The $64,000 Question

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The $64,000 Question

Throughout the history of TV, quiz and game shows (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) have been highly popular among viewers. On them, contestants compete against each other as they play word games, guess the price of items, or display their knowledge of a range of subjects. One of the most fabled of all quiz shows was The $64,000 Question, which aired on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3) from 1955 to 1958. In its prime years, the program was an instant hit, earning the top spot in the ratings. During the notorious game-show scandals of the late 1950s, the show's reputation was tarnished. It was alleged—and, in some cases, proved—that contestants on other quiz shows were given answers to questions before going on the air.

Contestants on The $64,000 Question were asked a question relating to their area of expertise. If they responded correctly, they would double their money. Then, they were asked to make a choice. If they wished to, contestants could stop playing and keep their present earnings, or they could return the following week for an additional knowledge test—knowing full well that the questions would become increasingly difficult. Players reaching the show's upper levels were placed in an isolation booth, to intensify the suspense. Those going for the $64,000 grand prize could bring with them an expert of their choosing to assist them. If they reached the higher levels and lost, they received consolation prizes.

The first $64,000 winner was a U.S. Marine captain whose area of knowledge was gastronomy, the study of cooking and eating good food. Among the big-money winners: a preteen boy (for his expertise in science); a police officer (Shakespeare); a jockey (art); a shoemaker (opera); and a housewife (the Bible). Several celebrities-to-be earned the top prize. Dr. Joyce Brothers (1928–), a psychologist, TV-radio personality, and newspaper columnist, was the second winner. Brothers's subject was boxing. Barbara Feldon (1939–), who played Agent 99 on the TV comedy series Get Smart (1965–70), won for her knowledge of Shakespeare. The success of the show resulted in a spin-off series, The $64,000 Challenge (1956–58). On this show, contestants who had won at least $8,000 on the first program were invited back to compete for further riches.

In 1958 and 1959, the quiz-show scandals erupted and shook the TV industry. No declarations of cheating by $64,000 Questionand $64,000 Challenge contestants ever were proved. Both programs were canceled, however, along with their fellow prime-time quiz shows, in the wake of the uproar surrounding the scandals.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Delong, Thomas. Quiz Craze: America's Infatuation with Game Shows. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Holms, John Pynchon, et al. The TV Game Show Almanac. New York: Chilton Book Company, 1995.

Quiz Show (film). Buena Vista Pictures, 1994.

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The $64,000 Question

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