History of It's Academic

Background

Teams on It's Academic stage

The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized It's Academic as the world's longest-running TV quiz show. Started in 1961 on NBC4 in Washington D.C., the program continues as America's foremost high school quiz. The school year 2015-2016 is our 55th season of telecasts.

Winner of many broadcast prizes, including eight Emmy Awards, It's Academic is endorsed by the National Association of School Boards. By showcasing the achievements of teenagers from local schools, the show has secured a remarkable place in the history of television.

It's Academic is designed to bring the kind of attention often reserved for student athletes to the arena of academic achievement...and it works! Every year hundreds of secondary schools---public, private, parochial, charter, urban, suburban, rural--compete on the program. Audiences arrive at TV studios ready to root for their teams---with cheerleaders, banners and bands.

In addition to our current programs in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Central Virginia, and Hawaii, It's Academic is produced under other names in Cleveland (“Academic Challenge”) and Pittsburgh (“Hometown High-Q”). In the past, it has also been produced in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Denver, Boston, Jacksonville, San Diego, Norfolk, Phoenix and Raleigh.

Interesting Facts

Teams on It's Academic stage

Hillary Clinton on her high school's It's Academic team

  • Giant Food began sponsoring It's Academic in Washington in 1967, later extending its support to programs in Baltimore and Central Virginia. This is one of the longest continuing sponsorships in U.S. television history.
  • Prominent It's Academic alumni include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York Senator Charles Schumer, Maine Senator Angus King, best-selling mystery author Laura Lippman, former Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham, journalist and author David Ignatius, Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen, Tony-winning playwright Mark O’Donnell, harpsichord virtuoso Mahan Esfahani, internet pioneer Craig Partridge, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, physicist Daniel Gottesman, TV anchor George Stephanopoulos, best-selling author Josh Foer, and Astronaut Tim Creamer.
  • As a high school cheerleader, Sandra Bullock came to the NBC4 studio with the rest of her squad to root for her school's It's Academic team.
  • Several special It's Academic programs have taken place at the State Department, where some of the questions were asked by then Secretary of State Colin Powell.
  • It's Academic inspired several of the syndicated “Funky Winkerbean” comics by Ohio native, Tom Batiuk.
  • Giant Food sponsored several It's Academic celebrity specials for charity. One pitted professional Redskins football players against their coaches against the sports writers and commentators that covered them. Another featured Republican members of the U.S. Senate versus Democratic Senators versus the media.
  • In 1969, a series of It's Academic competitions took place in several prisons, with the final game broadcast on WMAQ in Chicago, featuring inmates from Statesville, Joliet and Menard prisons. For several years, the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana hosted an “in-house” It's Academic prison series.
  • It's Academic has become a Washington institution, with It's Academic clubs as official activities in most high schools. Local competitions, organized by the schools, are held throughout the metropolitan area.
  • Political commentator Cokie Roberts landed her first job in TV on the production staff of It's Academic.
  • Questions used on the show are meticulously checked and cross-checked to ensure that they are accurate, interesting, and fair. Foreign embassies are called to check on pronunciations. Experts are consulted for exact information on everything from woolly mammoths to rare metallic ores.
  • Over the 51 years that It's Academic has aired, hundreds of thousands of questions have been asked. Topics covered include history, literature, science, math, Bible, mythology, sports, general information and current events.
  • It's Academic is produced by Altman Productions, a family business. Three generations of family members have worked on the show.
  • A number of It's Academic alumni have gone on to appear on Jeopardy (including USA Today sportswriter, Eddie Timanus).

Sophie Altman, Creator of It's Academic

Sophie Altman

Sophie Altman, It's Academic creator

Sophie Altman was a pioneer in television. Born in 1913 in Springfield, Massachusetts, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1933 and Yale Law School in 1936, one of just five women in her entire law school class. She then moved to Washington D.C. where she went to work in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. It was in Washington where she met and married Norman S. Altman in 1937.

Always interested in journalism, Altman wrote a syndicated column during World War II. Titled Women at War, the column showcased the contributions of women to the war effort. Through her journalism work, she met the creator and first producer of Meet the Press, then broadcast on radio, in those days before television. She accepted a job as assistant to the producer and helped with the show’s transition to television. In the '50s and '60s, she created and produced a number of her own highly acclaimed television shows, including Report Card for Parents, Teen Talk, NIH Reports, and Meeting of the Minds.

She developed the concept and format for It's Academic in the late 1950’s, and presented it to WRC (now NBC4). It sat for two years. Then she got a call asking her if she could have the show on the air in a month. It was July, and the schools were out for the summer, but she managed to get It's Academic ready by fall — writing all the questions herself for that first year.

Among the many awards and honors Mrs. Altman received, were numerous tributes from leading educational institutions, local, state, and national, including the National School Boards Association. In 1995, she was named a Washingtonian of the Year by the Washingtonian magazine. She remained actively engaged in the show’s production until her death in 2008.