Mastermind is special. Every quiz show has a team of geniuses beavering away at tough questions for their on-screen challengers, but on this program they also have to account for the special subjects when they’re putting each episode together. How do they actually do it? Lots of encyclopaedias? Reading the underside of bottle caps? Something on the internet? We spoke to series producer Andrea Williams to find out how it all comes together before contenders take to the black chair.
What’s the first thing you do when you’re handed a special subject?
Get stuck straight into the source materials for an overview of the topic, especially if it’s unfamiliar. A broad understanding is enough to start writing questions, delving deeper into the topic as research continues.
Without giving away any trade secrets, what kinds of sources do you consider suitable or unsuitable? Do you spend lots of time on Wikipedia?
Wikipedia is a good resource to get a quick overview of a topic but it’s unsuitable to base questions on. Secure resources are textbooks, reference materials, official websites, music charts, sporting stats, historical accounts, interviews with the direct subject and, of course, the actual film, TV series or novel if the topic concerns that.
You have a massive team of question writers/producers/verifiers. What does a day’s work look like for them?
The question writers will be devouring their source materials to pinpoint the areas that make for fascinating questions. Writing the questions, setting the difficulty level and double-checking it’s factually sound.
The verifiers are the security guards of the quiz world. They will essentially ‘break’ a question to ensure every single element is factually correct and they will also investigate the ‘negative space’ around a question in case there are any other possible correct answers the writer has overlooked.
The question producers look at the questions with an editorial eye to ensure the difficulty level is accurate, checking for comprehension, rogue typos, correct grammar, question length, sentence structure, does it fit the brief of the topic and the show.
"The verifiers are the security guards of the quiz world."
When training new question writers, what’s the most common misconception they have?
Most new writers don’t realise they have to check the large database of pre-written questions so they are not writing duplicates. After a quiz show has been on air for a while, there are thousands of questions that have already been written which means the writer’s brilliant new idea has probably already been done.
Do you shape the questions to the host’s delivery, or are they designed to be 'generic' in that regard?
Every quiz show has a different tone and a different pace. It takes a bit of practice to get that right. Even experienced writers need to be flexible to adhere to that specific tone.
How many questions do you generate per episode?
Each episode is stacked with 120 questions plus spares and tie-breakers. We haven’t run out. We recycle the general knowledge questions that didn’t get asked.
Which topics are the most difficult to write for?
It’s tricky to write engaging, fun questions on very technical or scientific topics with complex theories.
How do you determine the correct pitch in terms of difficulty?
That just comes with practice. There are a couple of producers on staff with years of experience on quiz shows, they get it pretty right. It’s an intuitive skill mostly.
Do you have a favourite fact that you’ve learnt as a result of this work?
Two members of the band ZZ Top are known for their iconic long beards, the third member of the band does not have a beard, but his name is OF COURSE – Frank Beard. Another fun fact is that bubble wrap was originally invented to be wallpaper but it didn’t sell.
Is there a professional rivalry behind the scenes with other game shows? Have you received any advice/sledging?
Definitely not. In fact, I’m freelance and have been working on quiz shows for 15 years, so if I was sledging another show, it’s likely one I previously worked on, so I’d be sledging myself!
I've started so I'll finish: Are you allowed to take part in your local pub trivia night?
Yes, but please don’t blow my cover!
Watch Mastermind weeknights at 6pm on SBS Australia. All episodes are available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.