1950s quiz show scandals
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The American quiz show scandals of the 1950s were a series of revelations that contestants of several popular television quiz shows were secretly given assistance by the show's producers to arrange the outcome of an ostensibly fair competition. The quiz show scandals were driven by a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons included the drive for financial gain, the willingness of contestants to "play along" with the assistance, and the lack of then-current regulations prohibiting the rigging of game shows.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Federal Communications Commission v. American Broadcasting Co., Inc. 347 U.S. 284, that quiz shows were not a form of gambling; this paved the way for their introduction to television. The prizes of these new shows were unprecedented. The $64,000 Question became the first big-money television quiz show during the 1950s. In 1955, Joyce Brothers first earned fame by becoming the first woman to earn the $64,000 prize. It was revealed later that the show was "controlled"; the producers did not want her to win and deliberately gave her questions perceived to be beyond her ability, which she answered correctly anyway. The $64,000 Question was one of the game shows ultimately implicated to be fixed in some fashion.
In 1956, the Jack Barry-hosted game show Twenty One featured a contestant, Herb Stempel, who had been coached by producer Dan Enright to allow his opponent, Charles Van Doren, to win the game. Stempel took the fall as requested of him. A year later, Stempel told the New York Journal-American's Jack O'Brien that his run as champion on the series had been choreographed and that he had been ordered to purposely lose his championship to Van Doren. With no proof, an article was never printed. Stempel's statements gained more credibility when match fixing in another game, Dotto, was publicized in August 1958. Quiz show ratings across the networks plummeted and several were cancelled amidst allegations of fixing. The revelations were sufficient to initiate a nine-month long County of New York grand jury. No indictments were handed down, but the findings of the grand jury were sealed by judge's order.
A formal congressional subcommittee investigation began in summer 1959. Enright was revealed to have rigged Twenty One; Charles Van Doren also eventually came forth with revelations about how he was persuaded to accept specific answers during his time on the show. These elements of the scandal were portrayed in the 1994 movie Quiz Show.
As a result, many contestants' reputations were tarnished. In 1960, the United States Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit the fixing of quiz shows. As a result of that action, many networks canceled their existing quiz shows and replaced them with a higher number of public service programs. Most networks also imposed a winnings limit on their existing and future game shows, which would eventually be removed by inflation and the rise of the million-dollar jackpot game shows starting in 1999.
Herb Stempel was a contestant on Twenty One who was coached by the show's producer Dan Enright. While Stempel was in the midst of his winning streak, both of the $64,000 quiz shows were in the top-ten rated programs but Twenty One did not have the same popularity. Enright and his partner Albert Freedman were searching for a new champion to replace Stempel to boost ratings. They soon found what they were looking for in Charles Van Doren. Van Doren was an English teacher at Columbia University when a friend suggested he try out for a quiz show. Van Doren decided to try out for the quiz show Tic-Tac-Dough. Enright, who produced both Tic-Tac-Dough and Twenty One, saw Van Doren's tryout and was familiar with his prestigious family background that included multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and highly respected professors at Columbia University. As a result, Enright felt that Van Doren would be the perfect contestant to be the new face of Twenty One.
As part of their plan, the producers of Twenty One arranged the first Van Doren-Stempel face-off to end in three ties. This strategy paid off as millions of viewers tuned in the next week to watch. After achieving winnings of $69,500, Stempel's scripted loss to the more popular Van Doren occurred on December 5, 1956. One of the questions Stempel answered incorrectly involved the winner of the 1955 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. (The correct answer was Marty, one of Stempel's favorite movies; as instructed by Enright, Stempel gave the incorrect answer On the Waterfront, winner of Best Motion Picture the previous year). Although the manipulation of the contestants on Twenty One helped the producers maintain viewer interest and ratings, the producers had not anticipated the extent of Stempel's resentment at being required to lose the contest against Van Doren. After his preordained loss, Stempel spoke out against the operation, claiming that he deliberately lost the match against Van Doren on orders from Enright.
Initially Stempel was dismissed as a sore loser, due in part to the fact that there was no solid reason to question the reputations of the quiz shows themselves. In August 1958 the abrupt cancellation of the quiz show Dotto bolstered his credibility. Edward Hilgemeier, Jr, a stand-by contestant on Dotto in May 1958, sent an affidavit to the Federal Communications Commission claiming that while backstage, he had found a notebook containing the very answers contestant Marie Winn was delivering on stage in that episode. Although the reason for Dotto's August cancellation was never given to the press, it was worked out in the days after that the reason was the implication that the game had been fixed. The story of fixing was widely known soon after. The American public's reactions were quick and powerful when the quiz show fraud became public: between 87% and 95% knew about the scandals as measured by industry-sponsored polls.
