- Game shows in the 1950s were rigged, exposing the manipulation and exploitation of contestants for ratings and sponsorship.
- The infamous Twenty-One scandal was a catalyst for a US House hearing that led to the cancellation of game shows and the downfall of Charles Van Doren.
- The scandal resulted in changes to game show standards and practices to ensure fairness and avoid losing sponsors, with lasting effects on the industry.
Reality TV and game show contestants will often stoop to extreme states of degradation in the search for fame and an all-expenses trip to Mobile, Alabama. The outrageous part isn’t that so many people play along, but that nothing has changed in sixty years. Recent shows like Squid Game and Black Mirror have captured the desperation of participants and the exploitation of that desperation well.
The onset of television in the late forties was plagued by a need for personalities. Salaries required sponsors, and without a couple of hit shows, any self-respecting network was doomed to failure. As a matter of fact, some of the “major” nationally televised networks never even made it past 1956. Adapting the game show format from radio — as well as pilfering its other big-name superstars — NBC, ABC, Du Mont (Google it), and CBS quickly used the quiz show to occupy their valuable airwaves, the true worth untapped without advertisers.
By 1956, the game show category was a favorite time-slot filler, as game shows have traditionally had a low overhead to produce compared to scripted dramas. A few short years saw the likes of must-see TV such as Twenty-One, Tic-Tac-Dough, The $64,000 Question, and a spin-off called The $64,000 Challenge, not to mention myriad imitators. Think of it like the early days of podcasts, where everybody was desperately looking to copy the model of stand-up comedians ad-libbing in their living room.
The routine was fool-proof, usually with a few ad breaks to inform the audience of the life-altering powers of Cheez Whiz as that episode’s contestants stewed in their sweltering isolation booths. It’s the oversized role of sponsors in network affairs that really defines this sordid chapter of US television history, the United States House eventually stepping in. Congressional hearings for game shows? You bet your life. Those communist hearings don’t look so shocking now, do they?
The Game Show that Sparked the 1950s Fixing Scandal
The highest power of all these shows was the advertiser. All TV shows acted essentially as a not-so-subtle advertisement for that week’s sponsor, the program itself treated more or less like a place-holder in between the live commercial reads delivered by hosts like Jack Barry, the host of Twenty-One. The intellectual-amplifying powers of Geritol were touted amid college-level questions as if it were a testimonial for an old-west brain tonic. Game shows were a hit nationwide. Everybody raked in cash, including the show, the contestants, and the companies bankrolling the televised battle of wits.
Creators Jack Barry and Dan Enright followed the trend and perfected the formula on NBC in the mid-fifties. Twenty-One didn’t break much from convention, two contestants answering trivia questions in twin sound-proof, hermetically-sealed telephone booths. As of late 1956, the show had hit flat TV ratings, viewers growing bored with the unemotional, uncharismatic returning champion, one Herbert Stempel.
That would all change on Dec. 5, 1956, when Barry and Enright found a Columbia assistant professor named Charles Van Doren to square off against Stempel. Stempel was no fan favorite, so when he did finally fall to the mighty intellect of Van Doren, millions of viewers were in a state of ecstasy. So were the advertisers and the network executives. Van Doren’s winning streak and famous last name catapulted him into B-list celebrity status, the reality star talk of the nation. Stop us if you heard this story before.
Tension Between Stempel and Van Doren
Stempel knew he was being set up as a patsy as soon as he heard the last name of his contestant. “I assumed I was going to be a cooked goose,” he told The Archive of American Television in 2015. “They were grooming him to take my place.” The Van Doren clan was filled with literary figures, Charles Van Doren’s father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (interestingly mislabeled a “Nobel-Prize winner” by the self-appointed genius Stempel in that interview, but take that for what it’s worth). Over a casual conversation with producer Dan Enright, the unflappable champ was told the fix was in, and he was out. The ratings were unkind to the trivia whiz, and Enright and Barry had made a call to switch up the defending champ for a more enticing resident brainiac.
