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America Needs to Bring Back the TV Panel Show

Taking a cue from British TV would be a useful counterbalance to this country's ever-growing, overriding need for competition.

QI BBC Two Sandi


One of America’s biggest radio shows is the long-running NPR news quiz “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” the Peter Sagal-hosted fixture with a nationwide listenership across radio, streaming, and podcast. Guest panelists riff on the week’s news stories, be they headlines that were plastered across newspapers the world over or ones relegated to the “news of the weird” corner.

Despite that show’s continued success, it’s been decades since a TV panel show in the U.S. reached that same level of quality, viewership, or place in the public consciousness. Even if you’re not a regular listener, “Wait, Wait” still exists as a shortcut — along with “This American Life” — to a certain kind of public radio programming and the listenership that keeps it afloat.

There’s still room for charismatic, inquisitive comic personalities to help build something that exists outside of any promotional cycle, that entertains on the strength of a better collective understanding of how the world works. (To be fair, there is the current reboot of “Match Game,” but even that requires having to tolerate Alec Baldwin for half-hour chunks at a time.)

On TV, the closest America has had to a sustained panel presence is the “embrace debate” stream of programming blocks that have invaded both cable news and sports entertainment. ESPN mainstay “Around the Horn” and weekday fare like like “The View” maintain that sense of funneling multiple voices into lively banter on frequently innocuous topics.

During the same time that the roots of “Firing Line” and “Crossfire” came to choke out those of “What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth” in the U.S., the comedy panel show has been relatively thriving in the U.K. “QI,” which has been a fixture of British television for nearly two decades now under hosts Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig, is a prime example of a show that succeeds in bringing through a revolving door of comedians for something detached from the 24-hour news cycle.

Below, please find a video of four individuals discovering the origin of the term “nanny goat”:

There’s something underlying American shows that is blissfully absent from something like “QI” (or one of the U.K’s other annual delights, “The Big Fat Quiz of the Year“). Sure, some of those British counterpoints keep score, numbers that are about as meaningless as the ones Tony Reali doles out every day on “Around the Horn.”

The fact that “QI” is nearly entirely devoid of competition makes a big difference in the goal of the show versus something you’d see in the early morning hours on ESPN or FS1 or CNN or MSNBC. Even if you don’t absorb all the tiny bits and bobs that come out of the average “QI” episode, the main point is not to declare a victor or to stake out sides of some ideological divide. The entertainment value comes from watching personalities approach a question they don’t know with a certain degree of panache, rather than taking that ignorance and rapidly building a hill to die on.

At the risk of descending into fantasy casting, it’s hard not to imagine that portions both inside and outside the “Wait, Wait” fandom would tune in to watch Nick Offerman try to explain the best way to try to weigh your own head. (He may even already know the answer!) The more casual, freewheeling conversational nature of this type of British TV quiz show may have winners and losers, but they’re not built around Winners and Losers. That seems like an important distinction, one that, under the right circumstances, could make for a healthy and successful counterbalance.

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