The Quiz Show Scandals
The temptation of advertisers and their agencies to exploit network television reached a peak in the quiz show craze of the late 1950s. Quizzers had been popular in radio a decade earlier, but TV had been reluctant to venture deeply into the genre until the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 invalidated an FCC rule that restricted giveaway programs and treated the quiz shows as a form of lottery.
The first program to emerge following this ruling was The $64,000 Question, a half-hour show that premiered in June 1955. Its concept was taken from a radio quiz show popular throughout the 1940s, Take It or Leave It (later renamed
The $64 Question), where contestants started with $1 and doubled their winnings by answering questions until reaching the top prize, "the $64 question." Television simply increased the jackpot a thousandfold. There had never been a success like this TV show: within a few weeks the CBS quizzer was the leading show on television, and it stayed there during the 1955-1956 season, falling to number four the next season and to number twenty in 1957-1958.
The program employed a seductive set featuring an eye-catching category board, a modernistic isolation booth in which competitors stood (ostensibly to prevent them from overhearing answers offered from the audience) to answer the big-money questions, plus engaging contestants, attractive women such as actress Barbara Britton for the Revlon cosmetics commercials, and a glib host in Hal March. Contestants apparently relied on their own expertise in topics as diverse as Shakespeare, boxing, opera, the Bible, and art.
Importantly, The $64,000 Question was not produced by CBS; it was packaged by an independent company that worked closely with a single sponsor who, as was customary, had considerable input into the direction of its show. CBS did little more than sell a half hour of weekly prime time to the advertising agency representing Revlon, and then televise the finished product. It is impossible to explain fully the popular appeal of
$64 000 Question. Be it the vicarious lure of sudden wealth, the challenge to answer esoteric questions, happiness at seeing other people achieving financial success, whatever in the program touched the American psyche at midcentury, this was stunning TV.
Predictably, imitations soon followed in prime time and daytime with offerings such as
Haggis Baggis, High Finance, The $64,000 Challenge, The $100,000 Big Surprise, Do You Trust Your Wife?, High-Low, Twenty-One, Tic Tac Dough, and
Dotto. By the end of the 1957-58 season there were twenty-two network quiz shows, and 18 percent of NBC's programming consisted of quizzers that filled forty-seven half-hour segments per week. Such programs were cheap to produce, and to build advertiser name recognition they allowed a sponsor to affix his name and/or logo to a wall, podium, or other stage prop, where it hung visibly throughout the entire show.
They also earned wonderful ratings, especially when a popular champion and a challenger competed for many weeks for an increasingly higher cash prize. On the NBC program Twenty-One, college professor Charles Van Doren and Vivienne Nearing battled over several months until in March 1957 Van Doren lost. That final program earned NBC a 34.7 rating/51.5 share, beating
I Love Lucy—the number one program that season—by a safe distance (26.1 rating/38.7 share). The Van Doren–Nearing showdown buried its opposition on ABC,
Life Is Worth Living, with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, which garnered a lowly 3.6 rating.
Unfortunately for many associated with such programming, these shows also were usually fixed. Martin Revson, executive vice-president of Revlon, Inc., sponsor of both
The S64,000 Question and its clone The $64,000 Challenge, made it clear at weekly meetings which contestants he personally wanted to win.' To Revson, this was legitimate criticism, not intended as direct orders; but to the producers of the shows, the critique was understood as a command to allow contestants with good viewer ratings to win, while causing unattractive competitors to lose quickly. Jack Barry, the co-producer of
Twenty-One, High-Low, and Tic Tac Dough, explained in 1984 that the motive for rigging the shows was purely commercial. "In the first few weeks we didn't resort to this practice. But after the third or fourth week, we had a couple of contestants who missed almost every question," he recalled. "It was painful. The sponsor and the advertising agency called and said, 'Don't ever let that happen again. '"
The rigging took several forms. Competitors were often told the answers or given entire scripts in advance. When ratings sagged, current champions were ordered to lose and attractive new winners replaced them; questions were tailored to the strengths of popular competitors; designated winners were also coached on how to give their answers more suspensefully. In the confusion caused by such high finance and fraud, some producers even accepted bribes from people wanting to appear on a show.
There were several big winners who performed legitimately, although questions were tailored to match their intellectual strengths. Ten year-old Robert Strom won $192,000 on
The $64,000 Question, and Teddy Nadler appeared 38 times on The $64,000 Challenge, earning a total of $252,000. But many names and careers were tarnished by a New York grand jury investigation, and by congressional hearings in 1959.
