My EXCLUSIVE interview with TV quiz show question writer Michael Ward – Part I

You join me today for a real ‘first’ for – this is the very first time I’ve interviewed a TV quiz show question writer for the blog. His name’s Michael Ward, and he’s been writing for Australian television for some twenty years, right across the spectrum of comedy, light entertainment and quiz shows. I’ve known Michael for almost that long, and have worked with him on many different comedy projects for TV and the stage, but in this chat I really wanted to focus on his time as a TV quiz show question writer, to see what useful information he can give aspiring TV quiz show question answerers! Now read on…


SH: Michael Ward, thanks for chatting to me today for In your illustrious and varied TV writing career, you’ve written questions for Spicks and Specks, RockWiz, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation and Millionaire Hot Seat, Million Dollar Drop, and the upcoming Australian version of The Chase, as well as being the former compiler of the daily quiz for Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper, some time ago. How many quiz questions would you have written for TV?

MW: It’d have to be somewhere in the thousands. Let’s go with 3,679.

SH: Sure. What’s the secret to writing a good quiz question?

MW: I don’t know about ‘secret’ – but I guess the trick is finding the intersection between ‘knowledge’ and ‘trivia’. Something not too cold and hard and dull but, by the same token, something that’s not too trivial. A while back on Million Dollar Minute, some guy was going for the mill and one of the questions he had to answer was regarding the wrapper colour in a box of Cadbury Roses chocolates or something. For a million bucks, that is a ridiculously trivial question.

SH: Are there any topics or subject areas that you return to often, when you’re writing questions?

MW: I think most quiz question writers gravitate towards pop culture questions because we all have a lifetime’s accumulation of music, film and TV floating around in our heads. In my experience this stuff sinks deep into the memory banks, as opposed to say science or architecture (unless that’s your particular bag). Of course, pop culture is the first area where producers of quiz shows put the clamps on, simply because they get so many questions on TV, film and music. I also love travel (so, geography questions), reading (literature questions), history and sport, so I often write in these areas too.

SH: What is something that you never do when you’re writing quiz questions?

MW: I never write questions in the nude. It’s just a rule I have.
I would never transcribe a question word-for-word that I’ve stumbled across, but I’ll happily borrow from that source and re-work the fact into my own question. Also, I never consciously write a ‘trick’ question.

SH: What’s an example of a question you’ve written that you’re really proud of?

MW: I can’t think of one right now, although I seem to remember coming across the fact that Helen Keller is credited with introducing the Akita dog breed to the US – I think I wrote a question around that interesting fact. By the way, I believe it was Elton John who introduced ‘Nikita’ to the US.

SH: Are there any specific rules that you follow when you’re writing quiz questions?

MW: Not rules as such, but you try to be concise, unambiguous and frame the question in such a way that the answer is not able to be guessed immediately (which would render the remainder of the question superfluous). Ideally, you want the contestant to only buzz in right at the end of your question. A simple example: ‘Lima is the capital of which country?’ is not as good as ‘What is the capital of Peru?’ because, in the first case, as soon as you hear ‘Lima’ – the first word of your question – the answer is pretty much guessable immediately.

SH: Have you ever written any questions that turned out to be controversial?

MW: A question with the potential to be controversial will normally not make it through the filtering process – producers steer clear of anything that might, even remotely, cause offence.

SH: Have producers ever rejected questions that you’ve written? If so, why?

MW: Always. Questions are rejected for a myriad of reasons; A similar question may have already been used. The question isn’t clever or interesting enough. The wording is too unwieldy. The answer is plain wrong. It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever have all the questions you write accepted without knockbacks.


So there’s a little initial taste of what life’s like on the other side of the whole quiz show production process. Next week, as our interview concludes, I ask Michael about common mistakes contestants make, he has some brilliant tips that’ll give you a great understanding of how TV quiz show questions are written, and I get his all-important thoughts on cute little dogs that also happen to be zombies.

And before I sign off for this week, just a reminder that my very first eBook ‘How To Win Game Shows’ is now just mere days away from release! I’m really pleased with how it turned out, and would like to offer you a FREE bonus chapter, by way of a sneak preview. To get this preview bonus chapter, all you have to do is sign up for the mailing list, via the handy form to the right! ———->

I hope you’ll do so, and join us here in the How To Win Game Shows community… but even if not, I hope you’ll join us back here next week, for Part II of my chat with TV quiz show question writer extraordinaire Michael Ward!


