Quiz Show Scandals

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Quiz Show Scandals

In 1958, while television was still in its infancy, Americans were still innocent about the medium's predilection to sacrifice veracity in favor of entertainment. That year, a series of revelations about the fixing of television quiz shows shook the confidence of viewers. The shows had big money, high ratings, and were subject to the whims of sponsors; these aspects combined to corrupt the quiz shows. The more charismatic and telegenic contestants were supplied with answers, while others were told to miss questions intentionally. Shows were so scripted that producers told contestants when to wring their hands, or mop their brow. A series of tie games was often fabricated as a way to build suspense and keep viewers tuning in each week. Contestants, enamored with their newfound fame and prize money, were more than willing to go along with the charade. Finally, a series of revelations in the press from disgruntled former contestants led to a congressional investigation the next year. The rigged contests marred an otherwise innocent era in America, prefiguring the large-scale lies that would surround Vietnam and Watergate.

The most popular of the quiz shows, $64,000 Question, was modeled after its radio predecessor, The $64 Question. The $64,000 Question appeared in 1955, after a 1954 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for high-stakes quiz shows by eliminating jackpot-type quizzes from the category of gambling. However, no specific laws existed to regulate television game shows in the wake of the high court's ruling. The shows were immediately and wildly popular: in August, 1955, approximately 47 million viewers tuned into watch The $64,000 Question.

Americans watched these shows because of the big prize money, and their "spontaneous" nature. The prosperity of the 1950s gave rise to the American Dream, as Americans sought to acquire the material goods, homes, and good-paying jobs that were denied to their Depression-era parents. The quiz shows were a reflection of the new materialism. The 1957-58 season featured 22 network quiz shows, broadcast live and mainly during prime time. The most popular shows were those that featured contestants competing for unlimited cash prizes. Some contestants amassed winnings of over $100,000, a large sum for the pre-inflationary dollar. Contestants included future celebrities like television actress Patty Duke, and popular psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers. Picked by producers to fail, Brothers beat the system by studying so extensively that she won her prize money legitimately.

One former contestant, Antoinette DuBarry Hillman, described a typical screening session which the producers of Dotto used to coach contestants. At the time the highest-rated daytime quiz show, Dotto required players to answer questions and then identify a puzzle in which drawings of famous people were gradually revealed. In Kent Anderson's Television Fraud, Hillman recalled:

Actually the first day I was on the show (the screener) asked me in the preliminary thing how I would recognize Victor Borge.… Then when I got on the show and was answering the questions, I got my first clue (for the emerging dot connections) and it was Danish. I didn't think much about that. Then the second clue was a musician. How many Danish musicians do you know?… Finally I had to give in and say Victor Borge. I was right and I won. When I went off stage I popped over to Mr. Green (the screener) and started to thank him, and he said hush, hush, hush.

In his defense, Edward Jurist, the producer of Dotto, complained that the world of information was so vast that "you cannot ask random questions of people and have a show. You simply have failure, failure, failure, and that does not make for entertainment."

One major flaw with the quiz shows was that they were created around one sponsor. Companies would act as the show's sole advertiser, and used this to their advantage by exerting its influence on the show's production. The stakes involving the quiz shows were as high for the networks and sponsors as they were presumably for the contestants. For instance, Twenty-One's sponsor, Geritol, advertised as "a relief for tired blood," saw annual sales jump by an average of $3 million a year during the years 1957 and 1958, when the show was being televised. After the scandal erupted, and Twenty-One was canceled, Geritol's sales fell back to pre-quiz show levels.

Twenty-One, one of the most popular of the quiz shows, featured two competitors in isolation booths who were required to answer questions on any given topic. Questions were rated by difficulty from 1 to 11. The first contestant to reach a score of 21 without a tie won, and players' scores were concealed from each other until one of them reached 21. The show was not immediately popular after its debut on September 12, 1956, and the show's producers, Jack Berry and Dan Enright, were under pressure to improve its ratings. " Twenty-One, " writes Walter Karp, "needed talking encyclopedias and human almanacs." The knowledge required was so broad and expert that initial contests ended in 0-0 ties.

