How NBC’s ‘College Bowl’ Revival Flew in Dozens of College Kids and Produced a Show During the Pandemic

·7-min read

Reimagining a classic TV format is difficult under any circumstances. But the creative team behind NBC’s new primetime take on “College Bowl” had to do it in the middle of a pandemic. Premiering June 22 at 10 p.m. ET, the new “College Bowl” is hosted by Peyton Manning, along with brother Cooper serving as sidekick.

Based on an idea by Don Reid, the original “College Bowl” first aired on radio, then moved to CBS in 1959 and later ran on NBC from 1963 to 1970. The student quiz show continued as a non-televised national competition, under the oversight of College Bowl president Richard Reid, and also spawned several international editions, as well as a championship devoted to Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs).

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The NBC revival, which includes a title sponsorship from Capital One (which is why the full title is “Capital One College Bowl”), comes from Village Roadshow Television and Universal Television Alternative Studio. The 10-episode series features college students competing for a share of $1 million in scholarship money, with participating schools including University of Alabama, Auburn University, Columbia University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Ole Miss, Morehouse College, University of Tennessee, University of Southern California, UCLA, University of Virginia and Xavier of Louisiana.

“’College Bowl’ is meant to engage these incredible kids that are brilliant around the country, and they’re out there getting their education,” said Shannon Perry, senior VP of reality and production services at Village Roadshow Television. “In this situation, they were out there getting their education in the worst possible time. They lost everything that’s great about college. It was kind of diminished at the point of filming ‘College Bowl’ for the first season, and we wanted to reinvigorate that feeling for them.”

In shooting the game show, including a bracket and winner ladder during the pandemic, producers had to safely travel and quarantine 15 teams of four college students each to the Los Angeles “College Bowl” studios. (While 12 teams competed on the show, three more teams were on standby in Los Angeles and also under quarantine, while an additional two teams were in their home cities, also under quarantine, as additional standbys.)

While under quarantine, the students were stationed in hotel rooms, with under-the-door meal service, but otherwise were not allowed any human contact until they made it to the stage.

Perry saluted the fortitude of the students, who “had to quarantine in their hometowns, or wherever they were, before we traveled them.” She added: “They had to do remote COVID testing and send in tests for us, multiple times. And then they had to travel from everywhere around the country that was snowed in and miserable, to L.A., where it was sunny and gorgeous and amazing — but they had to stay locked up in their hotel rooms because we couldn’t allow them to break quarantine.

“It was absolutely inspiring and incredible and we just couldn’t be prouder of the students that came out to do it, who came out to participate in College Bowl,” she said. “I think that’s really important for anybody that watches the show to understand what these students were going through in order to participate in the show.”

Before shooting, the production team also had to set up a system on Zoom for contestants to learn the game play fairly. That meant no in-person practice sessions; instead, all contestants learned via an online game play that included the show’s graphics, response time, game cadence and more. And prior to putting the contestants through the process, the producers utilized Zoom to perfect how this “College Bowl” would operate.

“We basically created a Zoom game show,” Perry said. “Every day, we practiced the game on Zoom. We timed it out and we shifted the gameplay and we changed the pacing and we added extra rounds of gameplay. It was changing on a daily basis and so we figured out a way to nail this format remotely. … You need to make sure that everything’s timing out within NBC’s timing formulas as well. You’ve got to get to commercial. It was a huge undertaking and that was really exciting to figure it all out remotely. I would almost say, moving forward, it was significantly more efficient than in-person gameplay.”

Perry said the staff of five WGA-member writers on the show handled everything remotely as well, and that the team still managed to figure out the modern “College Bowl” voice while collaborating over Zoom.

“We basically structured all of our categories so they felt college-themed,” she said. “All of that was contrived during COVID in these remote Zoom rooms where we just worked and worked. I would say, Zoom development is very viable. There’s a lot of value in being all in one room and bantering and throwing ideas out, and there’s huge value in that. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of nailing a format and perfecting the flow of a show, specifically a game show, I think Zoom is very useful, and I would 100% move that forward. It’s also incredibly efficient.”

Richard Reid, whose father created the format, is an executive producer on the revival and also helped guide the development as producers looked to evolve the format. “Everybody’s mantra, as we moved forward, is what’s most important here: the kids winning scholarships, the kids continuing their education. Realistically at the time, university enrollment was dwindling. The schools were struggling. Disinterest for university education was kind of at a peak. And we really wanted to figure out how to bring it back. That was another big portion of this is working with the universities to earn their trust, and to get them to participate in their show.”

That partnership included use of college fight songs, and also tapping famous alumni to send messages of support to the student contestants. Among those taping messages for the show: Brady, Katie Couric, Charles Barkley, Eli Manning, Spike Lee, Troy Aikman, George Stephanopoulos, Joe Namath, Scott Kelly, Darren Criss, Tim Cook, LeVar Burton, Mayim Bialik, Joe Scarborough, Shaun Alexander, Michael Oher, Juju Smith-Schuster, Janet Evans, and Major General Charles Bolden Jr.

As for the $1 million in scholarship money, provided by Capital One, champions will each take home $125,000, but every contestant will receive some amount of funds. “What we needed in order to make these scholarships life changing is if we could offer a million dollars,” Perry said. “Capital One gave us a million dollars to divvy up amongst these kids and scholarships.”

From there, “College Bowl” worked with each university to plan out how to make sure this scholarship money went towards the student’s education. “Because one of the elephants in the room was that maybe the student doesn’t need tuition, but what they do need is a new laptop computer, because that’s the one thing they can’t afford with their scholarship contingency or their student aid,” Perry said. “And so we worked with the universities to make sure there weren’t stipulations on the money, that it could roll over to the next year and the next year. That it could be used for room and board, that it could be used for a new computer or books or whatever.”

The series premiere episode of “College Bowl” features Alabama v. Auburn and Michigan v. Minnesota. Each episode takes place over four rounds, with the top two schools advancing to a final, where they compete for the Capital One College Bowl trophy and the top scholarship prize. But beyond the gameplay, the show’s other draw may be in the interaction between the Manning brothers.

“Once we started getting into the remote gameplay with Payton and Cooper, all of a sudden our show started to feel alive,” Perry said. “Their banter is hysterical, and it’s organic. None of it is written, and the two of them just bust each other’s chops on a regular basis.”

Peyton Manning, Cooper Manning, Eli Manning, Richard Reid (via Richard Reid Prods.) and Mark Itkin via his Tough Lamb Media are executive producer. David Friedman is showrunner for the series. Village Roadshow Television, a division of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group under CEO Steve Mosko, physically developed and produced the show.

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