The Mind Behind 'It's Academic' Quiz Show

Sophie Altman
Sophie Altman (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quick: Can you name the longest-running television quiz show in the world?

"It's Academic" is correct!

Who founded the program, and where did it start?

Winning answer: Sophie Altman, at WRC (Channel 4) in Washington in 1961.

Altman, 95, who thought high school academic achievement is just as worthy of celebration as athletic prowess and who syndicated that idea to more than two dozen cities across the country, died May 24 of heart disease at Georgetown University Medical Center. She was a District resident.

Now entering its 48th season, the show pits teenage brainiacs against the world's collected body of knowledge under the pressure of lights, cameras and competing schools. Altman, who continued to produce the show until she was hospitalized three weeks ago, reveled in the hormone-driven energy of the contestants.

"Life is competitive. You're always competing for jobs, your friendships," she said eight years ago. "The television aspect of it does make some kids freeze up, but you gotta be confident. You've gotta have drive, poise. You gotta be able to think on your feet. You gotta be aggressive."

Those traits prepared tens of thousands of students to become leaders in nearly every field of endeavor. Former contestants include senators (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, whose congressional Web site has a photo of his appearance on the show), astronaut Timothy Creamer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, Washington Post Chairman Donald E. Graham and best-selling mystery author Laura Lippman as well as lawyers, doctors, teachers, bankers, a lutemaker, a cement truck driver and a shepherd.

"Many of our past team members have come back to tell me that their participation in 'It's Academic' fundamentally changed their lives -- the stories range from poor students who became scholars, doctors and lawyers to (dozens of) students who had a hard time finding a fit socially until they found a home on the It's Ac team," said Robert Tupper, chairman of the history and social sciences department at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda.

"The chance to appear on the air elevates what could be a 'geek' club to one of real status. One of our yearbooks recently ran a full page spread on the It's Ac team with the title 'our other varsity sport.' You can only begin to imagine what that sort of recognition means to a kid who can't hit the gym wall with a basketball," Tupper said.

The brains behind the show all this time has been Altman. She was an experienced producer in 1961 when the superintendent of the District's public schools asked her "to come up with something that would help them promote academically inclined students and that would make the schools look good," said Susan Altman, a daughter who has worked on the show almost since it began.

Within a year, a Chicago television station asked Altman to produce a local version. At its peak, the show was licensed to television stations in 24 cities, from Honolulu to New York. It's now on the air in Washington, Baltimore, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Phoenix, San Diego and Buffalo. Altman also instituted a series of "It's Academic" programs in federal and state prisons.

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