ABC’s ‘500 Questions’ is a pressure cooker of a quiz show

Richard Quest is the host ABC's "500 Questions."
Richard Quest is the host ABC's "500 Questions." ABC

A contestant must correctly answer 15 questions to win the big bucks in Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

It takes 30 correct responses to run the board in a round of Jeopardy!

So imagine the pressure involved when even attempting to master ABC’s new prime-time quiz show, 500 Questions.

Richard Quest, the host, says it’s almost inhumane what contestants are put through on this show, which premieres at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“I don’t know how anybody can have the stamina,” Quest says. “It is such a daunting test of intellectual strength and endurance.”

500 Questions requires a player to ace 10 rounds of 50 trivia questions covering a wide range of categories, from science and politics to literature and pop culture. Contestants can be wrong from time to time without being penalized, but three incorrect answers in a row and they’re out.

The further along the player gets, the more the stage begins to resemble a sauna.

“Think about it: You can complete the board of the first 50 questions and feel delighted about what you’ve accomplished,” Quest says. “But then I’m there, looking you in the eye and saying, ‘Nicely done, sir, but you realize you’re only 10 percent of the way there.’

“You see them visibly wilt.”

Imagine, then, how players will sweat bullets once they get halfway to the finish line by answering 250. Imagine the palpable tension once they enter the home stretch of the final 100.

Quest, whose day job is covering the international business scene for CNN, says he can only imagine the pulse-pounding pressure they’ll have to endure — because no one has gotten that far yet.

“I have asked our producers when it will finally happen,” Quest says. “They shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Someone will do it eventually.’ But they have no idea when.”

500 Questions has all the high-end production values we’ve come to expect from 21st-century television. But at its heart, it’s just an old-fashioned quiz show, a throwback to the no-gimmicks drama of The $64,000 Question.

But how important is it in the year 2015 to have a head filled with facts and figures? The answer to any trivia question, after all, is only a Google search away.

“Your point takes me back to when there was a heavy debate in the U.K., where I grew up, about whether we should have calculators in mathematics exams,” Quest says. “The argument is very similar.

“One side of the argument was that, outside of the academic world, you’re always going to have a calculator available in some shape or form. So what’s the point of denying someone a calculator on the exam? You either know how to do the sum or you don’t.

“But I am partial to the other position, which is that it’s good to train the mind to think in a particular way.”

The players on 500 Questions are brainiacs who won’t need Google at their beck and call.

“We’ve had a lot of professors and lawyers and accountants,” Quest says. “But we’ve also had a homemaker and a professional gambler.

“The interesting thing is that, for most of them, this isn’t about the money. What they really want is to challenge themselves. How many questions can they answer? How long can they last?”

Quest is happy just to be an observer, because he knows he would be a “shockingly” weak player.

“Like everybody else watching at home, I have an inflated opinion of my own abilities,” he says. “I love to think I can play Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble with the best of them.

“But on a show like this, I would lose my shirt before we even begin!”

500 Questions

▪ 7 p.m. nightly beginning Wednesday

▪ WFAA/Channel 8