Over the course second half of 1958, quiz shows implicated by the scandal were cancelled rapidly; and their Nielsen ratings plunged. Among them, with their cancellation dates:
- Dotto (August 16)
- The $64,000 Challenge (September 14)
- Twenty One (October 16)
- The $64,000 Question (November 9)
- Tic-Tac-Dough, primetime edition (December 29)
Late in August, New York prosecutor Joseph Stone convened a grand jury to investigate the allegations of the fixing of quiz shows. At the time of the empaneling, neither being a party to a fixed game show nor fixing a game show in the first place were crimes in their own right. Some witnesses in the grand jury acknowledged their role in a fixed show, while others denied it, directly contradicting one another. Many of the coached contestants, who had become celebrities due to their quiz show success, were so afraid of the social repercussions of admitting the fraud that they were unwilling to confess to having been coached, even to the point of perjuring themselves to avoid backlash. Show producers, who had legally rigged the games to increase ratings but did not want to implicate themselves, the show sponsors, or the networks they worked for in doing so, categorically denied the allegations. After the nine month grand jury no indictments were handed down, and the judge sealed the grand jury report in Summer 1959.
The 86th United States Congress, by then in its first session, quickly saw the political opportunity the scandals offered; in October 1959, the House Committee on Legislative Oversight, under Representative Oren Harris's chairmanship, began to hold hearings investigating the scandal. Stempel, Snodgrass and Hilgemeier all testified. Van Doren, initially reluctant, finally agreed to testify also.
The gravity of the scandal was confirmed on November 2 when Van Doren said to the Committee in a nationally-televised session that "I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. 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."
Law and politics
The entire matter was called "a terrible thing to do to the American people" by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The rapid growth of television as a new technology in the 1950s occurred at such a rate that laws and prohibitions could not keep up. This medium was so new that people recognized neither its dangers nor its potential for manipulation. All of the regulations regarding television at that time were defined under The Federal Communications Act of 1934, which dealt with the advertising, fair competition, and labeling of broadcast stations. The Act and regulations written by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were indefinite in regards to fixed television programs. Due to the fact that there were no specific laws regarding the fraudulent behavior in the quiz shows, it is debatable whether the producers or contestants alike did anything wrong. Instead, it could be inferred that the medium was ill-used.
After concluding the Harris Commission investigation, Congress passed a law prohibiting the fixing of quiz shows (and any other form of contest). These public hearings triggered amendments passed to the Communications Act in 1960. Therefore, the bill that President Eisenhower signed into law on September 13, 1960, was a fairly mild improvement to the broadcast industry. It allowed the FCC to require license renewals of less than the legally required three years if the agency believes it would be in the public interest, prohibited gifts to FCC members, and declared illegal any contest or game with intent to deceive the audience. However, at the time, while the actions may have been disreputable, they were not illegal. As a result, no one went to prison for rigging game shows. The individuals who were prosecuted were charged because of attempts to cover up their actions, either by obstruction of justice or perjury.
Many quiz show contestants' reputations were ruined, including:
- Charles Van Doren, who had become a regular on NBC's The Today Show, lost his job in the television industry. He was also forced to resign his professorship at Columbia University. Van Doren took a job as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica earning about 20% of what he had been paid on The Today Show, and continued working as an editor and writer until his retirement in 1982.
- He refused requests for interviews for more than three decades and chose not to participate in the production of The Quiz Show Scandal, a 1992 one-hour documentary aired in the United States on PBS. He later turned down an offer of $100,000 to act as a consultant on the 1994 Robert Redford-directed feature film Quiz Show after discussing the matter with his family members who were, with the exception of his son John, against his participation.
- In 2008, Van Doren broke his silence, describing his quiz show experience in an essay-length memoir published in The New Yorker.
- Marie Winn, whose notebook triggered Dotto's exposure and demise, eventually became a journalist whose books include The Plug-In Drug, a scathing critique on television's influence over children.
Hosts and producers
In September 1958, a New York grand jury called producers who had coached contestants to appear in testimony. It was later estimated by a prosecutor on the case that of the 150 sworn witnesses before the panel, only 50 told the truth. Some producers included Jack Barry, Dan Enright and Frank Cooper.
Barry and Enright's reputations suffered the most from the scandals as the result of the rigging of Twenty One. Barry was effectively blackballed from national television until 1969. Enright went to Canada to continue working in television, and was unable to get a job in American television until 1975.
