programming format mesmerized televiewers of the 1950s with more
hypnotic intensity than the "big money" quiz show, one of the most
popular and ill-fated genres in U.S. television history. In the
1940s, a popular radio program had awarded top prize money of $64.
The new medium raised the stakes a thousand fold. From its premiere
on CBS on 7 June 1955, The $64,000 Question was an immediate
sensation, racking up some of the highest ratings in television
history up to that time. Its success spawned a spin-off, The
$64,000 Challenge, and a litter of like-minded shows: The
Big Surprise, Dotto, Tic Tac Dough, and Twenty One. When
the Q and A sessions were exposed as elaborate frauds, columnist
Art Buchwald captured the national sense of betrayal with a glib
name for the producers and contestants who conspired to bamboozle
a trusting audience: the quizlings.
live and in prime time, the big money quiz show presented itself
as a high pressure test of knowledge under the heat of kleig lights
and the scrutiny of fifty-five million participant-observers. Set
design, lighting, and pure hokum enhanced the atmosphere of suspense.
Contestants were put in glass isolation booths, with the air conditioning
turned off to make them sweat. Tight close-ups framed faces against
darkened backgrounds and spot lights illuminated contestants in
a ghostly aura. Armed police guarded "secret" envelops and impressive
looking contraptions spat out pre-cooked questions on IBM cards.
The big winners--like Columbia university student Elfrida Von Nardroff
who earned $226,500 on Twenty One or warehouse clerk Teddy
Nadler who earned $252,000 on The $64,000 Challenge--took
home a fortune in pre-inflationary greenbacks.
By the standards of the dumbed-down game shows of a later epoch,
the intellectual content of the 1950s quiz shows was downright erudite.
Almost all the questions involved some demonstration of cerebral
aptitude--retrieving lines of poetry, identifying dates from history,
and reeling off scientific classifications, the stuff of memorization
and canonical culture. (Who wrote "Hope is a thing with feathers/it
whispers to the soul"?) Since victors returned to the show until
they lost, risking accumulated winnings on future stakes, individual
contestants might develop a devoted following over a period of weeks.
Among the famous for fifteen pre-Warhol minutes were opera buff
Gino Prato, science prodigy Robert Strom, and ex-cop and Shakespeare
expert Redmond O'Hanlon. Matching an incongruous area of expertise
to the right personality was a favorite hook, as in the cases of
Richard McCutchen, the rugged marine captain who was an expert on
French cooking, or Dr. Joyce Brothers, not then an icon of pop psychology,
whose encyclopedic knowledge of boxing won her (legitimately) $132,000.
the quiz shows made celebrities out of ordinary folk, they also
sought to engage the services of celebrities. Orson Welles claimed
to have been approached by a quiz show producer looking for a "genius
type" who guaranteed him $150,000 and a seven week engagement. Welles
refused, but bandleader Xavier Cugat won $16,000 as an expert on
Tin Pan Alley songs in a rigged match against actress Lillian Roth
on The $64,000 Challenge. "I considered I was giving a performance,"
he later explained guilelessly. Twelve-year-old Patty Duke won $32,000
against child actor Eddie Hodges, then the juvenile lead in The
Music Man on Broadway. Hodges had earlier won the $25,000 grand
prize on Name That Tune teamed with a personable marine flyer
named John Glenn.
and away the most notorious quizling was Charles Van Doren, a contestant
on NBC's Twenty One, a quiz show based on the game of blackjack.
Scion of the prestigious literary family and himself a lecturer
in English at Columbia University, Van Doren was an authentic pop
phenomenon whose video charisma earned him $129,000 in prize money,
the cover of Time magazine, and a permanent spot on NBC's Today,
where he discussed non-Euclidean geometry and recited seventeenth
century poetry. He put an all-American face to the university intellectual
in an age just getting over its suspicion of subversive "eggheads."
the moment Van Doren walked onto the set of Twenty One on
28 November 1956 for his first face-off against a high-IQ eccentric
named Herbert Stempel, he proved himself a telegenic natural. In
the isolation booth, Van Doren managed to engage the spectator's
sympathy by sharing his mental concentration. Apparently muttering
unself-consciously to himself, he let viewers see him think: eyes
alert, hand on chin, then a sudden bolt ("Oh, I know!"), after which
he delivered himself of the answer. Asked to name the volumes of
Churchill's wartime memoirs, he mutters, "I've seen the ad for those
books a thousand times!" Asked to come up with a biblical reference,
he says self-depreciatingly, "My father would know that." Van Doren's
was a remarkable and seductive performance.
One's convoluted rules decreed that, in the event of a tie,
the money wagered for points doubled--from $500 a point, to $1000
and so on. Thus, contestants needed to be coached not only on answers
and acting but on the amount of points they selected in the gamble.
A tie meant double financial stakes for each successive game with
a consequent ratcheting up of the tension. By pre-game arrangement,
the first Van Doren-Stempel face off ended with three ties; hence,
the next week's game would be played for $2000 a point, and publicized
Wednesday, 5 December 1956, at 10:30 P.M., an estimated 50 million
Americans tune in to Twenty One for what host and co-producer
Jack Berry calls "the biggest game ever played in the program."
A pair of twin blondes escort the pair to their isolation booths.
The first category is boxing and Van Doren blows it. Ahead sixteen
points to Van Doren's zero, Stempel is given the chance to stop
the game. Only the audience knows he's in the lead and, if he stops
the game, Van Doren loses. At this point, on live television, Stempel
could have reneged on the deal, vanquished his opponent, and won
an extra $32,000. But he opts to play by the script and continue
the match. The next category--movies--proves more Van Doren friendly.
