Prior to the quiz show scandals in 1958 no differentiation existed between quiz shows and "game shows." Programs such as Truth or Consequences or People Are Funny that relied mainly on physical activity and had no significant quiz element to them were called quiz shows, as was as an offering like The $64,000 Question that emphasized factual knowledge. The scandals mark an important turning point because in the years following, programs formerly known as "quiz shows" were renamed "game shows." This change coincides with a shift in content, away from high culture and factual knowledge common to the big money shows of the 1950s. But the renaming of the genre also represents an attempt to distance the programs from the extremely negative connotations of the scandals, which had undermined the legitimacy of the high cultural values that quiz shows--the term and the genre--embodied. Thus, the new name, game shows, removed the genre from certain cultural assumptions and instead creates associations with the less sensitive concepts of play and leisure. Nevertheless, the historical and material causes for this re-naming still fail to provide a sufficient basis for a definition of this genre as a whole. John Fiske, in Television Culture, suggests more satisfactory definitions and categories with which to distinguish among different types of shows.

One of the main appeals of quiz shows is that they deal with issues such as competition, success, and knowledge--central concerns for American culture. It makes sense, then, to follow Fiske in defining this genre according to its relation to knowledge. He begins by suggesting a basic split between "factual" knowledge and "human" knowledge. Factual knowledge can be further divided into "academic" and "everyday" knowledge. Human knowledge consists of knowledge of "people in general" and of specific "individuals." While Fiske does not clearly distinguish between the terms "game" and "quiz" show, his categories reflect a significant difference in program type. All shows that deal with competitions between individuals or groups, and based primarily on the display of factual knowledge will be considered quiz shows. Shows dealing with human knowledge (knowledge of people or of individuals) or that are based primarily on gambling or on physical performances fall in the category of game shows. Thus, The Gong Show or Double Dare are not considered quiz shows since they rely primarily or completely on physical talents; Family Feud and The Newlywed Game rely entirely on knowledge of people or of individuals and would therefore also be considered game shows. Jeopardy!, however, with its focus on academic, factual knowledge, is clearly a quiz show.

Many early television quiz shows of the 1940s were transferred or adapted from radio, the most prominent among them, Information Please, Winner Take All, and Quiz Kids. These shows also provided a professional entry point for influential quiz show producers such as Louis Cowan, Mark Goodson, and Jack Barry. While a number of early radio and television quiz shows were produced locally and later picked up by networks, this trend ended in the early 1950s when increasing production values and budgets centralized the production of quiz shows under the control of networks and sponsors. Nevertheless, the relatively low production costs, simple sets, small casts, and highly formalized production techniques have continually made quiz shows an extremely attractive television genre. Quiz shows are more profitable and faster to produce than virtually any other form of entertainment television.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s most quiz shows were extremely simple in visual design and the structure of the games. Sets often consisted of painted flats and a desk for an expert panel and a host. The games themselves usually involved a simple question and answer format that displayed the expertise of the panel members. An important characteristic of early quiz shows was their foregrounding of the expert knowledge of official authorities. A standard format (e.g. Americana, Information Please) relied on home viewers to submit questions to the expert panel. Viewers were rewarded with small prizes (money or consumer goods) for each question used and with larger prizes if the panel failed to answer their question. While this authority-centered format dominated the 1940s, it was slowly replaced by audience-centered quizzes in the early 1950s. In this period "everyday people" from the studio audience became the subjects of the show. The host of the show, however, remained the center of attention and served as a main attraction for the program (e.g. Bert Parks and Bud Collyer in Break the Bank and James McClain in Doctor I.Q.). At this point the visual style of the shows was still fairly simple, often recreating a simple theatrical proscenium or using an actual theater stage. The Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production Winner Take All was an interesting exception. While it also used dominant hosts, it introduced the concept of a returning contestant who faced a new challenger for every round. Thus, the attention was moved away from panels and hosts and toward the contestants in the quiz.

University Challenge
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

A 1954 Supreme Court ruling created the impetus for the development of a new type of program when it removed "Jackpot" quizzes from the category of gambling and made it possible to use this form of entertainment on television. At CBS producer Louis Cowan, in cooperation with Revlon Cosmetics as sponsor, developed the idea for a new Jackpot quiz show based on the radio program Take It Or Leave It. The result--The $64,000 Question--raised prize money to a spectacular new level and also changed the visual style and format of quiz shows significantly. The $64,000 Question, its spinoff The $64,000 Challenge and other imitations following between 1955 and 1958 (e.g. Twenty-One, The Big Surprise) all focused on high culture and factual, often academic knowledge. They are part of television's attempts in the 1950s to gain respectability and, simultaneously, a wider audience. They introduced a much more elaborate set design and visual style and generally created a serious and ceremonious atmosphere. The $64,000 Question introduced an IBM sorting machine, bank guards, an isolation booth and neon signs, while other shows built on the same ingredients to create similar effects. In an effort to keep big money quiz shows attractive, the prize money was constantly increased and, indeed, on a number of shows, became unlimited. Twenty-One and The $64,000 Challenge also created tense competitions between contestants, so that audience identification with one contestant could be even greater. Consequently, the most successful contestants became celebrities in their own right, perhaps the most prominent among them being Dr. Joyce Brothers and Charles Van Doren.