Twenty-One recruited Herbert Stempel, a short, awkward New Yorker from Forrest Hills who had a photographic memory, to represent the underdog figure of the "average man." Viewers soon began watching to see if he could continue winning for one more week. Despite his considerable knowledge, Stempel was enlisted to help fix the show. Stempel was told how to dress, how to get his haircut, and was rehearsed with questions that would appear on-air. In his testimony to Congress in 1959, Stempel stated that producer Enright visited him at home to go through questions and answers. "After having done this," Stempel attested, "he very, very bluntly sat back and said with a smile, 'How would you like to win $25,000?' I had been a poor boy all my life, and I was sort of overjoyed."

However, Stempel was not a photogenic man; viewers could see him visibly sweating during the telecast. Geritol felt that Stempel was not the right image, and new contestants were sought in order to attract bigger audiences. Enter Charles Van Doren, an instructor at Columbia University, whose father, Mark Van Doren, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Charles possessed a cool, WASP-like detachment, and was attractive as well: "He was very American," writes Joseph Epstein, who knew Van Doren. "He looked as if he could have played on our Davis Cup tennis team.… Mothers, it was said, saw him as the answer to Elvis Presley." The antipodal contestants played a series of staged ties that delivered big ratings, until Stempel was told by producers to take a dive, giving the wrong response to a question to which he genuinely knew the correct answer. Van Doren continued as reigning champion for 15 weeks.

For his part, Van Doren was told that the riggings were common practice and that the shows were mere entertainment. Karp quotes Van Doren's statement that producer Al Freedman convinced him with "the fact that by appearing on a nationally televised program, I would be doing a great service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general, by increasing public respect for the work of the mind through my performances."

Stempel had grown accustomed to minor celebrity status, and felt betrayed by Enright, who in turn, considered Stempel to be an ingrate. The disgruntled contestant took his "defeat" in hard fashion and began seeing a psychiatrist. Stempel tried to tell anybody he could about the fraud, including the newspapers, who were reluctant to print his charges, fearing a libel suit. Enright produced a statement, signed by Stempel, that denied he had been coached in any way while on the program. Stempel was trying to get anyone to listen to his story; meanwhile his nemesis, Van Doren, was being featured on the covers of Life and Time.

Stempel was not the only former contestant to come forward. One of them, the Reverend Charles E. "Stoney" Jackson, Jr., was an unwitting participant in the frauds. After going public with his charges, the Reverend Jackson discovered that the quiz shows were too popular, for he could not even convince his own congregation of the shows' misdeeds. Another contestant on Dotto, Edward Hilgemeier, Jr., produced a page from a winner's crib sheet. Hilgemeier refused the initial $500 settlement from the show, which then accused him of trying to blackmail the network. Eventually, a reporter convinced him to accept any form of hush money in order to obtain evidence of the show's corruption. Hilgemeier assented, and left a copy of his affidavit to the Federal Communications Commission at Colgate-Palmolive, Dotto's sponsor. Rumors began appearing in print of the quiz show's misdeeds, and Dotto was canceled on August 15, 1958.

Reaction to the revelations was disbelief. As early as April 1957, magazines like Look believed the shows were controlled by selecting more or less difficult questions, but "no TV quiz shows are fixed in the sense of being dishonest." Of three polls that appeared shortly after the revelations, the most emphatic response was from the 65 percent who answered in the affirmative to the following statement: "These practices are very wrong and should be stopped immediately, but you can't condemn all of television because of them." Americans liked their new TV sets, and weren't going to let one segment of programming taint the overall "experience" of watching television. Some were more alarmed by the public's apathy, or cynicism, than they were by the fixed shows. In the end, the cynicism on the part of Americans may have been justified, since the only people who were legally punished were contestants and not the shows' producers.

The New York District Attorney's office announced its investigation of Dotto on August 25, 1958. Three days later, two New York newspapers published Stempel's allegations, which were once considered to be the products of a hysterical, raving maniac. Enright produced a tape of a conversation between himself and Stempel that included revelations of Stempel's receiving psychiatric help, and his gambling debts to a bookmaker. Stempel claimed that part of the tape was altered. Then, after nine months of testimony, the grand jury's report was expunged by the presiding judge "to protect the dubious reputations of the not-so-innocent." Anderson quotes District Attorney Frank Hogan in 1959 as saying that:

The very essence of the quiz program's appeal lies in its implied representation of honesty. Were it generally understood that these programs do not present honest tests of the contestants' knowledge and intellectual skills, they would be utterly ineffectual in acquiring the public's "time."

