An Examination of Television Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s
© 1997, Katie Venanzi
One of the greatest captivators of public interest in the 1950s was the
emerging quiz game show on television. The public, naively trustful, fell in
love with television game shows. People found them to be new, exciting, and
similar to the captivating radio quiz shows so popular before television's
advent. Some game shows were developed primarily for laughs, while others were
played for prizes or large sums of money. These game shows were so popular that
at their peak, twenty-two of them were concurrently on the air. They varied in
format from the basic question and answer type to the naming of popular musical
tunes. Public familiarity with the general structure of the quizzes, coupled
with the strikingly high stakes, precipitated extreme interest in these shows,
and led to the unbelievable popularity of successful returning contestants
(Anderson, 9). Virtually everyone with a television set in their home tuned in
weekly to their favorite game shows in the interest of seeing the contestants,
with whom they identified more and more as the weeks went by, succeed in the
quiz games. The popularity of quiz games was staggering. In August of 1955
approximately 32 million television sets and 47,560,000 viewers, almost one
third of the nation, tuned in to see The $64,000 Question (Anderson,
By 1958, no one was laughing anymore. Grabbing the attention of the public
even more than the shows themselves were the scandals which emerged around
them. The public's naive trust had evolved into suspicious cynicism because it
had learned that many of the shows were rigged. As can be imagined, this caused
great disgust among viewers. The supposed winners, for whom Americans had
rooted and had become dedicated weekly fans, had in fact been supplied with
answers in advance. These scandals prompted Congressional hearings and
investigations which further shocked the public. Even though there were no laws
prohibiting the fixing of game shows, both the networks and their sponsors
acknowledged the public's scorn and kept the shows off of the air to allow
these turbulent waters to settle.
One of the most prominent themes of the 1950s was the notion of attaining and
living the American dream. All Americans wanted to live a better life than had
their parents, who had suffered through the depression. With the surge in the
number of Americans returning from war, and as a result of their readiness to
quickly get on with their lives, Americans were seeking opportunities which
would enable them to pursue their dreams of holding a well-paying job, getting
married, buying homes and other material goods, and having children. With this
movement came the emergence of an affluent middle class racing to accumulate
material things. The introduction of quiz game shows on television reflected
the promise of hope, excitement, and potential sought by middle class America.
With the answer to one question, an ordinary American could become wealthy
beyond his or her wildest dreams (Halberstam, 643).
In addition, Americans were easily influenced by television because it offered
them many new things. By watching advertisements and television programs, they
were led to form various impressions of products and programs themselves, and
were presented with a picture of the model American life. Knowing what was
presented to the viewers by game shows and their producers, television
companies and producers took advantage of all of television's effects to lead
Americans to form certain images and impressions. These impressions were often
misleading and served in the end to only promote the entertainment satisfaction
upon which programs and networks, as well as the whole business of television,
The most publicized and notorious scandals surrounded shows including Twenty-One,
The $64,000 Question (the first big-money television quiz show), and
Dotto, the highest-rated daytime quiz game show. All of these shows were
eventually driven off the air. Below follows a brief account of one particular
example of the deceitful events behind one of the scandals, the case of Twenty-One.
Twenty-One was conceived of and created by Dan Enright, an NBC
producer. Much like The $64,000 Question, the game was played by two
contestants who competed against one another from dual soundproof isolation
booths. The object was to answer questions which were valued in difficulty and
points from one to eleven points and to be the first contestant to reach 21
points. The general category was stated by the emcee, and the contestant chose
the number of points he wanted to attempt.
At its start, Twenty-One had many attractive elements which were to
make it a popular quiz show. First of all, the prize money was appealing.
Winners of the game had the option of taking their prize money and retiring
from competition or reappearing on the show again until they were defeated. One
special catch was that there was no limit on the amount of cash one could win.
Secondly, the nature of the game and the variety of questions asked interested
viewers. When the show's debut failed to attract much audience attention, the
show's sponsor, Geritol, made an ultimatum to the producers of Twenty-One
stating that the show's producers had the license to take any measures to make
it a success. The producers found a solution to their problems, in a common,
average-Joe-type man named Herb Stempel, to whom they could supply answers and
create a figure who would be popular among the viewers. He was the
picture-perfect working class American with whom all Americans watching could
identify. In addition, he had a photographic memory and was naturally
intelligent. The producers figured that by making this 'man next door' underdog
into a champion and by having him return weekly, viewers would become attached
to him and would be inclined to keep tuning in to follow his progress.
