A year before Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel squared off on Twenty-One, a contestant on the quiz show Dotto discovered that the program he was on was rigged. As related in Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961, on August 15, 1958 Dotto contestant Edward Hilgemeier, Jr. walked into the office of Assistant New York District Attorney Joseph Stone, with his complaint about the quiz show’s rigging, the first spark that ignited the quiz show scandal flame.
Quiz shows were a popular genre in the 1950s— The $64,000 Question became the #1 show of the 1955-56 season, temporarily knocking out I Love Lucy from the top spot.
Twenty-One, premiering in September 1956, was as much a drama as it was a quiz show— with contestants facing off against each other while in individual isolation booths. When college instructor Charles Van Doren and bookish intellectual Herb Stempel competed with each other, it made for riveting television. But after their appearances, Stempel exposed the rigging and Van Doren, who had become a national celebrity, lost his credibility with the American public (detailed in the critically-acclaimed 1994 feature film Quiz Show).
Charles Van Doren, has recently told his story in a feature in The New Yorker, “All the Answers.”
The Archive of American Television interviewed several direct participants who discussed the “Quiz Show Scandals,” including Herbert Stempel. Click here to access Herbert Stempel’s entire three-part interview.
Mr. Stempel talked about his early years, where he discovered that he could retain large amounts of information from materials that he read. He discussed how in 1956, he wrote a letter to the producers of the new quiz show Twenty-One and was quickly invited to become a contestant on the popular program. He revealed how producer Dan Enright choreographed the entire production by creating his “nerdy” look and secretly providing Stempel with the answers to specific quiz questions. Mr. Stempel talked about his repeated appearances on the show, and his orchestrated defeat by Charles Van Doren – before which he was promised a job on the show and other benefits. When the job did not come through, Mr. Stempel approached the authorities, further igniting what became known as the “Quiz Show Scandals.” Mr. Stempel talked about his testimony and his ultimate return to private life, where he continues to work for the New York transportation system.