It wasn’t an exception, but rather the norm. Arguably the catalyst for the investigation into the Twenty One scandal was the Dotto fiasco, Dotto being a game show on another network. A Federal Communications Commission report from 1965 outlined the “irregularities” uncovered by one of Dotto‘s sponsors, leading NBC to begin inquiries to examine their game shows for evidence of cheating. However, the corporate sponsors were not without blame. The $64,000 Question/Challenge franchise was dogged by allegations that it attempted to alter results, simultaneously offering to aid and sabotage the run of Joyce Brothers as champ by asking her softball questions or unusually difficult questions to increase the drama of the show.
Producer Mark Goodson openly admitted to PBS — albeit four decades too late to do any good — that he advised his CBS colleagues that “the only way this show [The $64,000 Question] is going to work, is if it is rigged.” So it was, often managed so cleverly that producers could cheat or favor certain contestants without their knowledge or consent, simply by ascertaining what specialties they were educated in and what fields they lacked depth in. The sponsors frequently picked who won or lost on a whim, Goodson revealed nonchalantly. It was simply viewed as the price of doing business.
“It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.”
The Stempel-Van Doren episode looks on the up and up when you watch it today, albeit fairly banal in its presentation. However, Stempel, and later another Twenty-One contestant named James Snodgras, came forward to blow the whistle. Despite their accusations, they were the ones perceived as villains, besmirching Van Doren. TV viewers were none the wiser to the charade they were witnessing. For a couple of years, Van Doren refused to fess up, calling Stempel a liar and choosing to play the martyr, uttering, “It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.” Van Doren’s ego had gotten the best of him, riding his success to a job at NBC as a correspondent on The Today Show, his face on the cover of Time magazine as the hunkiest nerd in America. His fans had his back.
The Effects of the 1950s Quiz Show Scandal
The growing allegations led to a US House hearing in 1959. The Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce exposed the game show, Van Doren, and producers Barry and Enright, as well as demonstrating the negligence of NBC personnel. In front of angry politicians, in the same building where Congress would probe the assassination of a sitting president a few years later, they were preoccupied with asking TV producers how they manipulated the AC in a contestant’s booth to make a guy from Brooklyn sweat on cue. Twenty-One was over, game shows were axed in one bloody wave of cancelations, and Van Doren was fired from his NBC gig and lost out on his dream of professorship, resigning in disgrace.
Yes, before you asked, Hollywood did make a movie about it, though the film Quiz Show took plenty of liberties, including changing the Twenty-One episode to make it appear as if Stempel lost after failing to identify the film Marty as the 1955 Best Picture Winner, when in actuality, Stempel came back to tie that round and lost in a subsequent round in less dramatic fashion.
The 1959 Congressional hearing spoiled the fun and put the fear of God into NBC execs and heralded in the modern era of game shows. When challenged by the committee why he played along with the con at first, Stempel played up his naïveté, informing Congressmen that “I took it for granted this was the way things were run on these programs.” There is some debate about whether his motives were pure or pure spite, coveting the fame and cushy jobs showered upon Van Doren.
However, nobody involved in this scandal came out on the moral high ground. The House hearing was but the tip of a much larger iceberg. Only NBC and Van Doren took the fall for a whole industry of deceit, but a sober reassessment reveals every party involved was culpable for their compartmentalized role in the racket. Though Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren were pitted against each other in the court of public opinion, they were really partners in crime.
As a consequence, game shows were pressed to ensure the fairness of their contestants, and thus were born countless standards and practices jobs. A network was no longer just about selling instant coffee but acting as a counter-espionage agent against their own employees and corporate paymasters. None of this was out of any devotion to good sportsmanship or good faith, but to cover their own asses in court and guarantee no more sponsors yanked money out of their programming line-up. The specters of Barry, Enright, Stempel, and Van Doren haunt game shows to this day.