At first, the producers of Twenty-One liked Herb Stempel's image as
an average man. The producers even worked to make him fit into their idealized
image even further. They told him how to have his hair cut, what types of
clothes to wear, how to address the emcee, and how to act when on the show when
answering questions by making certain gestures to add dramatic effect such as
dabbing his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. The producers made Stempel a star
by prepping him with questions that would appear on the air. Even though
Stempel had become a national celebrity figure, with his unattractive,
non-telegenic appearance, the show's sponsor, Geritol, came to the conclusion
that he was presenting the wrong image. The producers, at the feet of the
sponsor (who was bringing in the show's spoils) began a search for a more
amiable contestant to make into a champion and to boost the show's and the
network's ratings. They found this new image in the attractive, charismatic
college professor from Columbia University, Charles Van Doren. After setting up
a standoff between Stempel and Van Doren which ended in several ties before
coming to an end with Stempel's defeat, the producers thought that they had
played their cards well for the moment as ratings soared. But, upon being
betrayed by the show by being forced to take a dive, Stempel exposed the
engineering behind the scenes, leading to the scandal which was to bring down
Similar acts occurred behind the scenes in many other game shows. In May 1958,
a contestant from Dotto was to provide the first hard evidence of
rigging and scandal in quiz games (Stone and Yohn, 15-16). Reports from
Congressional investigations would later reveal that other contestants
appearing on shows including Twenty-One and Dotto had
participated in similar fraudulent acts.
The quiz show scandals were driven by several major factors, all of which
allowed dishonest behavior to be acceptable behind the scenes to both the
producers of the shows as well as to the participating and willing contestants.
The first motive responsible for fueling the scandals was the drive for money
and financial gain. This can be understood by examining the business of
television. The television industry involved partnerships between networks and
advertising agencies, the latter groups representing sponsors or advertisers.
Advertisers were responsible for paying the price of production for a program,
as well as a fee for network airtime. The price that a network charged for
airtime varied with each half hour time slot and was determined by the
popularity of the show as evidenced by television ratings. A fee usually
comprised of 15% of the network fee was also paid to the advertising agency for
negotiating with the network and for the production of commercials (Anderson,
6). Thus, the success of the network was dependent upon the success of the
shows it broadcast, which in effect was reflected in the success of the
advertiser in the sales of its advertised product. In effect, advertisers had
command over the shows they broadcast. The larger the audiences, the more
successful the shows, with more viewers being exposed to the sponsor thus
buying the advertised products. This boosted the advertisers' profits as well
as the networks' profits. Thus, strikingly high popularity ratings were major
underlying interests of the television producers. In many cases, producers went
to immoral extremes in arranging the outcome of quiz shows. They hoped and
believed that this would increase ratings and in turn, the sponsors' profits
and interest in remaining with the show (Anderson, 175). In addition, they also
did this for the sake of network profits and for their personal profits in
effect their job security. In the end, this ultimate drive for money and
financial gain won out over the preservation of integrity.
The second factor contributing to scandalous and fraudulent acts in television
quiz game shows was the willingness of the contestants to "play along."
Although the contestants sometimes did not readily agree to participate in
immoral acts associated with the shows, (as some contestants were manipulated
unknowingly at first by producers), most contestants participated for several
reasons: monetary lure linked with the American success ethic (similar to the
quest for the American Dream), and fame's altruism.
The third contributing factor was the lack of existing regulations prohibiting
the fixing of game shows on television and insuring truth on the television
screen. The rapid growth of television as a new technology in the 1950s
occurred at a pace to which laws and prohibitions could not keep up (DeLong,
223). This medium was so new that no one knew either the limits of its dangers
nor its potentials for manipulations. The same is true of the internet's
newness and unfamiliarity. As with television fifty years ago, the type of
regulations necessary are only discovered as the potentials of the internet
grow and as problems and abuses of the communication network arise.
Upon hearing of the shows' immoral acts, the public was shocked. They felt
their trust had been violated. The faith and trust they had put into the
shows', with soundproof isolation booths, safes containing the questions, and
the manners of contestants struggling to think of answers, was destroyed. Some
shows had even gone to the extent of twirling these isolation booths around
onstage to show that there were no hidden wires or other evidence of foul play
before the start of each match. The purportedly "official" nature of these quiz
shows -- including the specific care taken in the carrying out the games'
procedures -- had turned out to be contrived for the purpose of dramatic
effect. Everything was fake, including the contestants. The contestants had
been told to grimace, to look sweaty, to wring their clammy hands, and to pat
their brows. Viewers, once informed, could not believe it. They had tuned into
the quiz shows for many reasons, including the fact that, unlike a movie or a
dramatic show, they supposedly represented real life. They were presumably
unrehearsed and spontaneous. The apparent lack of contrivance which had won so
many viewers over quickly became the reason behind their feelings of betrayal.