Among the biggest losers was Lewis Cowan, who developed The $64,000 Question and parlayed its success into the presidency of CBS; he was forced in 1960 to resign his network position. Charles Van Doren was a distinguished university professor and winner of $129,000 on
Twenty-One; he not only lost public trust, but NBC also relieved him of his anchor position on the
Today show when he admitted that he had participated in the fraud. Jack Barry and his co-producer, Dan Enright, were banished from network TV for more than a decade. And contestant Elfrida Von Nardorff, who won $220,500 on
Twenty-One, joined seventeen other winners in 1961-1962 in pleading guilty to committing perjury before a state grand jury more than two years earlier; they received suspended sentences.
As it affected American television, the quiz show scandal was disconcerting for the networks. NBC and CBS in particular were upset by threats of greater FCC regulation, possible antitrust action against network television, investigation of tax violations in broadcasting quiz shows, and the possibility that federal law had already been violated. To cooperate with an investigation by the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, NBC demanded notarized depositions from all its broadcast executives, demanding to know, "Did you at any time learn or know, or do you know now of the following:
Secretly giving contestants in quiz, panel, or audience participation or contest programs questions or answers or any other individual assistance to help them win (yes or no).
Giving a winning contestant in such programs less than the full prize which the program announced he won (yes or no).
Receipt by anyone connected with such a program of anything of any value from a contestant on the program (yes or no).
Charges by contestants or any other person connected with such programs, relative to any of the foregoing points (yes or no).6
The presidents of NBC and CBS did not relish having to testify publicly before the House Subcommittee. Robert W. Kintner pleaded that at NBC "We were just as much a victim of the quiz show frauds as the public." Frank Stanton told the committee of his ignorance of program irregularities until "gossip" came to his attention at CBS in late 1958. "We believe that legislation is no cure-all for these ills and that the primary responsibility lies with the broadcasting industry itself," he stated defensively,
William Paley has recalled in his memoirs that Stanton publicly accepted responsibility for CBS mistakes, and the network soon adopted practices to authenticate future programs that included creation of a Program Practices Department to ensure that the rules were followed, and insertion where appropriate of announcements such as "This program was prerecorded" and "Participants in this program were selected and interviewed in advance."
Overly cautious, Stanton went so far as to cancel Edward R. Murrow's popular
Person to Person series of live interviews. For six seasons Murrow had interviewed celebrities in their homes through a remote hookup while he remained in a CBS studio in New York City. Guests ranged from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Duke Ellington to Groucho and Harpo Marx and Marilyn Monroe. But Murrow's questions were discussed with the guests ahead of airtime, and network technicians had to plan in advance the routes they would take, laying transmission cables and moving bulky cameras around the interviewee's residence. In this period of authenticity, however, the "rehearsed" qualities of
Person to Person were no longer tolerable. The series returned in the fall, but it was no longer a live show, and it no longer was hosted by Murrow.
Stanton was taking no chances in stemming the tide of possible government intervention in the business of broadcasting. He knew, as he told a broadcast audience in December 1959, that the scandal could have onerous consequences for network television. In a direct acknowledgment of public criticism directed against what the networks had done to the public airwaves, the CBS president enumerated the areas in which his industry was vulnerable. "Millions of Americans think that TV programming can and should be improved—that there are too many Westerns and crime shows, too much violence; that the range of programs available during prime time evening hours is too limited...there is too much advertiser control; that in meeting the demands of advertisers for the largest possible audience, our programs too often appeal to the lowest common denominator of entertainment."' It was a concise summary not only of past criticism but also of public condemnation of the networks in the future.
These were unnerving times, made all the more uncertain because Congress was also investigating a payola scandal affecting prominent radio disc jockeys. Accusations of fraud peppered the broadcast industry, some critics charging that there also was fraudulent misrepresentation in many TV commercials, others (even Frank Stanton for a while) contending that laugh tracks on network situation comedies were unacceptable deceptions.
One U.S. senator even claimed that politicians were being dishonest when they appeared on television wearing makeup and relying on prompting devices. "No one who has followed political campaigns in America in recent years can help but be concerned over the tendency to substitute playacting for reality," wrote Senator Richard L. Neuberger in late 1959. "This may be all right for the theater. It is not all right when it comes to selecting individuals to govern the United States." Neuberger added, "If George Gobel and Red Skelton now have to be honest, what of programs which seek to elect a president, senator, or governor?"
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