Exclusive interview with ‘Einstein Factor’ host Peter Berner!

peterbernermain_061108024844953_wideweb__300x449,1From 2004 – 2009, The Einstein Factor was a Sunday night fixture on Australia’s ABC TV. Over 6 series – and 244 episodes – this weekly half hour quiz pitted specialist trivia buffs against each other, and a specially selected ‘Brains Trust’, comprising academics, writers, comedians and scientists. There were no big prizes; the contestants played for glory, and the chance to show off their astounding knowledge, in subjects that ranged from “The 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis” to “Bjork”. The show was hosted by one of Australia’s favourite comedians, Peter Berner, and I was delighted when he agreed to this interview with me.


SH: Of all the Special Subjects on the show over the years, which was your favourite?

PB: There were so many. So, so many. Who knew there were that many subjects out there to choose from? Did you know the King of Thailand’s name* is spelled NOTHING like it sounds? Try saying it over and over again in 90 seconds. But to answer your question… the bloke whose special subject was The Insane Clown Posse stands out. The question writers would have had to listen to their albums and read the fanzines to learn everything about ICP in order to be able to write the questions to begin with, and then watching Barry Jones** develop a profound interest in the Posse was wonderful.

SH: Were there any things that the winning contestants all tended to do?

PB: Get the answers right. They were not all – as I imagine people expected – nerds who very rarely left the house. They were, by and large, functioning humans. Many having better social skills than the host. After all, they were all passionate about a subject. I’m kind of jealous of that.

SH: And the losers; were there any traits or habits that they all had in common?

PB: Attacking the host with broken pieces of furniture didn’t endear them. Because EF was a show that was a combination of ‘special subject ‘ and ‘general knowledge’, it was more often that lack of broader knowledge that let them down. But chances are, if your special subject is ‘Molluscs’, then there isn’t going to be a lot you don’t know.

SH: Was there one contestant in particular who sticks in your mind? If so, what did they do that made them so memorable?

PB: The winner of the third series – Virginia Noel – was a doctor in the prison system who, after winning, got a tattoo of the EF light globe logo on the back of her neck. Which I thought was weird, cool, unsettling. Not sure if she got it done at work, by “Knuckles” in Cell Block 4…

SH: As a quiz show host, what tips would you give to aspiring quiz show contestants?

PB: Know stuff. I cannot stress that enough. There is no point going on a quiz show if you are, as we say in the biz… thick.

Relax on set. I know that’s easier said than done and the camera and lights and stress can sometimes result in everything you have ever learned just f***ing off. Practice at home. With someone holding a knife to your throat. That’ll help you handle the stress later on.

SH: What was your favourite part of the show?

PB: Free suits.

SH: What did the show’s fans particularly like about it?

PB: It had a sense of joy about it. The show was launched at a time when there was a vein of meanness running through quiz shows, and we deliberately set out to create an environment which celebrated the odd and the obscure. It helped that we had no life-changing amounts of money as a prize. In fact, we had nothing on offer except a Perspex award and the thrill of winning.

SH: Why are there no shows like this on air now?

PB: Good question. I suspect it’s not grand enough. Not shiny. It was a gentle show with a warm good humour which – as someone once said to me – was a lovely way to end the week after watching forensic crime shows and the news.

SH: Barry Jones is Australian quiz show royalty; what’s your impression of him?

PB: When Barry dies, God forbid, Australia’s IQ will drop into double digits. What struck me about Barry was that while we all are in awe of him, he’s not in awe of himself. He loves knowledge but not just as a party trick… but because of what it teaches. I was really privileged to meet him and get to know him.

SH: What game shows do you like?

PB: I used to love Catchphrase. But I’m a big fan of Baby John***; the Robert Goulet of TV game shows.

SH: Do you have any ideas for game show formats?

PB: Yes. In fact I am pitching one around town at the moment. So…wanna buy a quiz show?

SH: Intriguing, let’s talk later…

I’d like to thank Peter Berner very much for his time, and providing his unique perspective on this great show, which is sadly no longer with us. Thanks again Pete, and remember what Pete says, folks; if you’re considering going on a quiz show….. Know stuff!  

* Bhumibol Adulyadej

**For those outside Australia, Barry Jones is one of Australia’s greatest intellectuals, authors and politicians. He first came to the public eye as a quiz show champion, repeatedly winning ‘Bob Dyer’s Pick A Box‘ in the 1960s. He was a regular guest on ‘The Einstein Factor’, as a member of the show’s ‘Brain Trust’.

*** John Burgess, the host of ‘Catchphrase’.


Exclusive interview with ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ winner Martin Flood – Part 8

This week, in my chat with Who Wants To be A Millionaire Millionaire Martin Flood, he talks me through his approach to the two biggest questions of all; the half million dollar question, and the question that ultimately won him…………………..



 SH: Getting up to the big questions; given that (the show’s host, Eddie McGuire) had already planted this seed of controversy*, when you were going for the $500 000 and the $1 million, how did you keep your cool when the stakes were so high?