They just could not believe that what looked so real on television could be so
deceitfully fabricated (Marley, 185).
General reactions of the public were published in opinion polls in popular
magazines such as Time and Life. One of these survey-type
polls examined the public's opinion of the current investigations of the quiz
shows. The results showed that 42.8% favored the investigation, 30.6% did not,
17.4% had no opinion, and 9.2% gave evasive answers. Another poll asked the
question, "Even though contestants on quiz shows are helped, have you found the
quiz programs educational and entertainment enough to want to see them on
television again?" The responses showed that 39.9% said yes while the remaining
60.1% said no. A third poll revealed more about the public's reaction. The
reader was asked to support whichever of the following statements that best
described how he felt about the scandals (the responses follow each statement),
"These practices are very wrong and should be stopped immediately, but you
can't condemn all of television because of them" (65%); "No one can really be
in favor of this kind of thing, but there's nothing very wrong about it either"
(7%); "What happened is a normal part of show business and is perfectly all
right" (7%) (Anderson, 155-156). In addition to published public reactions,
church officials felt that the quiz revelations had lowered the national morale
in the face of all of the uproar. Letters, editorials, and cartoons throughout
the nation's journals and papers proliferated criticizing the scandals and
denounced television in general (Anderson, 149). Although viewers were very
upset over the scandals, apathy was widespread in the public. This indifference
could have been attributed to its feeling that individuals could not do
anything to change television and what was happening with the deceitful acts.
As was their being manipulated, this also was out of their control. The public,
in effect, just changed the channel, and formed a habit into tuning into
something else (Anderson, 182).
Before the television scandals of the 1950s, there were no laws on the books
which specifically regulated television quiz game shows. As was the case with
all of television's regulatory laws at the time, The Federal Communications Act
of 1934, which dealt with the advertising, fair competition, and labeling of
broadcast stations, was indefinite with regard to fixed television programs
(Anderson, 138). There were several laws applying to television fraud in
general, one of which was Title 18, U.S. Code -- Crime and Criminal Procedure.
This law applying to fraud by wire, radio, or television stated that, "Whoever,
having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for
obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses,
representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of
wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any
writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such
scheme or artifice, shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more
than 5 years, or both," (Anderson, 145).
The application of this law to the television scandals was debated by many. As
was the case with several acts, the law was broad enough to include a wide
variety of interpretations as to whether the quiz show producers had indeed
committed any crime (Anderson, 138). As with other non-specific laws
prohibiting fraudulent behavior, legally, there was no fraud in the quiz show
scandals because most statutory frauds required a victim, someone who was
injured usually financially, and lawyers could find no one who fit. Defenders
of the television industry held that fraud was not committed in these scandals
because there were no victims and thus, stated that the Federal Communications
Commission had no power to license networks and that most quiz shows were
independent productions devoid of network control anyway (Anderson, 146). The
Wheeler Act of 1938, in which the Federal Trade Commission act was amended by
adding "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" to the realm of the regulation
of the FTC, did not allow the commission any control over the airwaves anything
but commercial advertising, thus also failing to apply to the television quiz
show scandals (Anderson, 147).
As a result of these fraudulent and deceptive behaviors related to the quiz
show scandals in the 1950s, no specific laws making the broadcast of fraudulent
quiz shows a crime were swiftly put to order. Instead, the FTC and other
regulatory agencies supported self-regulation of these shows by their networks.
By 1960, President Eisenhower signed a bill which mildly reformed the broadcast
industry. It allowed the FCC to require specific license renewals of networks
and declared illegal any contest or game with intent to deceive the audience
Television has become a big part of American life over its brief existence.
Since it witnessed the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, television has
necessarily become a changed medium. At its inception, people thought that
television was inherently trustworthy and factual. The quiz shows gave the
public a radically different view of television. They showed that television
was fictional, engineered, and manipulative, and not innocent or natural. The
issues born and expounded upon during this time of scandal changed the
television industry in causing it to move away from being factual and "real
life." Instead, television has largely become fictional, with sitcoms and
dramas as the norm (DeLong, 254). Since these scandals surrounding its
technological birth, it is still continually manipulated to appeal to its
viewers in many ways. Television today fits into society as a fictional world
-- although untrue and misleading, it nevertheless remains an important and
influencing feature in the lives of many people today.
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