Academic Challenge gets new set for 2011-12 season

Saturday, December 3, 2012, NewsChannel 5’s long-running program Academic Challenge began its 44th season, but not without a few changes.

But let’s begin with a little background.

In 1960, Altman Productions, based in Washington D.C., had developed a program called It’s Academic. The program, which was seen in many cities across the country including Cincinnati, caught the attention of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, which worked with Altman to bring the show to Cleveland.

It’s Academic premiered on NewsChannel 5 on Saturday, September 26, 1964 at 7 pm and was hosted by Don Cameron. The first schools to appear were St. Joseph, Parma and John Adams, with St. Joseph winning that first match. As a side note, the first program was recorded at 10:30 a.m. for broadcast later that evening. Even today, recording a new program the very morning it premieres is a risky undertaking.

The format of those early programs is similar to today’s Academic Challenge with one exception. It’s Academic included a segment devoted to a local educator discussing new trends in education and other topics of interest to parents and the general public.

Records show that at the end of that first 27 week season, Ashtabula, Harvey and Magnificat returned for the championship match. With 320 points, Magnificat became the first champion of It’s Academic.

The studio set for It’s Academic had many of the same features seen today. Each desk included the school name along with the names of the students, plus a score display. The show was shot with black & white cameras and recorded on 2-inch videotape.

As a side note, we often receive inquiries about the availability of copies of those early shows. Due to the high cost of videotape in the 1960s, very few programs were saved as many programs were re-recorded over previous episodes. Unfortunately, no one thought there was any need to save these programs. So sadly, none of those early episodes exist. In fact, we have very few episodes prior to 2003.

Over the years, very little would change on the show. From time to time, the set was re-done. And as technology advanced, so would the production of the show. Academic Challenge became the first program recorded in color on NewsChannel 5. Today the show is produced in high definition, using five cameras and recorded on digital video servers.

In 2003, when Academic Challenge returned after a brief hiatus, we reused the existing set, giving the desks a fresh coat of paint and creating new graphics for the program. A few years later, the score system was updated from a mechanical system to one using computers.

Then in 2010, it was decided that studio A, the home of Academic Challenge, was in need of a long-overdue update. Installed in the mid 1950s, the entire studio lighting grid, wiring and lighting control system would be replaced. As part of the upgrade, state of the art LED lighting would be put in place. Not only is replacing the old wiring safer, but utilizing LED light fixtures reduces energy consumption. Many light fixtures are used to properly light a studio set for television. And all of those fixtures, when added up, use thousands of watts. LED fixtures are extremely energy efficient and use a small fraction of the energy to produce the same amount of light we now use.

In addition, a new backdrop would also be constructed in the studio. This new background is a solid wall with a curved bottom edge that gives the illusion of a seamless transition between the studio floor and the wall of the background. With proper lighting, it appears if the floor and wall continue to infinity.

We also decided that if the studio was getting an update, it was a good opportunity to update the Academic Challenge set. After a bit of brain-storming, we developed a fresh look and feel for the show.

Working with the designers at the Scripps Graphics Hub, located in Florida, new graphic animations were created. In addition, the team desks and host podium would each be re-faced with printed graphics, rather than just paint. And with the new LED studio lights, we now had the ability to change the background color behind the desks for each round, giving each segments a different look.

Yet all of these changes are cosmetic. Today, as was the case in 1964, each week students from around the region compete in a battle of the brains. We are very proud that the mission of Academic Challenge, to shine a spotlight on education and celebrate the positive accomplishments teachers and students, has remained constant throughout these many past seasons.

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