Quiz show scandals

From Academic Kids

The American quiz show scandals of the 1950s were the result of the revelation that contestants of several popular television quiz shows were secretly given assistance by the producers to arrange the outcome of a supposed competition.

This interference included choosing topics that the contestants were good at, providing the answers to upcoming questions, and even giving stage directions of how to act on camera. In the 1950s, it was common practice for game shows and other shows to be sponsored solely by one company; so much so to even have the company's name in the title of the show. Examples included Sylvania's "Beat the Clock," or Geritol's "Twenty-One." It was empirically determined by these companies and the networks that fixing the outcome of a game show made it more likely to be watched for its dramatic value, thus increasing the advertising a sponsored company received on every show.

The most notorious participants in this deception were Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel who were leading competitors on the show, Twenty-One. Both were heavily coached by the show's producers, but Stempel blew the whistle when he was pressured to deliberately lose in favor of Van Doren. This scandal is dramatized in the feature film Quiz Show directed by Robert Redford.

Small deceptions were employed as well; for example, on "The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question," contestants were placed in an "isolation booth" when answering questions, presumably to prevent them from receiving any help from the audience. To heighten the drama, the ventilating fans in the isolation booth were turned off after the question was asked. Under the hot lights then required for television broadcasting, the temperature rose quickly, causing the contestant to sweat visibly. Frequently contestants would mop their brow before answering the question.

The impact of this scandal led to a specific federal law prohibiting fixing quiz shows. Contestants like Van Doren found their reputations were ruined and quiz shows like The 64,000 Dollar Question and Dotto lost much of their remaining presence on prime time American television for decades. In addition, the major television networks took a greater hand in creative production to avoid similar problems in the future. This even extended so far as to demand changes to unrelated television series like demanding that the premise of the dramatic series Mr. Lucky be changed from a riverboat casino to a restaurant to avoid the idea of games on prime time TV. The scandal also marked an end to widespread naming of television shows by their sponsors. Future game shows like The Price is Right or Let's Make a Deal were not sponsored by any one company.

The public impact of the scandal was immense. The size of the prizes seemed almost unbelievable, and gave the shows an aura of significance that went beyond entertainment. Prior to "The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question," typical quiz show prizes were a few hundred dollars. There was no gradual escalation; "The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question" burst on the scene with a top prize a hundred times bigger than the shows that had gone before. Note too that a $64,000 prize in 1955 is the equivalent of about $400,000 in 2004 dollars, while the $252,000 won by Teddy Nadler is the equivalent of about $1.6 million today. The spectacle of people apparently achieving huge financial success through the exercise of brain power was riveting. Many people felt that the shows glorified intellectualism and set a good example for youth. And certainly viewers believed that what they were seeing was real. If this seems nave today, it is because of the effect that the scandal had in fostering public cynicism about television.

In 1984, a Press Your Luck contestant named Michael Larson memorized the allegedly random patterns of the game board to help him stop the board where and when he wanted to. He spun over 40 times without hitting a losing "Whammy", which would have erased all his winnings, and as a result, he earned $110,237 in cash and prizes, setting what was at the time a new game show record. Because what Larson did was not technically considered cheating, Press Your Luck's network, CBS, gave him the money. (More information can be found at Michael Larson's bio.)

In an episode of the British Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? show recorded on September 10, 2001, Major Charles Ingram won the 1,000,000 prize. Following subsequent analysis of the tape, it became apparent Ingram was being helped to select the correct answers by a person coughing. The prize was not awarded and Ingram and accomplices were taken to court. The story in detail is at Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.

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