May 5, 2021

The once and future College Bowl

What with the story that NBC is bringing back the venerable College Bowl next month, I thought it might be nice to recall this show, which was a staple of Saturday and Sunday afternoons for so many years and made so many of us feel so stupid. 

It won't be called G-E College Bowl, the name it carried from 1959 to 1970, this time around; that would probably have been too much to hope for. It will have a corporate sponsor, though: Capital One, which has had a long involvement with college sports, will be—well, they won't exactly be lending their name, will they? Among other things, they'll be paying out $1 million in scholarships. But I imagine it'll be a wise investment for them. Former pro quarterback Peyton Manning is the emcee, continuing the apparent trend of quarterbacks hosting game shows.

Anyway, here are clips from a couple of shows. As usual, we'll have a few observations afterwards.

The first is from October 9, 1960, when the series ran on CBS and was hosted by Allen Ludden.  The contest pits two undefeated sides, Rutgers and Colgate. Enjoy the commercials!

The second match is later, from March 9, 1966. The show has moved from CBS to NBC, from black and white to color, and from Alan Ludden as host to Robert Earle. Our competitors this time are Princeton University and tiny Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia; it's remembered aslo one of the most dramatic and famous contests in College Bowl history. 

As one might expect, there's more to see here than a simple nostalgia for old television. From the purely technical side, the latter show is, as you would expect, a more polished and compelling production. The addition of color makes the graphics pop, and the repeated focus on the clock, with the sweep second hand approaching zero, enhances the sense of urgency and drama in the cliffhanger ending.

Robert Earle was, in my opinion, a far more compelling choice as host than the slightly smarmy Ludden, who just can't resist calling attention to himself in the best tradition of game show hosts.* Earle never lets his role detract from that of the students, and unlike Ludden seems far more at ease with the academic nature of the questions. One gets the idea that Earle might have been able to answer a few of the questions himself, whereas Ludden comes across as more condescending, reminding you that he's the host, whether he knows the answers or not—kind of like he was on Password, come to think of it.

*Rather like the difference between Bill Cullen and, say, Richard Dawson.

The questions themselves are challenging enough on their own, let alone having to answer them quickly, on live television in front of a studio audience, and before someone on the other side buzzes in. I always feel fortunate when I can answer even one or two of them. True, you could make the argument that the knowledge required to win is too specific, not as relevant to modern life, but that makes sense only when you look at college as a vocational tool rather than what it originally was, a place where the individual's knowledge is burnished and the student himself comes out as a more well-rounded person.*

*In fact, this spawns an entirely new question: the role of a college education in modern society.  In an era when college degrees seem to be a requirement for all but the most menial jobs, with advanced degrees often preferred, have we gotten away from the original intent of higher education?  Should we revisit the difference between a vocational college and one specializing in liberal arts?  Do we put too much of a premium on college degrees, with the result a milieu of entitlement, debt and political indoctrination?  Interesting questions all, ones that can easily be considered in the context of television's portrayal through the years, from a program like College Bowl to series such as Halls of Ivy, Hank and The Paper Chase.

Furthermore, the eternal struggle over college has always been a staple of family dramas and sitcoms, particularly in the mid-part of the century, when so many first generation Americans were under pressure to become the first in their family to attend college.  At that point it was a mark not only of achievement but assimilation into the American way.  Even then the tension existed between parents who wanted their children to do better than they did, to get that degree and then become a professional, a doctor or a lawyer, and children who wanted to follow their hearts and be a mechanic, a singer or an actress; in later years, we'd see those same children rebel against the system and become dropouts, peace activists, or non-profit advocates, much to the consternation of their parents.  And except in the most frothy comedies, college is often portrayed as a struggle of pressure to achieve, measured against either the expectations of others or the student's own expectation.

In the end, do we perhaps see in television's portrayal of higher education an evolution in the depiction of college life, as the quest for knowledge becomes, instead, the quest for a better, higher-paying and more prestigious job?

Alas, probably a topic for another day.

And look at the students on College Bowl; my wife commented on how mature and poised they were, particularly the girls of Barnard. Cherry White*, for example, has a lot more moxie than people I've seen in the business world. Nerdish overtones, of course, but still very polished for college students. Even in 1966, when knowledge was becoming a weapon that students would use against the establishment, there's still something clean-cut and adult about the players. I remember my wife wondering, as we watched the episode, whether or not any of them wound up involved in campus riots or antiwar protests, or if any of the males died in Vietnam. The point is, would young people today be as poised, as adult, in a culture that seems to adore perpetual adolescence? Would they look as if they were headed for success, a cocktail party, or back to their parents' basements? (For that matter, would today's adults come across that way?) 

*Whose actual first name, by the way, was "Heritage."

According to one source, General Electric dropped their sponsorship of College Bowl due to that very college unrest, after which the show disappeared from weekly airwaves. If that's true, then it's a sure a sign as any of the cultural upheavals enveloping the country, and a reminder of how that manifests itself on television. I wonder if there could be any kind of backlash like that today, or if it will just be seen as entertainment by the niche audience that all of TV has become? 

Anyway, one thing's for sure: if Peyton Manning can't cut it, the producers can always turn to Aaron Rodgers. Right? TV  


  1. I see my alma mater, Baylor Univ., was playing the week of your first still pic. From records I've seen of the show, Baylor played on COLLEGE BOWL twice and lost badly both times. I remember when COLLEGE BOWL came back in 1984, hosted by Pat Sajak and with a short appearance by Robert Earle speaking about the earlier show and showing a clip from it. The next year I had the opportunity to travel with a team from Baylor in a regional contest in Houston (just as an alternate), and we finished third out of seventeen teams. (Fifteen teams had first-round byes.)

    The winning team, Tulane, was supposed to move onto a larger competition, but there was no COLLEGE BOWL on tv that year, so I'm not sure at what point the competitions were over. I hope Baylor gets a chance to play this new version and can do better this time.

  2. Wasn't Robert Earle an employee of GE?

    1. He was indeed. Went to his employers prior to auditioning to make sure it wouldn’t be a conflict, IIRC. Had nothing to do with his hiring, either.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!