MF: The controversy just seemed to be a weird part to the question so that didn’t come into it at all. I just dismissed it. Every so often a doubt would come to my head – not very often, because I’d visualized it a thousand times – but when a doubt came into my head I would literally – with my right hand – pretend to push it away, as if it was somehow in the air. You can’t stress out about doubts, you’ve just gotta accept them. I was just so confident and at the end of the day, all 15 questions I was familiar with – so I was fortunate. I never got a question where I had no clue at all. The “controversial” comments meant nothing. Playing for the $500,000, I didn’t think about the size of the money… except as a clue to the difficulty level of potential questions. That’s the only thing where the money came into it. I was so confident, not over-confident; over-confidence is a terrible thing.

SH: Yes, because you get sloppy.

MF: Yes, you’re going to start doing silly things. But I was so in my element, getting back there was fantastic. I thought to myself “I’ve only got two questions and I’ve got the two big lifelines”. I’ve got through 13 questions and I only used the audience, so I thought “I’ve got this nailed, there’s no doubt that I’m going to get this”. Everything sort of panned out. I visualized that I’d have a big gap between the two episodes, I visualised that I only had one or two questions left, I visualised that I would have at least two big lifelines. I was sitting there and everything was coming out exactly how I imagined it. One funny thing I did; there were very rarely questions on borders of countries but I thought “I really need to learn borders”. So I bought a globe, and every time I’d go past it, I would have a look at different things. Strangely, I remember looking at the Caspian Sea and thinking “I’ve never heard a question on the Caspian Sea in all the years of going to trivia, all the pre-recorded shows that I’ve watched. That’s going to come up one day”. And with that thought, every time I walked past the globe, I checked the Caspian Sea over and over again. Anyway, what question comes up? Continue reading


Tempation winner

2 weeks. 14 days. 336 hours. 20,160 minutes. 1,209,600 secon- well, you get the idea.

2 weeks of jogging, of trying to stay calm, of trying to think like a game show producer, trying to think like a question writer. 2 weeks of watching Temptation every week night and continuing to play along at home. Even if I didn’t win my play-at-home version of the game on those nights, I knew I could rule out the questions that were contained in them. They wouldn’t be recycling the general “buzzer” questions – and importantly the ‘Who Am I?’ questions – just 2 weeks later, when I’d be back behind the buzzer.

I theorised – if I were a producer of Temptation, who would I put up as a serious contender against me? Probably a man. They’re generally more competitive and eager to prove themselves than women. Probably a younger man. Quicker reflexes, more aggressive, more cocksure.

A couple of times – but truly, only a couple – a tiny doubt crept into my mind. I kicked it out again immediately. My self-talk* told me ‘NO! There’s no room in this brain for doubt! Right now, it’s otherwise occupied!’

It’s general knowledge, and so difficult to study for, but I did buy a globe of the world. I also looked through Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ list, for the ‘Who Am I’ questions, which are valuable in Temptation. They have to be hard to answer but not completely obscure. From the question writer’s perspective, it’s a question that they need to be able to tease out. I remember printing out a periodic table, and my friend Gavin doing a general crib sheet for me about Sports. (Not traditionally one of my strengths).

I listened to positive, upbeat empowering music as I jogged. I do particularly remember this one (Closer by Slinkee Minx) being on high rotation on my iPod as I jogged up and down Bondi Beach.

I wrote a positive self-talk document for myself* that I’d refer to many times before the next record.

Eventually, finally… the day of the record (9th August, 2005) rolls around. I knew that I’d have to win the first 3 games of the record day – “Monday”, “Tuesday” and “Wednesday” – in order to achieve my goal.

I win the first show (Monday night). I have now won a Volvo valued at $62,950.

I win the second show (Tuesday night). I have now won all the prizes in the showcase, valued at $145,326.

If I play – and win! – one night more, I’ll add $500,000 to that total (along with whatever prizes I’ve won along the way in the Gift Shop, and from the Fame Game). And with that thought in mind, it’s time for the lunch break.

I do remember going to the Channel 9 canteen for lunch and having a very average steak with black bean sauce and rice. It was not good food. I also had a couple of coffees, in the belief that maybe a bit of caffeine would help what was about to come….

And I remember pacing up and down out the back of Channel 9 while I waited to digest all that, and for the 3rd game to begin. I didn’t mix with other contestants, I just wanted to be alone, and collect my thoughts. I’d done the calculations, and knew exactly how many questions were asked in the average game of Temptation. I can’t quickly recall that figure to mind now, but I do remember thinking at the time; “Well, in 40 questions from now (or whatever the number was) it’ll all be over – the race will have been run and won.”

Continue reading