Screengrab from a video of "Battle of the Brains" grand finals in 1994 published on YouTube by Alfonso Gonzales
Culture

Back to ‘Battle of the Brains’: Host David Celdran spills everything he recalls of the '90s quiz show

“There were a lot of lesser known schools that ended up as champions, and that made it exciting because it wasn’t one-sided. It’s not like Ateneo wins basketball every year”  
RHIA GRANA | Mar 21 2021

While noontime shows of rival stations ABS-CBN and GMA-7 were battling it out in the ratings game back in the ‘90s, coming out with all sorts of “pakulo” to get the attention of the viewing public, a little quiz show was quietly gaining its own loyal fan base over at RPN-9. 

But unlike its Saturday noontime show rivals, this program was devoid of showbiz gimmickry. It had no big celebrity names, no sexy dancers, and no over-the-top challenges. It was a pure, serious and scholarly intercollegiate quiz show that pitted the brightest students in the country against each other. It was called “Battle of the Brains,” and it was hosted by David Celdran.

David, who is currently host and producer of ANC’s Executive Class, says it never occurred to him that “Battle of the Brains” made such a strong impact to kids back in the '90s. Until recently that is, when everyone got into major '90s nostalgia, a result no doubt of being holed up in homes for months digging up relics from yesteryears. “I started noticing that people were tagging me when they upload stuff about ‘Battle of the Brains,’” he tells ANCX.

David is genuinely surprised people actually remember the show. “I always thought the only people who watched it were the coaches, the schools, the contestants’ families,” he says.

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Geek central 

Produced by a group called Focal Media Arts, “Battle of the Brains” wasn’t made for a mass audience. Maybe not even for average student viewers, because the show’s easy questions many still found difficult. The show also wasn’t comfortable trying to be entertaining. Hence, it had a pretty traditional and straightforward format. A far cry from the kind of entertainment it’s contemporaries “Eat Bulaga,” “Salo Salo Together,” and “Magandang Tanghali Bayan were offering.”

“When we started Battle of the Brains [in 1992], show business was already the name of the game,” David recalls. He thought there was no way a quiz show could compete in that given time slot. The show just won’t last. “The reason that I felt that way was there was no single showbiz element in our show.”

While David was already a broadcast journalist then—he had a stint as a reporter for “Probe”—he wasn’t exactly well-known to mainstream audiences. Not to mention the format of the show was really like this marathon for one’s IQ that lasted an hour and a half. “Parang it was overwhelming,” the host remembers. “It was like overstimulation in terms of challenging your brain.”

The show even had 30-second Math problems that only the smartest kids were able to solve. “It’s just like television suicide,” David says, laughing. “With Math, it was such a struggle at the start. Are we doing the right thing? Aren’t we making it too academic?”

They could have actually injected showbiz elements to the show and made it more “viewer-friendly”—or friendly to more people—say, add celebrity rounds, include guest partners, make the questions easier, remove the 30-second Math questions! But the people behind the production decided to stick to the format. “It was a consensus I think,” says David about keeping the serious intercollegiate tone.

But what made the show entertaining, without them realizing it at all, says David, were the geniuses onstage who became stars in their own right. “People probably just found it so refreshing to see intelligent people competing against each other at such a high level of competition,” David says.

The show may not have been able to beat the noontime shows in its time slot, yes, but it earned a loyal following that was larger in number than the producers originally expected. “It was like people really felt passionately about the show, so there was that kind of connection,” says David, adding some students literally grew up watching the program. 

“Battle of the Brains” ran for seven years on RPN-9, and spent another year on PTV 4. It spawned a pretty major long-running spoof on the most watched gag show at that time, Channel 5’s “Tropang Trumpo”—remember “Battle of the Brainless”? It was just another proof that the quiz show made quite a splash in the local TV scene back in the day.

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What it takes

In the show, David delivered the questions and the answers—including the clues and occasional side comments—in a very confident, no-nonsense manner you’d think he’s actually well-versed in all of the subjects the show covers. 

But was he, really? David says he’s always loved trivia, history, geography, and current affairs. “I feel strong in those fields. But Math, honestly no way. I have a horrible background in mathematics,” he admits, smiling. “But I felt that was not so much a bad thing… I don’t think Alex Trebek [of “Jeopardy”] knows all the answers anyway.”