This reliance on popular returning contestants, on celebrities in contest, also created, however, a motivation to manipulate the outcome of the quizzes. Quiz show sponsors in particular recognized that some contestants were more popular than others, a fact that could be used to increase audience size. They required and advocated the rigging of the programs to create a desired audience identification with these popular contestants.

When these practices were discovered and made public, the ensuing scandals undermined the popular appeal of big money shows and, together with lower ratings, led to the cancellation of all of these programs in 1958-59. Entertainment Productions Inc. (EPI), a production company founded by Louis Cowan, was particularly involved in and affected by the scandals. EPI had produced a majority of the big money shows and was also most actively involved in the riggings. Following the scandals, the networks used the involvement of sponsors in the rigging practices as an argument for the complete elimination of sponsor-controlled programming in prime-time television.



Quiz Kids
Photo courtesy of Rachel Stevenson

Still, not all quiz shows of the late 1950s were cancelled due to the scandals. A number of programs which did not rely on the huge prizes (e.g. The Price is Right, Name that Tune) remained on the air and provided an example for later shows. Even these programs, however, were usually removed from prime time, their stakes significantly reduced, and the required knowledge made less demanding. In the early 1960s very few new quiz shows were introduced, and most were game shows focusing less on high culture and more on gambling and physical games. Overall, the post-scandal era is marked by a move away from expert knowledge to contestants with everyday knowledge. College Bowl and Alumni Fun still focused on "academic" knowledge without reviving the spectacular qualities of 1950s quiz shows, but Jeopardy, introduced by Merv Griffin in 1964, is the only other significant new program developed in the decade following the scandals. It re-introduces "academic" knowledge, a serious atmosphere, elaborate sets, and returning contestants, but offers only moderate prizes. The late 1960s were marked by even more cancellations (CBS cancelled all of its shows in 1967) and by increasing attempts of producers to find alternative distribution outlets for their products outside the network system. Their hopes were realized through the growth in first run syndication.

In 1970, the FCC introduced two new regulations, the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (Fin-Syn) and the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR), that had a considerable effect on quiz/game show producers and on the television industry in general. Fin-Syn limited network ownership of television programs beyond their network run and increased the control of independent producers over their shows. The producers' financial situation and their creative control was significantly improved. Additionally, PTAR gave control of the 7:00-7:30 P.M. time slot to local stations. The intention of this change was to create locally based programming, but the time period was usually filled with syndicated programs, primarily inexpensive quiz and tabloid news offerings. The overall situation of quiz/game show producers was substantially improved by the FCC rulings.

As a result, a number of new quiz shows began to appear in the mid-1970s. They were, of course, all in color, and relied on extremely bright and flashy sets, strong, primary colors, and a multitude of aural and visual elements. In addition to this transformation traditionally solemn atmosphere of quiz shows the programs were thorougly altered in terms of content. Many of the 1970s quiz shows introduced an element of gambling to their contests (e.g. The Joker's Wild, The Big Showdown) and moved them further from a clear "academic" and serious knowledge toward an everyday, ordinary knowledge.

Blatant consumerism, in particular, began to play an important role in quiz shows such as The Price is Right and Sale of the Century as the distinctions between quiz and game shows became increasingly blurred in this period. As Graham points out in Come on Down!!!, quiz shows had to change in the 1970s, adapting to a new cultural environment that included flourishing pop culture and countercultures. Mark Goodson's answer to this challenge on The Price is Right was to create a noisy, carnival atmosphere that challenged cultural norms and assumptions represented in previous generations of quiz shows.

The same type of show remained prevalent in the 1980s, though most of them now apprear primarily in syndication and, to a lesser extent, on cable channels. Both Wheel of Fortune and a new version of Jeopardy are extremely successful as syndicated shows in the prime time access slot (7:00-8:00 P.M.). In what may become a trend Lifetime Television has introduced two quiz shows combining everyday knowledge (of consumer products) with physical contests (shopping as swiftly--and as expensively--as possible). These shows, Supermarket Sweep and Shop 'Til You Drop, also challenge assumptions about cultural norms and the value of everyday knowledge. In particular they focus on "women's knowledge," and thus effectively address the predominantly female audience of this cable channel.

One future area of growth for quiz shows in the era of cable television, then, seems to be the creation of this type of "signature show" that appeals to the relatively narrowly defined target audience of specific cable channels. Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, then, notable examples to be sure, remain as the primary representatives of the quiz show genre, small legacy for one of the more powerful and popular forms of television.

-Olaf Hoerschelmann


Barnouw, E. A History Of Broadcasting In The United States: Volume III--The Image Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Boddy, W. Fifties Television: The Industry and its Critics. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Fabe, M. TV Game Shows. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Fiske, J. Television Culture. London: Routledge, 1987.

Graham, J. Come on Down!!!: The TV Game Show Book. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Schwartz, D., S. Ryan, and F. Wostbrock. The Encyclopedia of Television Game Shows. New York: Zoetrope, 1987.

Shaw, P. "Generic Refinement On The Fringe: The Game Show." Southern Speech Communication Journal (Winston-Salem, North Carolina), 1987.

Stone, J., and T. Yohn. Prime Time And Misdemeanors: Investigating The 1950s TV Quiz Scandal--A D.A.'s Account. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.


See also Goodson, Mark and Bill Todman; Griffin, Merv; Grundy, Reg; I've Got A Secret; Moore, Garry; Quiz Show Scandals; Sale of the Century; $64,000 Dollar Challenge, The/$64,000 Question