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 current regulations prohibiting the rigging of game shows.[1]

The $64,000 Question became the first big-money television quiz show during the 1950s, and the most publicized quiz scandals surrounded that program in addition to Twenty One and Dotto.[2]

In 1956, the Jack Barry-hosted game show Twenty One featured a contestant, Herb Stempel, coached by producer Dan Enright to allow his opponent to win the game. The matter was brought into focus in 1958 when Enright was revealed to have rigged the show; this revelation caused networks to cancel their entire lineups of quiz shows. Charles Van Doren was another contestant on Twenty One who eventually came forth with revelations about how he was persuaded to accept specific answers during his time on the show.[3] 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.[4] 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.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Federal Communications Commission v. American Broadcasting Co., Inc. 347 U.S. 284,[5] 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.


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 Lincoln Van Doren. Charles Van Doren was an English teacher at Columbia University when a friend suggested he try out for a quiz show. Skeptical at first, Van Doren decided to try out for the quiz show Tic-Tac-Dough because of the possible money a contestant could win. 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.[6]

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. 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.[7] After achieving winnings of $69,500, Stempel's scripted loss to the more popular Van Doren occurred on 5 December 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 Picture the previous year.) 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, but in August 1958 some evidence came to light that bolstered his credibility. Ed Hilgemeyer, a contestant on Dotto, announced that he had found a notebook containing the very answers contestant Marie Winn was delivering on stage (the daytime and nighttime versions of the show were both cancelled on August 15, 1958). The final stroke, however, came from Twenty One contestant James Snodgrass, who was found to have sent registered letters to himself containing the advance answers. Such evidence was considered irrefutable. It eventually emerged that the September 12, 1956 debut of Twenty One had gone so badly that sponsor Geritol called producers Enright and Jack Barry the following day and demanded changes. Under pressure, Enright and Freedman decided to rig the show. Jack Barry, co-owner of Barry-Enright Productions and the show's host, was not involved in the actual rigging, but later helped in the cover-up.

By October 1958, the story was widely known and the quiz shows' Nielsen ratings plunged. The networks denied any knowledge and canceled the now-suspicious shows. 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.[8] Meanwhile, New York prosecutor Joseph Stone convened a grand jury to investigate the charges. Many of the coached contestants, who had become celebrities due to their quiz-show success, were so afraid of the social repercussions that they were unwilling to confess to having been coached, even to the point of perjuring themselves to avoid backlash. The judge sealed the grand jury report for unknown reasons.

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. Patty Duke, then a child actress who had competed on The $64,000 Challenge (a companion show to The $64,000 Question), testified to having been coached, as did Stempel, Snodgrass and Hilgemeyer.

It 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[edit]

The entire matter was called "a terrible thing to do to the American people" by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.[9] 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. [10]

After concluding the Harris Commission investigation, Congress passed a law prohibiting the fixing of quiz shows (and any other form of contest).[11] 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. [12] 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.

  • 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 Encyclopædia 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.[13]
In 2008, Van Doren broke his silence, describing his quiz show experience in an essay-length memoir published in The New Yorker.[13]
  • Herb Stempel, the man Van Doren defeated on Twenty One, continued working for New York City, and considered the profession of the man who beat him which was a social studies teacher in the New York school system. Stempel has also lectured occasionally at various colleges about the quiz scandals.
  • 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. The book became somewhat controversial for its author having been circumspect about her role in one of the medium's greatest scandals.

Hosts and producers[edit]

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.[8] 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."[14]

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 1970s that five-figure prizes would again be offered on American television, and not until the 1980s that six-figure prizes could be won.

Rigging in other countries[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

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. This resulted in a placement of a permanent winnings cap of £6000, which was increased to £6400 when the British version of The $64,000 Question premiered in 1990. The winnings cap was permanently eliminated in 1994.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Venanzi, Katie (1997), "An Examination of Television Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s", found at http://www.honors.umd.edu/HONR269J/projects/venanzi.html [accessed 30 November 2013].
  2. ^ Venanzi, Katie (1997), "An Examination of Television Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s", found at http://www.honors.umd.edu/HONR269J/projects/venanzi.html [accessed 30 November 2013].
  3. ^ Gross, L. S. (2013). Electronic media: An introduction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  4. ^ Gross, L. S. (2013). Electronic media: An introduction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  5. ^ "FCC V. AMERICAN BROADCASTING CO., INC., 347 U. S. 284 (1954) - US Supreme Court Cases from Justia & Oyez". Justia.us. Retrieved February 17, 2010. 
  6. ^ Anderson, Kent. Television Fraud: The History and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978. Print.
  7. ^ Anderson, K. (1978). Television fraud: The history and implications of the quiz show scandals. Westport and London: Greenwood Press.
  8. ^ a b Boddy,W.(1990).Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics.Urbana,IL: University of Illinois Press.
  9. ^ Isserman, Maurice (2004). America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. Oxford University Press. p. 371. 
  10. ^ Anderson, K. (1978). Television fraud: The history and implications of the quiz show scandals. Westport and London: Greenwood Press.
  11. ^ Enacted in the 1960 amendments to the Communications Act of 1934. See 47 U.S.C. §509 and associated legislative history.
  12. ^ Anderson, K. (1978). Television fraud: The history and implications of the quiz show scandals. Westport and London: Greenwood Press.
  13. ^ a b Van Doren, Charles, "All the Answers : The quiz-show scandals—and the aftermath", The New Yorker, July 28, 2008
  14. ^ Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics, William Boddy, University of Illinois Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-252-06299-5

Further reading[edit]

  • 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. 
  • Tedlow, Richard (1976). "Intellect on Television: The Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s". American Quarterly (American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4) 28 (4): 483–495. doi:10.2307/2712542. JSTOR 2712542. 

External sources[edit]