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Thursday, August 16, 2012

That's entertainment: Quiz show scandal

Despite the fact that the average viewer spends several hours a day staring at the TV screen, he knows reality shows aren't real and that a good deal of what he sees on the news is spun. For many people born in the latter part of the 20th century, it might be difficult to imagine a simpler time when television was still a new medium, when TV personalities had as much credibility as ministers and when the entire country was scandalized to find out it had been hoodwinked...but that was exactly what happened in the mid-1950s.

The scandal had its roots in a show called The $64,000 Question, which made its live television debut on June 7, 1955. Week after week, the viewing audience would sit glued to the set as the announcer said, "The $64,000 Question...And now, the star of our show, where knowledge is king and the reward king-size, Hal March!"

The program was sponsored by Revlon, and though Charles Revson denied any part in rigging the show's outcome, many show employees later testified that he pressured the producer to get rid of contestants he did not like. Thus, the coaching of participants began. According to a film entitled The Quiz Show Scandal, which aired on PBS:

All the big winners became instant celebrities and household names. For the first time, America's heroes were intellectuals or experts--jockey Billy Pearson on art, Marine Captain [Richard] McCutcheon on cooking--every subject from the Bible to baseball. Not only had the contestants become rich overnight, but they were also treated to a whirlwind of publicity tours, awards, endorsements and meetings with dignitaries.

Other game shows followed suit and had tremendous success, including Twenty-One, The $64,000 Challenge, Tic-Tac-DoughThe Big Surprise and Dotto. At one time, there were 22 game shows being aired across the country, but it was Twenty-One that would take the next giant step in quiz show rigging, casting the contestants like characters and making them complicit in the deception.

The scheme began to unravel when Twenty-One brought Herbert Stempel onto the show. Producers knew that the audience would react negatively to Stempel's personality. They counted on viewers to tune in every week, hoping his opponent would win. They instructed Stempel to get an unflattering haircut and wear an ill-fitting suit, making him an even less sympathetic character. After six weeks, Stempel had run his winnings up to $69,500. At that time, the producer called him in to tell him that he had to sign a paper agreeing to accept less money and denying receiving coaching if he wanted to stay on the show. He reluctantly signed and met his next opponent, Charles Van Doren.

Van Doren's father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, his mother was a celebrated novelist, his uncle a respected American historian. He was handsome, likeable and had a good sense of humor...everything Herb Stempel was not. Week after week, Van Doren's popularity increased, and so did Stempel's resentment. When Stempel was eventually told to take a dive, he asked that he be allowed to continue the contest fairly, but the producer insisted that it was time for him to leave the show.

After intentionally missing a question he could easily answer, he was leaving the stage and overheard one technician tell another, "At least, we finally have a clean-cut intellectual on this program, not a freak with a sponge memory." The remark was so hurtful to Stempel, and he was so summarily dismissed when he asked for a job he had been led to expect, that he eventually made a decision to contact journalist Jack O'Brian and expose the producers of Twenty-One. A grand jury was convened. According to the PBS film:

Not only did some of the producers lie to the grand jury, but they also had urged contestants to perjure themselves. In lower Manhattan, the grand jury was convened for nine months and heard over 150 witnesses. A majority of them, about 100 contestants, lied under oath. As a lone voice Herb Stempel continued telling the truth to anyone who would listen, but it was Stempel's word against everyone else. There was still no corroborating evidence.

Game shows went back to their old practices and made more money than ever, until a standby contestant on Dotto uncovered hard evidence that a returning champion had been given answers, and again the press was notified. Congress called for an investigation and the truth came out, according to The Quiz Show Scandal:

Eventually, an anguished Charles Van Doren, one producer and 17 other contestants were formally charged, arrested and convicted of lying under oath to the New York grand jury. All pleaded guilty. All received suspended sentences. None served time in jail. The District Attorney estimated that at least 100 others who testified with Van Doren--two-thirds of all those who faced the grand jury--had perjured themselves.

The television quiz show scandal had wide-ranging consequences. Quiz producers were unofficially blacklisted for years and forced out of television. Many contestants, in disgrace, hid from their past. Networks took control of programs away from the sponsors and federal regulations were enacted against broadcast fraud. The scandal left us feeling betrayed. Television had entered tens of millions of homes and lives in an era filled with trust, and the violation of that trust changed our view of a new medium in an age we still like to think of as innocent.

The scandal was the subject of the 1994 film entitled Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and starring John Turturro as Herb Stemple and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren.

From and

Hal March on The $64,000 Question
Van Doren faces Stempel on Twenty-One
Charles Van Doven on the cover of Time magazine - sparkyncody


  1. Dana,
    I LOVE reading your blog! Always so interesting! I don't remember watching any of the quiz shows Dad took control of the TV when he got home and many nights it was OFF! We left the TV day with The Mickey Mouse Club!

    1. My dad was very much in charge of the TV too, and I vividly remember everything stopping at our house when the "Monday Night Fights" came on. I also remember that we watched The $64,000 Question, but I don't recall ever watching Twenty-One. I was only 11 when the scandal hit the front pages, but I was aware that it was serious, and it was compounded by the payola scandal that hit at the same time in the radio industry, when disk jockeys were exposed for taking money for playing songs.

  2. My things have changed, not only is everything fabricated on television, everyone watching knows they're watching fabricated material and goes along with it; They don't care that they're being lied to! I didn't see Quiz Show, but it looks interesting.