We Americans love our Game Shows. Every night millions of Americans plan their dinner hour and their entire evening around “Jeopardy.” I would bet 80% of those watching can’t spell the name of the show. Nothing against their brains, it’s just a stupid word and impossible to spell.
Anyway, we love our game shows. We always have since TV was invented. But those game show got off to a bad start back in the ‘50s. In fact by the end of the ‘50s, on this day in 1959 the US Congress, always looking for ratings themselves, took up the possibility that those famous game shows might be rigged. Oh, the horror!
It was difficult enough just to get a game show on television. It took a Supreme Court ruling (FCC vs ABC) in 1954 to establish that game shows were not a form of gambling. After that we were in a virtual avalanche of game shows.
What happened was the television execs knew that more and more people would tune in if somebody was winning more and more dollars. It’s no different today. We tune in to see the “play-offs.” We have to know the winners of dance shows, quiz shows, talent shows and of course sports shows. (go cubbies)
So, back in 1959 who do you suppose was the first contestant to appear before the congressional committee and say, “Yes I was coached and given the correct answers so I would win?” Believe it or not it was PATTY DUKE. Yes, our beloved actress who three years later would win an Academy Award for playing Helen Keller.
The big game show in the mid-‘50s was “The $64,000 Question.” Please don’t think, “Why would anybody tune in to see somebody win $64,000?” Not that big of a deal.
HA! I say HA! Today, 60 years of inflation later, that amount of money is over $500,000. That’s why.
So, the network execs had to come up with a way to get viewers to watch their game show. Patty Duke appeared in a rip-off to the $64,000 Question called the $64,000 Challenge. You can’t make that crap up. They gave her the answers and it worked. People tuned in and were amazed at how smart our future Helen Keller was.
The big scandal happened after that. The two $64,000 shows were in the Top Ten watched shows. The other game show called “Twenty One” was doing horrible. It was a stupid show with stupid contestants. In fact the people that went on the show couldn’t seem to answer the simplest of questions. The main sponsor, “Geritol,” said they wanted out.
(A SIDE NOTE: At that time Geritol was an “old people’s” supplement. It was an energy booster for OLD PEOPLE. Now, if you Google it, you’ll see that girls are saying they get pregnant easier when they take Geritol. I think I’m losing my mind)
BACK TO THE GAME SHOW SCANDAL
Something had to be done to salvage Twenty One.
They came up with an idea. The latest big winner (who won fair and square) of ”Twenty One” was a fellow named Herb Stempel. An everyday looking guy, except very smart.
People loved Herb Stempel. He was the “Ken Jennings” of his time. He boosted the show’s ratings, but still not catching up to the two “Sixty Four” quiz shows.
The producers of “Twenty One” found another hero. His name was Charles Van Doren. He was an English teacher at Columbia University. His family name had produced multiple Pulitzer Prize winning authors. It was a highly respected name. If you were going to produce a movie and you needed a guy who looked like a “Genius English Professor” you would cast Charles Van Doren. The producers knew they could sell him to the public.
After Charles won the top prize, they decided to have a match made in heaven.
Van Doren vs Stempel.
The All-American Boy vs The All-American Nerd.
Can you believe the big show down ended in a TIE!
The second show down (now the ratings were climbing fast) ended in a TIE!
The Third show down ended in a TIE!
Now the whole damn country was watching the final match. NUMBER FOUR!
This entire scenario had been rigged with each contestant given the answers ahead of time. They just didn’t know who was going to be crowned the Champion from week to week. They also coached the choreography (grimacing, squinting, painful faces, etc)
The final big question was asked “Which Movie Won The Academy Award of 1956?”
Herb Stempel was coached to answer “On The Waterfront.” That was the 1954 winner.
The correct answer, given by Van Doren, was “Marty.”
Charles Van Doren was the new American Hero. He was on the cover of “Time.”
He starred in a segment of NBC’s “Today Show.”
But poor old Herb Stempel was fuming. He thought he could have been America’s newest HERO. What made him even madder was the fact that the movie “Marty” was his favorite movie. Of course he would never blow an easy question like that.
He felt they made him look stupid.
He squealed. He told the truth about being given the answers.
He told the truth about the whole show being rigged.
After the entire scandal broke, all quiz shows were cancelled and President Dwight Eisenhower came on the boob tube and said, “It was a terrible thing to do to the American people.”
After Charles Van Doren admitted to Congress that he had been given the answers, he was fired from the “Today Show,” fired from his Professor’s job at Columbia and stayed in solitude until 2008. He wrote a piece about the scandal in “The New Yorker” that year.
Quiz shows stayed off of television for almost ten years.
I grew up with the radio quiz shows “Queen for a Day,” “Beat The Band,” “Break The Bank,” “Quiz Kids,” Truth or Consequences,” and “Double or Nothing.”
I was in high school when all those shows and other quiz shows went to television. UGH!
I must say those ten silent years of NO QUIZ SHOWS were wonderful.