It's Academic is the name for a number of televised academic quiz competitions for high school students through the United States and internationally. It's Academic programs have notably aired on NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., NBC affiliate WVIR in Charlottesville, Virginia, and CBS-owned WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Washington, D.C. version of the show has been on the air since October 7, 1961, and is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running quiz program in TV history. The program was created for WRC by Sophie Altman, who continued as executive producer until her death on May 24, 2008. Mac McGarry hosted the Washington shows from the beginning until June 25, 2011. Hillary Howard, a news anchor for Washington radio station WTOP-FM, took over as host subsequent to McGarry's official retirement in November 2011. The Baltimore show is hosted by David Zahren. The show features three local high school teams of three players each. Over the years, chief sponsor Giant Food has given more than $2,000,000 in scholarship funds to participating schools. In 2014, James Hubert Blake High School became the first ever school to win three consecutive super bowls in the Washington edition of It's Academic.
The single-elimination tournament features 81 schools in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, 81 schools in the Baltimore metropolitan area (including Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore), and 9 schools in the Central Virginia region. The winners in each region go on to battle each other in the Super Bowl.
Each contest is composed of five rounds. Round 1 is a category round with eight themed questions (e.g. "the letter B" or "famous paintings"). Questions do not appear on the players' monitors but do appear for the home viewers. Each team is given 100 points before this round and teams receive 10 points for each correct answer and lose 10 for each incorrect answer.
In Round 2, each team is individually asked five questions and receive 20 points each for a correct answer, but do not lose points for an incorrect answer.
Round 3 is a toss-up visual round. The monitor displays an image and the host provides a question accompanying the image. Teams receive 20 points for each correct answer and lose 20 for each incorrect answer (10 until April 19, 2014 in Washington, Baltimore, and starting with the 2014 season in Charlottesville; other cities' visual rounds are still 10 points up or down). Eight questions are used. The fourth question is always a math question.
Before Round 4 the captain of each team introduces the sponsors and school administrators and coaches. Teams then select from three question packets. The team to the immediate left of the team that is supposed to answer chooses which packet the answering team will use. Eight questions are given to each team, with 20 points for a correct answer and no penalties. A 25-point bonus is given if a team correctly answers all eight questions, for a total of 185 points in this round. The fourth question is always a science question and the seventh question is always a math question (data from both those questions are displayed on the monitor or team's screen).
Round 5 features quick-fire toss-up questions, each worth +/-20 points. Visual questions are worth +/-30 points. The number of questions varies depending on the time left in the game. The game ends when the buzzer sounds, home viewers may realize that the game will come to a close while the countdown clock appears on the television screen. If a team has buzzed in prior the buzzer sounding, the team is required to answer the question before the game is considered over. If there is a tie in the knockout round (e.g. the final), the presenter may ask one last tie-breaker question to determine the winner.
After the host has announced the teams' final scores, the studio audience is invited down from the stands to join the contestants on camera during the closing credit sequence. In the Washington version from about 1976 to June 2017, the song heard under the credit roll (if there are no musicians from any of the competing schools) was "T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care)" by the band MFSB (a new theme was introduced in Washington for the 2017-18 season, which is used throughout the show).
Prior to the adoption of the current format, there were several other formats of play.
The "very fast" category round consisted of questions pertaining to the same category. In some cases, the question was the same throughout the round: teams were given different items, and had to answer the common question on the basis of each item (e.g., given a state, name either senator from that state). In other cases, all the answers in the category round shared an announced characteristic in common (e.g., geographical locations whose names begin and end with "A"). Teams used their buzzers in this round, earning 10 points for a correct answer, but losing 10 points (later 20 points) for wrong answers.
In all forms, a team individually answers questions from a packet within a time limit. In one form, at the beginning of the game, teams get one minute to answer questions for 20 points each. In this form, teams are not penalized for wrong answers, in order to help the teams in "building score". In another form, teams have one and a half minutes to answer questions for 20 points each. However, 20 points are deducted for a wrong answer. Teams may pass a question, losing 10 points; however, the other two teams may buzz-in to answer the passed questions (with a few exceptions) for plus or minus 20 points after the time runs out for the team's turn. Every question that is fully read must be answered or passed within a reasonable time. However, if a question is not finished when time expires, the team may reject it without penalty or answer the question at their own risk. In this form, getting all 10 questions (later 8) correct originally earned the team a 50-point bonus, later reduced to 25.
A "scrimmage round" was once used during the 1977–78 Buffalo season championship, as well as in Washington and Baltimore through much of the 1970s, and also in Cleveland at about that time. Teams were instructed to "use [their] lights and buzzers" for a "one-minute scrimmage round." 10 points were scored for a correct answer, with no penalties.
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Beginning in 2008, telecasts on the WRC-TV version have included "guest questions" from notable persons in government, business, sports, and the arts. Among those seen in pre-recorded videos are:
- Stephen Breyer, US Supreme Court Justice
- Lynda Carter, Actress
- Elaine Chao, US Secretary of Labor
- G. Wayne Clough, director of the Smithsonian Institution
- Gen. Jack Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum
- Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
- David Gregory, host of Meet the Press
- Miguel Insulza, Secretary-General of Organization of American States
- Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia
- Ted Leonsis, owner, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards
- Carl Levin, U.S. Senator from Michigan
- Chris Matthews, NBC News
- Barbara Mikulski, U.S. Senator from Maryland
- Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art
- Cal Ripken, Jr., member of Baseball Hall of Fame
- Tim Russert, television journalist and moderator on Meet the Press
- Chuck Schumer, U.S. Senator from New York and Senate Minority Leader
- Leonard Slatkin, music director of Washington and Detroit orchestras
- Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education
- John Sweeney, president of AFL-CIO
- Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice
- Jim Webb, U.S. Senator from Virginia
- Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health
A version of It's Academic aired on WBEN-TV in Buffalo from January 27, 1968 through 1986, hosted by sportscaster Van Miller. It was later revived for a few months in 2008 by WGRZ-TV, with Kevin O'Neill as host. The show returned to the area starting January 12, 2013 and is hosted by O'Neill and produced by Full Circle Studios for broadcast on NBC affiliate WGRZ-TV.
