Last week, I sat in a Soho studio with Sarah Pribis and Sharon Carpenter, trying to think of female leads throughout game show history. Carpenter and Pribis are two of the regular hosts on HQ, the live trivia show app that launched in late-August and has gone viral in the past month. Off the top of our heads, we could only come up with Meredith Vieira, who spent eleven seasons and won two Daytime Emmys for her work as the host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
“We did have that one woman, an English woman, who was really sort of hardcore,” Carpenter puzzled. “I can’t remember her name.”
A few minutes later, a Google search for female game show hosts provided the answer: Anne Robinson, the host of the British import The Weakest Link. The search pointed us to only a few other female leads, with the most recognizable star being Betty White. White is best known for The Golden Girls and her star turns on SNL, but in 1983, she earned a standalone role as the host of her own comedic game show, Just Men! Ironically, the NBC show starred only female contestants, who were tasked with answering questions about seven male celebrities. Although White became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host — Viera was only the second when she won 22 years later — the show ended after just four months due to low ratings.
The iconic game show hosts, the ones who immediately come to mind, are all men: Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek, Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, The Price is Right’s Bob Barker and Drew Carey, and Deal or No Deal’s Howie Mandel. On each of those shows, except Jeopardy, the female “co-hosts” on screen are prize-presenting models and assistants, the most famous being Wheel of Fortune’s letter-turning Vanna White.
When Pribis or Carpenter are onscreen for HQ, they are the sole show runners for that particular game. Although, HQ has given Pribis and Carpenter “regular host” titles — the third regular host is Casey Jost — it’s important to note that, despite the app's forward thinking nature, they are not the main host. That title goes to Scott Rogowsky. Rogowsky is an affable comedian who seems like the kind of person who would get the class clown superlative in high school and has been lovingly named “Quiz Daddy” by his HQties (Rogowsky’s snarky name for the game’s players).
The people I’ve talked to about HQ are split into two camps. Those who have played are completely addicted, shutting down their lives at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends to tune in to the live trivia show for a shot at earning $1,500 and, some nights, as much as $10,000. Those who haven’t played have heard of the app, but don’t quite understand how it works or what all the hype is about. Still, name recognition is half the battle for any new app looking to get off the ground, and the fact that HQ has that in spades is an impressive start — and a positive thing for its female hosts.
Pribis and Carpenter aren’t necessarily surprised by the app’s success. They are, however, taken aback by how quickly it happened. Both have spent years in the entertainment industry, and know how much hustle is required to get a job, let alone one on a show or, in this case, app, that has potential to turn into a household name.
“HQ is one of a kind,” Pribis said. “I’m not going to find anything that compares to this right now.”
HQ’s appeal seems straightforward enough: It’s the first truly interactive live game show and it’s open to anyone. It’s a game that’s perfectly suited to millennials who have cut the cord, but are tied to their iPhones. Unlike Jeopardy, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and other network trivia shows, you don’t need to be screened and selected. Download the free app, and all you have to do to win real money from your phone is tune in at showtime and answer all 12 answers correctly. The gameplay itself is exciting — you never know which host you’ll get that show, and the live player comment feed captures the best and worst of Internet culture. The three seconds you have to answer makes the questions hard to Google, though some players say they've found ways to cheat the system.
For its hosts, HQ is an equally unique experience. Pribis and Carpenter arrive at HQ headquarters in New York just 30 to 40 minutes before each show. There’s no professional hair and makeup waiting for them before going on air, just, as Pribis puts it, “My own talented fingers.” The brief pre-show waiting period is just enough time to get a first look at that show’s questions, all of which have been fact-checked by a designated team of writers, and check pronunciation.
Part of the challenge of hosting a game show app like HQ, where players are responding with real-time comments, is serving up jokes while delivering the questions quickly enough for HQ’s rabid players. When hosts take too long, players are quick to take them to task in the comments. And this dynamic is important, because part of HQ’s success rides on its personalities and the audience connecting to them.
“I think we all have our own unique rhythm that we bring to it,” Carpenter says, referring to each host’s different style of serving up commentary. Pribis brings a sillier, sketch comedy approach, delivering lines with over-the-top emphasis — “WE. HAVE. A. WINNER!” — while Carpenter describes her humor as a bit drier.
While it's great that Pribis and Carpenter are regular hosts on HQ, they don't show up nearly enough. Hosting isn’t a full-time gig, which is why Pribis and Carpenter, neither of whom have a set schedule for when they’ll appear on the app every week, have no plans to leave their other non-HQ work. (When we met, Pribis had ten pages of script with her to memorize for an audition the next day.)
HQ said that it plans to introduce new guest hosts in addition to the regular roster, but this week, it was disappointing to see that the guest lineup was all male. If HQ truly wants to shift the paradigm, having female guest hosts, or seeing Pribis and Carpenter host more often, is a crucial way it can break with traditional game show norms.
As successful as HQ has been — getting coverage in The New York Times and New Yorker, as well as the now infamous Daily Beast piece — a lot is in flux right now. At the same time that everyone is talking about what a winner the app is, they’re also asking if the its sudden success could be a bad thing. Live shows have already experienced glitches including lag times during broadcasts and "technical difficulty" delays of up to an hour. For the first time, HQ capped Sunday night’s broadcast at 440,000 players, explaining to unlucky fans on Twitter, “We’re focused on building for the best experience & working to fix it so anyone who wants to play is IN.”
Still, Carpenter and Pribis seem optimistic that HQ’s first-of-its-kind status will continue to set it apart, pointing to the audience’s commitment to “shutting down their lives for 15 minutes” every day, sometimes twice a day, to play. Even if the app isn’t able to turn its short-term success and hype into long-term wins, it's including women as hosts from the beginning, which is a good start.
Reflecting on being an HQ host, Pribis says that one of her home videos, shot when she was in fifth grade, seems newly relevant. In it, she plays made-up game show host Alexa Trebekka and, speaking in a fake Russian accent, serves up trivia questions to the “contestants”, her brothers and parents.
"[I guess] I felt there was a need for a female game show host," Pribis told Refinery29, thinking back on her early role. "Not just a Vanna White."