Six years after the 1961 debut of “It’s Academic,” Washington’s high school quiz show, Giant Food signed on as its chief sponsor. Israel “Izzy” Cohen, owner of the supermarket chain, thought it was important to offer support.
“The reason was that Izzy Cohen, the son of immigrants, was raised with the idea that education is the one thing that nobody can take away from you,” said Susan Altman, the show’s executive producer and daughter of the founder, Sophie Altman.
People may never lose their educations, but the same can’t be said of TV shows and their TV studios. Some time in the next year or two, the 1950s-era NBC4 studio on Nebraska Avenue NW in which the show has taped since its birth will undergo a much-needed renovation. Last summer, Channel 4 informed Altman that it would be prudent for her to start looking for a new taping location.
“We love the show,” Matt Glassman, assistant news director at NBC4, told me. “We’ve aired it for a lot of decades. This isn’t anything other than ‘Let’s do some careful advance planning to protect the show.’ ”
He said NBC4 would be happy to continue broadcasting the show, wherever it’s produced.
Other broadcast residents have already moved out, including MSNBC. “Meet the Press,” with which “It’s Academic” shares studio space, will move downtown later this year. The current “It’s Academic” season — 27 regular shows, nine playoffs, three semifinals and a championship game — ends in June. The next season will start in September.
The “It’s Academic” Facebook page is ablaze with ideas on where the show could tape. People have suggested other local TV stations, of course, but also offered more creative ideas: closed hospitals or disused shopping malls, for example.
Altman said the show has a few unique requirements, including parking spaces for the school buses that bring in the teams and their supporters.
“That’s a consideration you don’t ordinarily have with an interview show,” she said.
A lot of social media chatter has responded to the news that “It’s Academic” must relocate in rather apocalyptic fashion. Could this really be the end of the Guinness World Records-certified longest continually running TV quiz show?
“It could be, if we can’t pull it all together,” Altman said. “We’re working hard to see if we can.”
She’s confident Giant will continue to be a supporter but thinks additional sponsors will have to be found.
“We have a lot to offer sponsors,” she said. “We have such a loyal viewer base, if you’re looking for goodwill and recognition, it’s the place for you.”
Susan’s mother was a Yale Law School graduate who worked as an assistant on “Meet the Press.” Sophie Altman produced a TV program called “Teen Talk” before creating a show she hoped would celebrate academic achievement.
And so it does. In the Washington area, 81 schools compete. So do “It’s Academic” teams in Baltimore and central Virginia. There have been spin offs around the country. Charles E. Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, was on a team from New York. Hillary Clinton was an alternate on one in Illinois.
Sandra Bullock was among the cheerleaders who cheered on the team from Washington-Lee in Arlington, Va. (To me the best aspect of “It’s Academic” has always been its ability to shine a spotlight on high schoolers who aren’t athletes.)
While there’s a reassuring continuity to “It’s Academic” — daughters and sons of previous contestants have gone on to pound the buzzer — it has changed over the decades. The boys don’t all wear suits, the girls don’t all wear dresses. New discoveries have to be kept track of so they can be turned into questions.
“On The Post science page I saw that a new sea cucumber had finally been sighted,” Altman said. “It’s called the headless chicken monster. I don’t know what kind of question I can ask about it, but I have to find something. It’s too good.”
About four people work on the show full time, a few more on taping days, Altman said. Her niece, Robin Trepanier, works on “It’s Academic.” So does Robin’s son, Luke. Said Susan: “He hands out magic markers. He’s 11. We move them in early.”
For 50 years, the D.C. host was Mac McGarry. He retired in 2011 at age 85, handing over the questions to WTOP’s Hillary Howard.
“We always celebrate fame and fortune and we often deride those who are going to study to satisfy their grand curiosity, unless they get rich doing it,” Howard said. “But ‘It’s Academic’ is a community stage where we reward our kids for their curiosity — and that’s meaningful.”
Said Altman: “The most rewarding part of the show is the very end, when you see all the people in the audience come up to congratulate the kids. They all look so happy.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.