Boomers Watched “College Bowl” on TV

A couple of weeks ago, NBC relaunched College Bowl, the question-and-answer TV game show that pits college teams against each other for scholarships and school bragging rights. Former football great Peyton Manning is the host.

Like many early TV shows, College Bowl started out on radio. It was 1953 when College Quiz Bowl, as it was then called, debuted with Allan Ludden as the moderator. The format of the show has not changed much through the years. Two teams of students representing their respective university/college face off in competition. The moderator reads a “toss-up question,” which any member of either team can buzz in to answer. If the question is answered correctly, that team receives a bonus question. The team can deliberate on their answer, but only the captain of the team states the answer. The team that accumulated the most points, when time expired, was named the winner. Interestingly, the moderator was in a New York studio, while the college teams were situated on their college campuses. The two teams and moderator were connected by telephone and radio communications.

In 1959, the show moved to national television on CBS with General Electric as its sponsor. Allen Ludden, the original radio host, became the host of the TV show. The early shows were broadcast from the defending campus, but soon were moved to the CBS New York studios. When Ludden was tapped to host Password, Robert Earle became the moderator. After four years, the show moved to NBC, where it ran from 1963 to 1970. This was the incarnation that Mister Boomer and his family occasionally tuned in to watch, because it was aired on Saturdays and Sundays. Mister Boomer’s father enjoyed game shows that asked tough questions, even if he was unable to answer the majority of them himself.

Once College Bowl left the airwaves, its creator, Richard Reid, the College Bowl Company and Richard Reid Productions continued it as an intercollegiate competition, in the U.S., England and ultimately dozens of countries around the globe. To date, the show is responsible for distributing tens of millions of dollars in grants to students and universities.

Now that it is back on network television, the question is, will you be tuning in, boomers?

Boomers Watched the “Vast Wasteland” of TV

On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), delivered a speech at a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. He had been appointed by President John Kennedy shortly after taking office that January. In his speech, Minow berated and challenged broadcasters by telling them that the current state of TV programming was a “vast wasteland.”

Mr. Minow was 35 years old when Kennedy appointed him as chair of the FCC, despite not having experience in the media industry. A lawyer by trade, Mr. Minow was known to the Kennedys, having worked as a law clerk for Fred Vinson, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and then on the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy’s successful run for the presidency. Mr. Minow reportedly had frequent conversations with the president’s brother, Robert, then the Attorney General of the United States, about children’s television programming. The two men shared a concern that children (baby boomers!) were not being taught anything of substance on TV, either from a cultural, civic or history perspective or for academic advancement. Both men shared the belief that television had a great deal of potential to fill that need. Soon after, President Kennedy shared their concerns.

Mr. Minow stated:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.

Minow went on to say that he believed if TV viewers were offered more choice, they would tune in to more educational and cultural programming. He was not looking to regulate, censor or affect broadcasters, other than to keep them in line with current FCC regulations, to serve the public interest and expand viewer choices.

Reaction to Mr. Minow’s speech were mostly positive, but some saw his words as meddling in an area in which he had no experience. In 1964, Sherwood Schwartz, the creator and producer of the TV show Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), named the ill-fated sailing vessel that begins the show’s storyline the S.S. Minnow as a satiric barb aimed at Mr. Minow.

The same year Newton Minow gave his speech, he advocated for a bill making its way though Congress that would expand the number of TV stations in the country. There were only three major broadcasting networks, and they were ensconced on the available VHF channels. Local broadcasters operating on UHF channels were being pushed out of business because most TV sets were not equipped to tune in to UHF channels. The All-Channel Receiver Act, introduced in 1961 and passed in 1962, required that all TV sets sold in the United States be equipped to receive these extra channels. This bill paved the way for more educational television like Sesame Street (first aired in 1969), the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the new networks Fox, Univision and Telemundo.

Newton Minow also advocated for the advancement of communications satellites. The Space Race was underway, but Minow had a vision of what worldwide communications could do to inform people and assist nations in working out their differences. President Kennedy took the advice of his FCC chair and in 1962, Telstar, the first U.S. communications relay satellite, was launched.

Boomers may or may not remember the specifics of these historical undertakings, but there is no question that baby boomers benefited from the added TV channels and more access to educational television that happened as a result of Newton Minow’s vision and public service.

Was the addition of more educational television part of your school or home viewing, boomers?