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. [1]

Game show Type of television or radio program where contestants compete for prizes

A game show is a type of radio, television, or stage show in which contestants, individually or as teams, play a game which involves answering questions or solving puzzles, usually for money or prizes. Alternatively, a gameshow can be a demonstrative program about a game [while usually retaining the spirit of an awards ceremony]. In the former, contestants may be invited from a pool of public applicants. Game shows often reward players with prizes such as cash, trips and goods and services provided by the show's sponsor prize suppliers.



In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Federal Communications Commission v. American Broadcasting Co., Inc. 347 U.S. 284, [2] 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. [1] [3] 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. 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. [4]

Supreme Court of the United States Highest court in the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. Established pursuant to Article III of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, it has original jurisdiction over a narrow range of cases, including suits between two or more states and those involving ambassadors. It also has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal court and state court cases that involve a point of federal constitutional or statutory law. The Court has the power of judicial review, the ability to invalidate a statute for violating a provision of the Constitution or an executive act for being unlawful. However, it may act only within the context of a case in an area of law over which it has jurisdiction. The court may decide cases having political overtones, but it has ruled that it does not have power to decide nonjusticiable political questions. Each year it agrees to hear about one hundred to one hundred fifty of the more than seven thousand cases that it is asked to review.

The $64,000 Question was an American game show broadcast from 1955 to 1958, which became embroiled in the 1950s quiz show scandals. Contestants answered general knowledge questions, earning money which doubled as the questions became more difficult. The final question had a top prize of $64,000, hence the "$64,000 Question" in the show's title.

Television Telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images

Television (TV), sometimes shortened to tele or telly, is a telecommunication medium used for transmitting moving images in monochrome, or in color, and in two or three dimensions and sound. The term can refer to a television set, a television program, or the medium of television transmission. Television is a mass medium for advertising, entertainment and news.

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. [5] No indictments were handed down, and the findings of the grand jury were sealed by judge's order. [6] A formal congressional subcommittee investigation began in summer 1959. [6] Enright was revealed to have rigged Twenty-One; Van Doren also eventually came forth with revelations about how he was persuaded to accept specific answers during his time on the show. [7] These elements of the scandal were portrayed in the 1994 movie Quiz Show. As a result, many contestants' reputations were tarnished.

Dotto is an American television game show that was a combination of a general knowledge quiz and the children's game connect the dots. Jack Narz served as the program's host, with Colgate-Palmolive as its presenting sponsor. Dotto rose to become the highest rated daytime program in television history, as of 1958.

A grand jury is a jury – a group of citizens – empowered by law to conduct legal proceedings and investigate potential criminal conduct, and determine whether criminal charges should be brought. A grand jury may subpoena physical evidence or a person to testify. A grand jury is separate from the courts, which do not preside over its functioning.

<i>Quiz Show</i> (film) 1994 film by Robert Redford

Quiz Show is a 1994 American historical film produced and directed by Robert Redford, and written by Paul Attanasio, based on Richard N. Goodwin's memoir Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties. It stars John Turturro, Rob Morrow and Ralph Fiennes, with Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria and Christopher McDonald appearing in supporting roles.

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. [7] 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.

United States Congress Legislature of the United States

The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the Federal Government of the United States. The legislature consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Communications Act of 1934 US 1934 Act of Congress

The Communications Act of 1934 is a United States federal law signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 19, 1934 and codified as Chapter 5 of Title 47 of the United States Code, 47 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The Act replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It also transferred regulation of interstate telephone services from the Interstate Commerce Commission to the FCC.

Public service service which is provided by government to people living within its jurisdiction

Public service is a service which is provided by government to people living within its jurisdiction, either directly or by financing provision of services. The term is associated with a social consensus that certain services should be available to all, regardless of income, physical ability or mental acuity. Even where public services are neither publicly provided nor publicly financed, for social and political reasons they are usually subject to regulation going beyond that applying to most economic sectors. Public policy when made in the public's interest and motivations can provide public services. Public service is also a course that can be studied at a college or university. Examples of public services are the fire brigade, police, air force, and paramedics.


Stempel was a contestant on Twenty-One who was coached by 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 Van Doren, who 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. [8] As part of their plan, the producers of Twenty-One arranged the first Van Doren-Stempel face-off to end in three ties. As prize money per-point in the margin of victory increased by $500 after each tie game, the next game would offer $2,000 for every point the winner led by; this was duly-noted in promotion of the following week's episode, which helped to attract significant viewership. 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).

Columbia University Private Ivy League research university in New York City

Columbia University is a private Ivy League research university in Upper Manhattan, New York City. Established in 1754, Columbia is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It is one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence, seven of which belong to the Ivy League. It has been ranked by numerous major education publications as among the top ten universities in the world.

<i>Tic-Tac-Dough</i> television series

Tic-Tac-Dough is an American television game show based on the paper-and-pencil game of tic-tac-toe. Contestants answer questions in various categories to put up their respective symbol, X or O, on the board. Three versions were produced: the initial 1956–59 run on NBC, a 1978–86 run initially on CBS and then in syndication, and a syndicated run in 1990. The show was produced by Barry & Enright Productions.