A show using the It's Academic name aired in Richmond, Virginia on the NBC affiliate, WWBT Channel 12, from November 22, 1975 to June 26, 1976 (the Richmond championship aired on May 16, 1976), which was also hosted by Mac McGarry and sponsored by Giant. That was replaced by Battle of the Brains. Battle of the Brains has also replaced a version of It's Academic that aired in Hampton Roads.
The World Affairs Council, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State, hosted an It's Academic International event in 2002, also hosted by Mac McGarry.
WEWS in Cleveland has had a version of the series since 1964. It was originally titled It's Academic and hosted by Don Cameron. In 1975, the series changed its name to Academic Challenge with host Don Webster, later replaced by Lou Magglio; the series later reverted to its former title during the mid-1990s, at which time Webster also returned as emcee. After a 35 consecutive year run and a brief hiatus, Academic Challenge returned to the WEWS airwaves in 2003 with host Adam Shapiro. Danita Harris hosted the 2006 season; from 2007–16, Jason Nicholas was the host, succeeded by Hakem Dermish in December 2016 after Nicholas left WEWS. Dermish was succeeded by WCPN host Rick Jackson on April 28, 2018 after Dermish left WEWS for CBS Sports in New York, while Dermish was subsequently replaced by Rob Powers for the 2019 season.
While not a spinoff, the UK has a similar series, University Challenge, which has been on air since 1962, making it only slightly younger than It's Academic. It was featured in the British sitcom The Young Ones where one of the characters, Adrian, used a Stielhandgranate against another University team.
Notable people who have competed on It's Academic include:
- Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
- Bruce Cohen, Oscar-winning producer of American Beauty
- David Ignatius, journalist and novelist
- Joshua Foer, writer
- Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Company
- Angus King, U.S. Senator from Maine
- Laura Lippman, author
- Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
- Charles Schumer, U.S. Senator from New York 
- George Stephanopoulos, political commentator
- Ian Terry, Big Brother 14 winner
- Mike D'Orso, journalist/author
Other notable participants:
- Sandra Bullock appeared on the show as a cheerleader.
- Hillary Clinton was an alternate for Maine South High School in 1965 on WMAQ-TV (Chicago).
In 1979, a charity special was held between a team of three Democratic senators (Patrick Moynihan, Lloyd Bentsen, and Alan Cranston), three Republican senators (Lowell Weicker, John Danforth, and H. J. Heinz III), and three members of the press (Jessica Savitch, Art Buchwald, and David Broder).
(Note: bold denotes Super Bowl Champions (since 1972).)
- "It's Academic".
- Katz, Bonnie (10 Jul 2014). "Blake High School sets an academic record". The Sentinel. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
- WRC-TV (Washington) in association with Altman Productions. 23rd season premiere. It's Academic. Presented by Mac McGarry. Featuring Churchill, Mount Vernon and Northwestern. Original airdate 1983-09-25.
- WIVB-TV (Buffalo) in association with Altman Productions. 1978–79 championship. It's Academic Presented by Van Miller. Featuring Grand Island, Iroquois, and Jamestown. Original airdate 1979.
- WIVB-TV (Buffalo) in association with Altman Productions. It's Academic Presented by Van Miller. Featuring Williamsville East, Bishop Timon, and Salamanca Central. Original airdate 1981.
- Altman Productions. It's Academic Presented by Mac McGarry. Featuring Albemarle, St. Anne's-Belfield, and Madison County. Original airdate 1988.
- WIVB-TV (Buffalo) in association with Altman Productions. 1977–78 championship. It's Academic Presented by Van Miller. Featuring Nichols, Lancaster, and Williamsville East. Original airdate 1978.
- "Academic Challenge". WEWS. E. W. Scripps Company. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
- Denham, Jess. "Rik Mayall death anniversary: Funniest moments from Blackadder to The Young Ones | Features | Culture". The Independent. Retrieved 18 April 2016.
- Picture of "Chuck" from May 21, 2010 article. Accessed January 6, 2011 https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/20/AR2010052000759.html
- Campbell, Gail A. (1989-12-14). "Quick! Hit the Buzzer! Who Is Mac McGarry?". Washington Times.
Both Mrs. Altman and Mr. McGarry point to a special charity version of It's Academic they did 10 years ago...That show pitted three Republican senators and three Democratic senators against the press. Republicans Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, John Danforth of Missouri and H.J. Heinz III of Pennsylvania got more points than Democrats Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Alan Cranston of California, but the press still won. The late Jessica Savitch, Art Buchwald and Washington Post political columnist David Broder handily whipped the pols...
- Official It's Academic web site
- Washington DC area It's Academic
- Baltimore area It's Academic
- Cleveland area Academic Challenge
- It's Academic Hawaii
- In September 2011, the VOA Special English service of the Voice of America broadcast a story about It's Academic on its weekly Education Report. A transcript and MP3 of the program, intended for English learners, can be found at A TV Quiz Show for Teens Turns 50