In July of 1959, Oren Harris (D-Arkansas) announced a House investigation committee, which convened on October 6. Freedman boasted before the committee that not one of the 20 contestants singled out for collaboration had refused. Former Twenty-One contestant James Snodgrass produced letters that he sent to himself by registered mail. Snodgrass's letters correctly predicted the outcome of the televised proceedings: "According to the plan I am to miss the first question, specifically the lines by Emily Dickinson. I've been told to answer Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have decided not to 'take the fall' but to answer the question correctly." It was also revealed that, of the 150 witnesses called before the grand jury, 100 of them committed perjury under oath. According to Epstein, when it was suggested to the committee that Van Doren—who by his own testimony was the "principal symbol" of the corruption—be spared the exposure of testifying, one member replied, "It would be like playing Hamlet without Hamlet."

In response, the networks swiftly canceled the quiz shows during the 1958-59 season. Van Doren lost his job as an assistant professor. President Eisenhower signed a bill in 1960 that declared illegal any contest or game with intent to deceive the audience. People in television began working to get the networks to acquire or produce their programs before lining up advertisers. The lasting effects on the quiz shows was a change within their fundamental nature. They returned to television as "game shows," free from any negative associations with the old shows. The overall effect of the scandals, writes Olaf Hoerschelmann, was that they:

undermined the legitimacy of 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 created associations with the less sensitive concepts of play and leisure.

Thirty years after the scandal, game shows were more likely to present contests with questions requiring everyday knowledge, rather than expert knowledge.

The quiz show scandals have been used to interpret, with varying degrees of plausibility, the downfall of innocence in America. They have been blamed for laying the groundwork for future deceptions involving Vietnam and Watergate. Others saw the scandals as a precursor to the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy presidential debates, in which the telegenic man (Kennedy) wins again. In essence, this is a discussion about Americans' naivete towards a new medium, not the complete shakedown of their innocence; it is dubious as to whether there was an innocence in the first place. Breathless assertions that Van Doren's televised intellectual ability was the American answer to Soviet Russia's Sputnik launch show that people made far too much out of the quiz shows during their broadcast.

The view from the 1990s, as expressed by John Leo, is that the Van Doren/Stempel pairing exploited stereotypes of class and race, by featuring "the elegant high WASP from a family of famous scholars versus the underachieving and volatile Jewish nerd from Queens." Quiz Show, the 1994 movie directed by Robert Redford, successfully highlighted this angle. However, the movie's docudrama presentation yielded to making changes of fact in order to enhance dramatic effect. The movie ignored the newspapers, the district attorney, and the grand jury by making bureaucrat Richard Goodwin the singular force behind the exposure of Van Doren. Although widely regarded as a well-made movie, the irony had come full circle: television, represented by Los Angeles Times ' TV critic Howard Rosenberg, got to stand on the high moral ground for a change. "How ironic," the U.S. News & World Report quotes Rosenberg, "that a movie so judgmental about the TV industry's dishonesty in the 1950s should itself play so fast and loose with the truth for the sake of putting on a good show."

Television's "high ground" is still not solid. One of the reasons the quiz show scandals remain instructive is because television retains the use of deception: it routinely employs the use of dramatic reenactments of crimes, talk-show guests who are rehearsed before tapings, and staged consumer-product safety tests. In the beginning, people believed that television was inherently trustworthy and factual. The quiz shows shattered such beliefs, and showed that television was fictional, engineered, and manipulative, rather than innocent or natural. This is perhaps the longest-lasting effect of the quiz show scandals upon television: they at once uncovered and reinforced the notion that television was solely designed to entertain. Any subsequent successful television show that is inventive, creative, or educational and entertaining is regarded as a curious anomaly.

—Daryl Umberger

Further Reading:

Anderson, Kent. Television Fraud: The History and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1978.

Diamond, Edwin. Quiz Show: Television Betrayals Past… and Present? Washington D.C., Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University, 1994.

Epstein, Joseph. "Redford's Van Doren & Mine." Commentary. December 1994, 40-46.

Frank, Reuven. "'Quiz Show' Follies." New Leader. September 12, 1994, 18-19.

Hoerschelmann, Olaf. "Quiz and Game Shows." In Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television, edited by Horace Newcomb. 3 Vols. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Karp, Walter. "The Quiz Show Scandal." American Heritage. May/June 1989, 76-88.

Leo, John. "Faking It in 'Quiz Show."' U.S. News & World Report. October 17, 1994, 24.

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