‘Scholars’ Bowl’ fans: Get excited!

Betsy PickleOur Town Youth

Some people go crazy for March Madness. At East Tennessee PBS, everyone’s excited about the January genius jamboree!

They don’t actually call it that, but they are psyched for “Scholars’ Bowl,” which launched its 38th year on Monday (Jan. 10). Forty-seven teams from high schools throughout East Tennessee and Southeast Kentucky are competing for glory – and a little cash – in a tournament-format quiz show that runs at 5:30 p.m. weekdays through March 14, with encores into early April.

The trivia game is based on the classic “College Bowl,” which started on radio before making its debut on television in 1959. Running a similar show with high-schoolers has its challenges, says executive producer Ernie Roberts.

Ernie Roberts

“You’re scheduling up to 64 teams,” says Roberts, who started out as a judge on the show six years ago, when it was overseen by creator Frank Miller. “They all have different drive times, and some of the schools bring more than one team.

“You try to make sure the maximum number of days a team will have to miss school is three. Of course, you could be one and done. If there are teams from the same school, you try to make it so they play each other as far apart as possible.”

Roberts says the off-camera “Scholars’ Bowl” team is like a family.

“We have a great crew,” he says. The sound man and general problem solver is Jim Sayne: “I call him my Apollo 13 person.”

Chris Smith is the producer and Joseph Fioravanti the director. Clay Snell works cameras and does editing. Brenda Carnes comes up with challenging current-events questions. And then there’s the host, radio veteran Frank Murphy, who, like Roberts, came on board six years ago.

“He has great improvisational skills,” says Roberts. “He does (the improv troupe) Einstein Simplified. He has a wide collection of knowledge. He can bounce off things. He can keep things flowing. I think he’s very engaging with the students.”

Murphy is also a big fan of game shows, with “Match Game ’73,” “Jackpot” with Jeff Edwards and late-night reruns of “You Bet Your Life” starring Groucho Marx fueling his childhood dreams of becoming a game-show host. Growing up in the suburbs of New York, he says, he tortured his younger sisters by making them play trivia games until they rebelled.

Murphy calls “Scholars’ Bowl” his passion project.

Frank Murphy

“If you have to put one thing on my tombstone, put ‘Scholars’ Bowl’ host because I love it,” he says.

Murphy first encountered the local version of “Scholars’ Bowl” when his son competed with his school team in 2008 and proud papa joined the audience, never dreaming he would one day host the show. That happened when his predecessor, Jack Ryan, realized he couldn’t fit the job into his schedule.

“You don’t just show up and read the teleprompter,” he says. “There’s homework involved ahead of time. You have to really study the questions and the pronunciations. I made a joke the other day that my one job on this show is to pronounce words. That’s really the only reason I’m there is to pronounce words – endless names and countries and foreign currencies and all these things.”

Roberts and Murphy say taking precautions necessary for the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed things down a little, but the previous pace could be exhausting, so that’s an improvement. There’ve been other tweaks in the sets and the graphics since they started, always with the goal of improving the look and feel.

The kids seem to have changed as well, says Roberts.

“I think they get more into the games every year,” he says. “A lot of them know a lot more than they realize they do, in many cases.”

Each participating school has its own method of selecting its team or teams.

“It’s not like we go to the five highest grade-points of each school,” Roberts says. You get the ones who are interested. And they’re not necessarily always the valedictorian.” Athletes and band members also get in on the action.

“We find very well-rounded students. The success of ‘Scholars’ Bowl’ is the diversity of team, academic diversity. Students have a lot of different strengths.”

The games were shot in October and November and air at 5:30 p.m. weekdays. After the opening rounds, the teams advance to the Threshold of 32, the Smart 16, the Educated 8 and the Philosophical 4. The final two teams compete on March 13 for the Frank Miller Memorial Trophy and a $1,000 cash stipend.

Today’s match-up features Knox County’s Halls and Central. On Friday, Carter will face Midway. Schools from Anderson, Blount, Carter, Claiborne, Greene, Hawkins, Jefferson, Knox, McMinn, Monroe, Scott, Sevier, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties are participating, as are ones from Bell and Pulaski counties in Kentucky.

Find the schedule for each week here.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor.

Midway takes on Knox County’s Carter on Friday. Midway, top: Destiny Squire, Bree Duff, Logan Carroll (C), Lennon Morrison. Carter, bottom: Hope Barganier, Braygen Jones (C), Karen Escobar, Ian Zancker. Captains are indicated by (C).


The King’s Academy takes on Temple Baptist Academy Wednesday, Jan. 26. King’s, top: Aiden Stephenson, Jamie Guo, Rachel Rines (C), Olivia Reagan. Temple, bottom: Silas Umstead, Levi Gerbitz (C), Allison Mancia, Believe Iradukunda.

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