CNN Business analyst and happy traveler Richard Quest is one of the smartest—and most caffeinated—men in the world of conversation and punditry. It’s almost amazing that it’s taken him this long to host a game show. Now, though, the day has arrived: Quest is at the helm of ABC’s Mark Burnett-produced 500 Questions, which premieres tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET and runs nine consecutive nights. EW asked the host to describe how the show works—and how he does.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s the simplest way to describe 500 Questions?
RICHARD QUEST: The premise is very simple. You take the cleverest people you can find, people who are certifiably geniuses. You accept that these people can answer hard questions. And you really put them to the test. You have to spice it up and ginger it up a bit.
How did you ginger it up?
We put them under the pressure of time, 10 second answers. And we put them under pressure of enviroment. They sometimes have to go head to head with the competitor. But crucially, we put them under pressure of stamina. They’ve got to answer 500 questions if they want to get to the end. And unlike Who Wants To Be a Millionarie, with all its multiple choice, or Jeopardy!, where 50 correct questions would be great, here that’s only ten percent of the way.
What’s the show’s attitude like?
We’re not being nasty, we’re not being unpleasant. But we are saying, here are geniuses. And they are on their own here. Let’s see their brains. And let’s watch them wilt!
Will there be a certain set number of questions per night?
No, not exactly. I think we average about 40 questions per show. It depends on how the shows are cut. And of course we take our breaks at the highest moment of drama.
How many contestants are there?
We start off with 28. This is what I would call the gene pool—or the genius pool. And there are 10 categories on the board, and each category has five questions in it. So you’ve got 50 questions on the board. They have to tackle all the questions to complete the board. Now, obviously there are some categories that one contestant may be better or worse at than the others. Some contestant may be brilliant at “Sea Animals of the Pacific” but not as strong on “Renaissance Artists.”
So what happens if they start getting questions wrong?
If they get one wrong on the board, they can get rid of it is by getting the next question right. But they also have a challenger, who’s on the other side of the studio. They don’t want that person to get too much information about which categories they are weak in, because if they get two wrongs in a row, then their challenger chooses the next category. Three wrongs and they’re gone.
I’ve always been impressed by your high energy and your ability on CNN to engage with anybody. So do you see this role as a natural fit for you?
Well, it came out of the blue. CNN was very happy to go along with it. But I’m glad you asked, because there’s one thing that is absolutely making me ballistic. That’s this concept that becuase I’m a news and business journalist, then I can’t do something else. A couple people have asked if I’m worried about my credibility and my integrity, and it’s a question which sends me into the stratosphere. My normal diet is economics, aviation, business, finance—and being able to do this is freeing. It’s such fun.
Given that you do know about a lot of stuff, what’s it been like asking these questions? Do you ever feel the urge to answer?
Oh, no, no, no. These questions are way beyond my meager talents. There is a knack and a genre to these type of questions. Quite often the question will involve, for example, let’s say a river in Africa. And whereas I would say, “Hmm, Africa, hmm, river,” these people can go A, B, C, D, and literally go through a list in their head of countries and cities and rivers in Africa, and start a fusillade in their head of educated guesses. They have a power of recall and I’m not even in their league.
What was the most challenging part of hosting?
Well, I found it demanding. I made a couple of mistakes. In terms of the stamina required, it feels almost the same as a breaking news situation. You’ve got to concentrate solidly all the time. Any idea that it’s some kind of a parlor game that you can have a little dabble at is absolutely crap, if I may use an unsuitable word. Now, please, I’m not comparing a serious breaking news story to a quiz show, of course. It’s not life-threatening. But just in terms of live broadcasting—there’s so much happening around you. Tonight I’m going to be on a London bus, interviewing people about the British general election. There’s a high level of unpredictability.
Last summer, you came out as gay on the air. It was a quite moving moment.
Well, the truth of that story is that I got it wrong the first time. I’d done a report on [former BP executive] Lord John Browne’s book in which he wrote about being gay, the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, though he had already resigned when he came out. And I talked and talked about how diversity was so important and this that and the other. It was during the “Profitable Moment” segment at the end of my show, and it was a wonderful bit of nonsense from me. I acted like I had nothing to add from my own personal story. And I went home and looked at myself in the mirror and said, “You screwed it up.”
So that was when you decided to come out on the air the next day?
Yes. What I should have said was, “I’m gay—now, can be please get on discussing GDP growth and the Fed’s interest rate policy?” So I did the whole thing again. The thing that you really want to write, writes itself. And I also sent an email to my boss, telling him, “I messed up on the end segment of last night’s show, but here is what I plan on saying tonight.” And he wrote me a lovely one-line email back, in which he said, “This is what I was hoping you were going to say last night.”
You know, I’ve read all the criticisms of CNN over the year. God knows, I’ve been there 14 years. But the ability of that network to embrace and accept and encourage people in what they are is extraordinary. And that could be said for this quiz as well. That’s why the number of people who come to me and ask if I’m worried about my integrity, I just want to hit them over the head with a piece of wet fish. What sort of person are you that you can’t recognize me having a bit of fun with a great quiz?