The thing that’s different is where kids are going to go after high school and the knowledge that they are more comfortable with now than they were when we started. When we began, a lot of kids were liberal arts kids. I have asked every graduating senior on the show where he or she is going to school and what they are going to study. Thirty years ago it was a lot of liberal arts, and now 50 percent of them want to be engineers. These kids “get it” from a professional standpoint. We’ve begun to write more questions geared towards math and science and less about, say, poetry. Kids just don’t study that anymore. Part of it is good because we have the brightest wanting to go into that field, but I’m an old liberal arts guy and I’d love to see kids read more.

Did you ever have any ambitions in television beyond WOSU?

No. I’m basically a pretty private person. I love doing this show but I’m private; my wife is even more private. It would be very difficult for me to be any more of a public figure than I already am and I’m barely a public figure now. It’s public television in a mid-market city, but my friends who are in media – I don’t know how they do it. I’m not built for it. It wouldn’t do my ego any good and I like my privacy. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, but I would never want to do anything further. I guess if Jeopardy called and Alex was retiring I would consider it.

And what’s your experience in education?

None.

But I think you definitely play a role in public education just by hosting the show.

I totally agree with that. The whole message or mantra for the show is that we want to provide a place where it’s cool to be smart. Athletes get their stuff on Friday nights, but there really isn’t any recognition for the intellectual side of competition. We have lots of great relationships with advisors, teachers, parents – now we have second-generation contestants – and the educational community at large. It’s wonderful to see. I’m not crazy about being in high definition; I’m getting too old for that.

Why do you feel it’s important to the community for In the Know to remain on the air? You’ve been on the air for 30 years…is there an endpoint?

No, I don’t see the interest in the show ever declining. We have more teams applying now than ever before. The show really provides a forum for those kids to excel. There actually seems to be a movement towards being “geek chic,” so now kids want show off their knowledge and the show gives them a chance to do that. This show is all about those kids. I’m just the conduit. I’m happy to be the conduit, but the show is not about me, it’s all about the kids. I’d love to keep doing this for as long as I can. I’d love to get to 40 years, but by then I might look worse than Brent Musberger does on television. Nobody wants to see that.

In the Know airs on WOSU-TV every Thursday night at 5:30 p.m. Check out www.wosu.org/tv for a list of dates and match-ups.