On a taping day, David would usually come in two hours prior, and that was the only time he’d get to see the questions prepared by the quiz bee champ himself, now also a well-known trivia book author, Bong Barrameda. This was done for security reasons—to avoid leakage, says David.

What David thinks helped him fulfill the role of a quiz bee host credibly and convincingly was his background as a journalist. “You’re in a position where you kind of have to be a generalist—meaning, you just have to know a lot of things,” he says. “If you’re covering disasters, you have to know about volcanoes and weather disturbances. If you’re covering politics, you have to understand history. If you’re covering a health story, you have to understand science. I guess it’s that kind of training.”

David also made sure to study the questions carefully—by that, he means not only the proper pronunciation of words but the context of each question, so he can provide the students proper clues. If he needed to clarify something, he would ask the judges—a panel made up of top professors from universities like University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University.

Being a lecturer on certain subjects like sociology and broadcasting in a way allowed David to have a natural rapport with college students. “It was never difficult to act authoritative and not intimidated by geniuses because I was a teacher,” he tells ANCX.

 

It’s anybody’s game

Some of the “Battles” were live, but most were taped and shot a week before actual airing date. The reason for this was to address possible technical glitches that may occur during the show. For instance, when one presses a buzzer, the other buzzers were supposed to automatically not make a sound. “May mga times na three buzzers sounded at the same time, or the buzzers won’t work, so the mechanic had to fix that,” David recalls.

There were also times when a coach of the students would protest—especially when it’s a winning question—and so the judges would have to confer and resolve the issue. This would take about 10 minutes or so, hence it wasn’t really advisable for them to have done live shows.

But it was taped as live. “We only edit out the technical problems. We don’t edit embarrassing moments like a really silly answer or if I made a mistake. We don’t cut in between questions. Tuluy-tuloy yan until a winner is proclaimed,” he says. And this is the reason, says David, why TV audiences also felt the authenticity and real momentum of the competition.

What’s also worth noting about “Battle of the Brains” is that it was a level playing field—the smartest of one school only fought with the smartest of another school. “Anyone could beat anyone,” says David, pointing out that the elite schools weren’t always the ones that ended up in the finals.

“There were a lot of lesser known schools that ended up as champions, and that made it exciting because it wasn’t one-sided. It’s not like Ateneo wins basketball every year,” he says. “So you could be a public school up against an elite school, but because your representative was a genius, he could beat the smartest guy in those elite schools. That made it exciting and inclusive, because it didn’t matter what school or province you came from—anyone could win.”

1994 Battle of the Brains grand champion Alfonso Gonzales III receiving his prize money 

Legacy to Philippine culture

Time and again David still gets asked, “Di ba ikaw yung host ng ‘Battle of the Brains’?” And somehow the veteran host can’t help but be surprised his stint in such a low-profile show made an indelible mark in Philippine pop culture. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) actually included “Battle of the Brains” in an anthology it produced.

Schools tend to celebrate athletes, but at that brief moment in time, it was cooler to be intelligent, to be a genius, to be on top of one’s class. Becoming a champion in the show gave one a sense of respectability and his or her school added prestige. 

Some of the contestants have carved out high-profile careers. “They are now hotshot lawyers, scientists, big-time government bureaucrats, bankers, professors,” says David. And while their stints on the show may have not exactly defined their jobs, “Battle of the Brains” surely helped develop in them a passion for learning they carried with them.

The show “Battle of the Brains” eventually folded but David thinks it’s not because people no longer respected the format, or no one feels the show was still needed on TV. “It’s that sponsors and advertisers have to rethink what they support,” David says seriously. “If you’re only supporting things that are entertaining, show raters, sure blockbuster rating programs, there’s not going to be a space for shows like this, which want to authentically showcase the best of the best minds in the schools of the country.” 

After “Battle of the Brains” lost its major sponsor, Uniwide Sales, and later AMA Computer College, the production company could no longer afford to put the program together.

If “Battle of the Brains” were to make a comeback in this digital age, will it survive in the current smart-shaming environment in social media, where “dami mong alam” doesn’t mean a commendation of your accumulated knowledge but just three words that also mean “shut up”? Where the mention of “best and the brightest” only ironically refers to certain personalities in the government? Will kids aspire to be math and science wizards instead of influencers with badly-spelled Instagram captions? But maybe this is exactly why we need to bring shows like “Battle of the Brains” back in the culture. We need to remind our children brains still matter.