Asked to name Brando's female co-star in On the Waterfront Van
Doren teases briefly ("she was that lovely frail girl") before coming
up with the correct answer (Eve Marie Sainte). Stempel again has
the chance to ad-lib his own lines, but-- in an echo of another
Brando role--it is not his night. Asked to name the 1955 Oscar Winner
for Best Picture, he hesitates and answers On the Waterfront.
Stempel later recalled how that choice was the unkindest cut.
The correct answer--Marty--was not only a film he knew well but
a character he identified with, the lonesome guy wondering what
he was gonna do tonight.
another tie means another round at $2,500 a point. "You guys sure
know your onions," gasps Jack Berry. The next round of questions
is crucial and Van Doren is masterful. Give the names and the fates
of the third, fourth, and fifth wives of Henry the Eighth. As Berry
leads him through the litany, Van Doren takes the audience with
him every step of the way. ("I don't think he beheaded her...Yes,
what happened to her.") Given the same question, Stempel gets off
his best line of the match up. After Stempel successfully names
the wives, Berry asks him their fates. "Well, they all died," he
cracks to gales of laughter. Van Doren stops the game and wins the
round. Seemingly gracious in defeat, in reality steaming with resentment,
Stempel says truthfully, "This all came so suddenly...Thanks for
your kindness and courtesy."
gravy train derailed in August and September of 1958 when disgruntled
former contestants went public with accusations that the results
were rigged and the contestants coached. First, a standby contestant
on Dotto produced a page from a winner's crib sheet. Then, the still
bitter Herbert Stempel, Van Doren's former nemesis on Twenty
One, told how he had taken a dive in their climatic encounter.
The smoking gun was provided by an artist named James Snodgrass,
who had taken the precaution of mailing registered letters to himself
with the results of his appearances on Twenty One predicted
in advance. Most of the high-drama match-ups, it turned out, were
as carefully choreographed as the June Taylor Dancers. Contestants
were drilled in Q and A before airtime and coached in the pantomime
of nail-biting suspense (stroke chin, furrow brow, wipe sweat from
forehead). The lucky few who struck a chord with audiences were
permitted a good run before a fresh attraction took their place;
the patsies were given wrist watches and a kiss off.
October 1958, as a New York grand jury convened by prosecutor Joseph
Stone investigated the charges and heard closed-door testimony,
quiz show ratings had plummeted. For their part, the networks played
damage control, denying knowledge of rigging, canceling the suspect
shows, and tossing the producers overboard. Yet it was hard to credit
the Inspector Renault-like innocence of executives at NBC and CBS
who claimed to be shocked that gambling was not going on in their
casinos. A public relations flack for Twenty One best described
the implied contract: "It was sort of a situation where a husband
suspects his wife, but doesn't want to know because he loves her."
the revelations and the grand jury investigation, the quiz show
producers, Van Doren, and the other big money winners steadfastly
maintained their innocence. Solid citizens all, they feared the
loss of professional standing and the loyalty of friends and family
as much as the retribution of the district attorney's office. Thus,
even though there was no criminal statute against rigging a quiz
show, the producers and contestants called to testify before the
New York grand jury mainly tried to brazen it out. Nearly one hundred
people committed perjury rather than own up to activities that,
though embarrassing, were not illegal. Prosecutor Joseph Stone lamented
that "nothing in my experience prepared me for the mass perjury
that took place on the part of scores of well-educated people who
had no trouble understanding what was at stake."
the judge presiding over the New York investigations ordered the
grand jury report sealed, Washington smelled a cover up and a political
opportunity. Through October and November 1959, the House Subcommittee
on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Oren Harris (D-Arkansas), held
standing room only hearings into the quiz show scandals. A renewed
wave of publicity recorded the now repentant testimony of network
bigwigs and star contestants whose minds, apparently, were concentrated
powerfully by federal intervention. At one point, committee staffers
came upon possible communist associations in the background of a
few witnesses. The information was turned over to the House Committee
on Un-American Activities, a move that inspired one wiseacre to
suggest the networks produce a new game show entitled Find That
as newspaper headlines screamed "Where's Charlie?", the star witness
everyone wanted to hear from was motoring desperately through the
back roads of New England, ducking a congressional subpoena. Finally,
on 2 November 1959, with tension mounting in anticipation of Van
Doren's appearance to answer questions (the irony was lost on no
one), the chastened professor fessed up. "I was involved, deeply
involved, in a deception," he told the Harris Committee. "The fact
that I too was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the
principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal
symbol." In another irony, Washington's made-for-TV spectacle never
made it to the airwaves due to the opposition of House Speaker Sam
Rayburn, who felt that the presence of television cameras would
undermine the dignity of Congress.
firestorm that resulted, claimed Variety, "injured broadcasting
more than anything ever before in the public eye." Even the sainted
Edward R. Murrow was sullied when it was revealed that his celebrity
interview show, CBS's Person to Person, provided guests with
questions in advance. Perhaps most significantly in terms of the
future shape of commercial television, the quiz show scandals made
the networks forever leery of "single sponsorship" programming.
Henceforth, they parceled out advertising time in fifteen, thirty,
and sixty-second increments, wrenching control away from single
sponsors and advertising agencies.
fall out from the quiz show scandals can be gauged as cultural residue
and written law. To an age as yet unschooled in credibility gaps
and modified, limited hang-outs, the mass deception served as an
early warning signal that the medium, and American life, might not
always be on the up and up. As if to deny that possibility, Congress
promptly made rigging a quiz show a federal crime. A televised exhibition
may be fixed; a game show must always be upright.
Anderson, Kent. Television Fraud: The History and Implications
of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood,
Karp, Walter. "The Quiz-show Scandal." American Heritage
(New York), May-June 1989.
Michael. "The Great Quiz Show Scandal: Why America Remains Fascinated."
Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1995.
Joseph. 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 Quiz and Game
Question /$64,000 Challenge