The biggest criticism thrown at television is that it is constantly dumbing-down. Quiz shows seem focused on building tension, or encouraging a streak of selfishness in the participants, or just having some form of ‘meanie’ involved either as the presenter or fictitious opponent. The Weakest Link has a lot to answer for. Even worse, many don’t intellectually stretch those taking part, which is perhaps a relief considering what happens if they do. Just read the ‘Dumb Britain’ section in Private Eye to spot some of the worse examples. There’s barely an episode of The Million Pound Drop goes by that has me not spluttering in shock at the gaps in the contestants knowledge.

It’s not all bad news though. Amongst the wreckage sits University Challenge. No dumbing down here, with it’s questions on mathmatical formulae, the composition of chemicals and paintings of the Virgin Mary. The fact you can only get 2 or 3 starter questions right, and maybe a couple of bonus rounds, is a cause for celebration. It does good business for BBC2 as well, a healthy 3 million viewers, suggesting that ‘clever’ TV doesn’t have as many of us scared as is supposed.

Sadly, UC has it’s critics to, pointing out that over the last few years questions about Eurovision, soap operas and the MOBO awards have crept in. But these questions are just as much of a test of the teams knowledge as those on Plantagenet monarchs or Italian opera, more so as many of the contestants live in intellectual ivory towers where popular culture has not been permitted to enter. So long as most of the time it sticks to topics like African heads of state, what’s wrong with the occasional question on Doctor Who?

It’s also nice to see a different side to Jeremy Paxman. Most frequently seen gobbling up inept politicans on Newsnight, UC sees him playing a slightly nicer figure. You also get to play the ‘Spot the Moment when Paxman’s face resembles a swan choking on a Viscount biscuit’ game, which occurs most often when some poor sap answers a question in a way that is too cavalier for his liking. Or the ‘Paxman does something quite odd for a man with his dignity’ game, my favourite being his impression of a cat during a music round on Peter and the Wolf.

UC should be held as a beacon to all TV producers of what you can achieve when you don’t question your audiences intelligence. Set a high bar and your viewers will follow. Don’t make us push you for answer.

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