Pulitzer Prize U.S. award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature, and musical composition

The Pulitzer Prize is an award for achievements in newspaper, magazine and online journalism, literature, and musical composition in the United States. It was established in 1917 by provisions in the will of American (Hungarian-born) Joseph Pulitzer who had made his fortune as a newspaper publisher, and is administered by Columbia University in New York City. Prizes are awarded yearly in twenty-one categories. In twenty of the categories, each winner receives a certificate and a US$15,000 cash award. The winner in the public service category of the journalism competition is awarded a gold medal.

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. [9] After his preordained loss, Stempel spoke out against the operation, claiming that he deliberately lost the match against Van Doren on orders from Enright.[ citation needed ] 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 when Edward Hilgemeier, Jr, a stand-by contestant three months earlier, 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. [10] 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. [11] Over the course of the second half of 1958, quiz shows implicated by the scandal were canceled rapidly. Among them, with their cancellation dates, were the following shows:

Marie Winn is a journalist, author, and bird-watcher. She is particularly well known for her books and articles on the wildlife of Central Park and her Wall Street Journal Leisure & Arts column. She appears in Frederic Lilien's documentary film, The Legend of Pale Male (2010). She is also known for writing The Plug-In Drug (1977), which explored the impact of television on young children, and for her involvement in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s.

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. [5] The 86th United States Congress, by then in its first session, soon responded; in October 1959, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, under Representative Oren Harris' chairmanship, began to hold hearings investigating the scandal. Stempel, Snodgrass and Hilgemeier all testified. [12] Van Doren, initially reluctant, finally agreed to testify also. The gravity of the scandal was confirmed on November 2, 1959 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." [13]


Law and politics

The entire matter was called "a terrible thing to do to the American people" by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. [14] 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. [9] After concluding the Harris Commission investigation, Congress passed a law prohibiting the fixing of quiz shows (and any other form of contest). [15] 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. [9] 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.[ citation needed ]


Many quiz show contestants' reputations were ruined, including:

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. [11] Some producers included Barry, 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 blacklisted 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 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 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." [17] 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, the number of programs that could make up one broadcast week). 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 (and Make That Spare! was sanctioned by the Professional Bowlers Association), those shows continued to air into the early 1960s. The Price Is Right and CBS's slate of low-budget panel games were largely unaffected by the collapse; those shows would continue to air on network television into the mid-1960s, with The Price Is Right still offering lavish prizes throughout its prime time run.

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; seven-figure prizes were sparingly awarded on The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime (which aired between 1986 and 1987), but would not be fully introduced until 1999 when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire premiered, setting off an era of million-dollar game shows including Greed (which premiered in November 1999), The Weakest Link (which premiered in April 2001) and Deal or No Deal (which premiered in February 2006 and revived in December 2018 after a nine-year hiatus). ABC limited a contestant's winnings to $30,000 (although contestants were retired after winning $20,000) before permanently removing the limit in 1984. CBS initially limited a contestant's winnings to $25,000 beginning in 1972; contestants were allowed to keep up to $10,000 (and later $25,000) in excess of the limit, which would increase to $50,000 in 1984, $75,000 in 1986 and $125,000 in 1990 (with no money being allowed above the limit) before being permanently eliminated in 2006. NBC never utilized a winnings limit on any of its game shows but kept cash and prizes within a reasonable range that created a de facto limit (for instance until its 1989 NBC cancellation, Wheel of Fortune forced contestants to cash in their winnings per round on presented merchandise or apply it to a gift certificate or build their winnings for a later round at the risk of losing those winnings on penalties such as a "Bankrupt" spin). Some syndicated game shows also used a winnings limit (for example, contestants on Jeopardy! were not allowed to win more than a specific amount of money in regular play between 1984 and 2003).

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

United Kingdom

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 (though the British version of The $64,000 Question did receive special permission to offer £6,400 when it 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 in the U.K. 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 — in particular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — would originate largely in the U.K. and make its way to the U.S. in the late 1990s.

See also

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Charles Van Doren American academic

Charles Lincoln Van Doren was an American writer and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. In 1959 he testified before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty-One. Terminated by NBC, he joined Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., in 1959, becoming a vice-president and writing and editing many books before retiring in 1982.

Herbert Milton Stempel is an American television game show contestant and subsequent whistleblower on the fraudulent nature of the industry, in what became known as the quiz show scandals. His rigged six-week appearance as a winning contestant on the 1950s show Twenty-One ended in an equally rigged defeat by Columbia University teacher and literary scion Charles Van Doren.

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  11. 1 2 Boddy, W.(1990). Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  12. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (1960). Investigation of television quiz shows. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, Eighty-sixth Congress, first session. Washington : U.S. Govt. Print. Off. p. III.
  13. United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (1960). Investigation of television quiz shows. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, Eighty-sixth Congress, first session. Washington : U.S. Govt. Print. Off. p. 624.
  14. Isserman, Maurice (2004). America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. Oxford University Press. p. 371.
  15. Enacted in the 1960 amendments to the Communications Act of 1934. See 47 U.S.C. §509 and associated legislative history.
  16. 1 2 Van Doren, Charles, "All the Answers : The quiz-show scandals—and the aftermath", The New Yorker, July 28, 2008
  17. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics, William Boddy, University of Illinois Press, 1992, ISBN   978-0-252-06299-5

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