Although he went through a difficult five-year period (according to an interview with TV Guide before his death in 1984), Barry moved to Los Angeles, eventually finding work on local television. He would later admit in an article in TV Guide that, in order to determine if he still had a bad reputation (because of the requirement to have a license with the FCC), he raised money to buy a Redondo Beach radio station. Barry returned to hosting with The Generation Gap in 1969 and had success with The Joker's Wild, which premiered in 1972. Barry and Enright resumed their partnership full-time in 1976. Their production of game shows, notably the syndicated Tic-Tac-Dough (which Barry did not host) and Joker (which he did) in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in millions of dollars in revenue and, more importantly for both, forgiveness from the public for their involvement in the scandals.
Indeed, Barry and Enright were able to sponsor the teen-sex comedy film Private Lessons, based on Dan Greenberg's novel Philly and starring Eric Brown alongside Sylvia Kristel and Howard Hesseman, using revenue from their renewed success.
Other producers met the same fate as Barry and Enright, but were unable to redeem themselves afterwards. One of the more notable is Frank Cooper, whose Dotto ended up being his longest-running and most popular game.
Hosts such as Jack Narz and Hal March continued to work on television after the scandals. March died in January 1970 from lung cancer. Narz, who passed a lie-detector test at the time of the Dotto affair, had an extensive career as a game show host after the incident (as did his brother Tom Kennedy), retiring in 1982; he died in October 2008 after suffering two massive strokes. Sonny Fox, the original host of The $64,000 Challenge, left that show long before it could become tainted and became a popular children's host in the northeast, remembered best as the suave, genial host of the Sunday morning learn-and-laugh marathon Wonderama. Fox's replacement, Ralph Story, went on to become a newscaster for KNXT-TV/KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.
The quiz show scandals exhibited the necessity for an even stronger network control over programming and production. Quiz show scandals also justified and accelerated the growth of the networks' power over television advertisers concerning licensing, scheduling and sponsorship of programs. The networks claimed to be ignorant and victims of the quiz show scandals. The NBC president at the time stated, "NBC was just as much a victim of the quiz show frauds as was the public."
Quiz shows virtually disappeared from prime time American television for decades. Those that continued to air had substantially reduced prizes, and many shows adopted limits on the number of games a player could win (usually five). Quiz shows became game shows, shifting focus from knowledge to puzzles and word games. NBC's comedy/game show Jackpot Bowling and ABC's more serious Make That Spare! were the only big-money game shows still on television after the fallout; as bowling is not a game that can easily be rigged for television, those shows continued to air into the early 1960s. A quiz for big money would not return until ABC premiered 100 Grand in 1963; it went off the air after three weeks.
It would not be until the late 1960s that five-figure prizes would again be offered on American television, and not until the late 1970s that six-figure prizes could be won.
The demise of the big-money quiz shows also gave rise to television's newest phenomenon: westerns.
The disappearance of quiz shows, many of which were (apparent) demonstrations of highbrow intelligence, and their replacement by dumbed-down game shows may have been one of many factors in the end of the Golden Age of Television; by 1960, numerous television critics were lamenting the rise of a vast wasteland of lowbrow television.
Rigging in other countries
In 1958, ITV pulled its version of Twenty One almost immediately after contestant Stanley Armstrong claimed that he had been given "definite leads" to the answers. In 1960, this resulted in the Independent Television Authority's placement of a permanent winnings cap for ITV game shows of £1,000, which the Independent Broadcasting Authority increased to £6,000 in 1981 and £6,400 when the British version of The $64,000 Question premiered in 1990. The winnings cap was permanently eliminated by the Independent Television Commission in 1993.
For many decades, British game shows earned a reputation for being cheap, low-budget affairs that focused more on entertainment than actual game play and prizes, in large part because of the restrictions put on game shows following the scandal. In addition to prize limits, games of chance were also largely forbidden, meaning that a number of American game shows could not be faithfully reproduced "across the pond." The lifting of these limits initially allowed more American shows to be adapted into British versions, and within a few years, the rise of game shows with much higher prize limits would originate largely in the UK and make its way to the U.S. in the late 1990s.
- 2007 British television phone-in scandal
- American game show winnings records
- College Bowl
- Martin Flood
- Charles Ingram
- Jay Jackson
- Michael Larson
- Slumdog Millionaire
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- Enacted in the 1960 amendments to the Communications Act of 1934. See 47 U.S.C. §509 and associated legislative history.
- Van Doren, Charles, "All the Answers : The quiz-show scandals—and the aftermath", The New Yorker, July 28, 2008
- Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics, William Boddy, University of Illinois Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-252-06299-5
- Sams, David R.; Robert L. Shook (1987). Wheel of Fortune. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-90833-4.
- Stone, Joseph; Tim Yohn (1992). Prime Time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s TV Quiz Scandal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-1753-2.
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