premiere of The $64,000 Question as a summer replacement
in 1955 marked the beginning of the big money quiz shows. Following
a Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that exempted "Jackpot" quizzes from
charges of illegal gambling, Louis G. Cowan, the creator and packager
of the program, Revlon, its main sponsor, and CBS were able to bring
this new type of quiz show on the air. Based on the popular 1940s
radio quiz show Take It Or Leave It with its famous $64
Question, The $64,000 Question increased the prize money
to an unprecedented, spectacular level. It also added public appeal
with a security guard and a "trust officer" who monitored questions
and prizes, and its fairly elaborate set design, which included
an "isolation booth" for the contestants. Intellectual "legitimacy"
was further claimed through the employment of Prof. Bergen Evans
as "Question Supervisor." With its emphasis on high culture, academic
knowledge, and its grave, ceremonious atmosphere, The $64,000
Question represented an attempt to gain more respectability
for the relatively new and still despised television medium, while
at the same time appealing to a large audience.
contestant began his or her quest for fortune and fame by answering
a question in their area of expertise for $64. Each subsequent correct
answer doubled their prize money up to the $4,000 level. After this
stage contestants could only advance one level per week and were
asked increasingly elaborate and difficult questions. They were
allowed to quit the quiz at any level--and keep their winnings--but
missing a question always eliminated the contestant. Nevertheless,
contestants were guaranteed the $4,000 from the first round, and
if missed a question after having reached the $8,000 level, received
an additional consolation prize--a new Cadillac. At this level,
candidates were also moved from the studio floor to the "Revlon
Isolation Booth," a shift designed to intensify the dramatic effects
at the higher levels of the quiz.
Besides its use of such spectacular features, the appeal of The
$64,000 Question was also strongly grounded in the audience's
identification with returning contestants. Thus, many of the early
competitors were transformed from "common people" into instant superstars.
Policeman Redmond O'Hanlon, a Shakespeare expert, and shoemaker
Gino Prato, an opera fan, are among the noted examples. The popularity
of these and other contestants proved the viability of "the serialized
contest," a concept that The $64,000 Question and many imitators
(e.g., Twenty-One; The Big Surprise) followed.
Due to the immense success of The $64,000 Question (at one
point in the 1955 season it had an 84.8% audience share), CBS and
Cowan created a spin-off, The $64,000 Challenge. This program allowed
those contestants from The $64,000 Question who had won at
least $8,000 to continue their quiz show career. The format was
changed into a more overt contest; two candidates competed against
each other in a common area of expertise. As a minimum prize, contestants
were guaranteed the amount at which they beat their opponents. Additionally,
the $64,000 limit on winnings was removed, making the contests even
longer and more spectacular.
combination of these two shows allowed the most successful candidates
to become virtual television regulars, as in the case of Teddy Nadler,
who had accumulated $252,000 by the time The $64,000 Challenge
was canceled. These programs held top rating spots until Twenty-One
found a format and a contestant, Charles Van Doren, which were even
more appealing to the audience.
need for regular contestants to appear over long periods of time,
one of the central factors in the popularity of the big prize game
shows, also proved to be an central factor in their downfall with
the quiz show scandal of 1958. The sponsors of the programs implicitly
expected and sometimes explicitly demanded that popular contestants
be supplied with answers in advance, enabling them to defeat unpopular
competitors and remain on the show for extended periods. Although
no allegations against Entertainment Productions, Inc. and CBS were
ever substantiated, Barnouw points out in The Image Empire that
their production personnel claimed that Revlon had frequently tried
to influence the outcome of the quizzes. Ultimately, both shows
were canceled due to public indignation and waning ratings in the
wake of the scandals.
of the most significant results of the quiz show scandal and the
involvement of sponsors in it was the shift in the power to program
television. The scandal was used as an argument by the networks
to completely eliminate sponsor-controlled programming in prime-time
broadcasting and to take control of program production themselves.
Dr. Bergen Evans
June 1955-June 1958 Tuesday
September 1958-November 1958 Sunday
Sonny Fox (1956)
Ralph Story (1956-1958
PRODUCERS Steve Carlin, Joe Cates
April 1956-September 1958 Sunday
Barnouw, E. A History of Broadcasting in the United States: Volume
III--The Image Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
W. Fifties Television: The Industry and its Critics. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1990.
D., S. Ryan, and F. Wostbrock. The Encyclopedia of Television
Game Shows. New York: Zoetrope, 1987.
and Game Shows; Quiz