No 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.
Broadcast 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.
If 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.
Far 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."
From 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.
Twenty 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 accordingly.
On 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.
But 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."
The 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.
By 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."
Despite 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."
When 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 Pinko!
Meanwhile, 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.
The 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.
The 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, 1978.
Karp, Walter. "The Quiz-show Scandal." American Heritage (New York), May-June 1989.
Real, Michael. "The Great Quiz Show Scandal: Why America Remains Fascinated." Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1995.
Stone, Joseph. Prime-time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s TV Quiz Scandal: A D.A.'s Account. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.