Quiz Show Scandals - The trust that the
"medium of television" had built up with the American viewing public was trashed
when the "quiz show scandals" erupted in the 1950s.
The whole scandal began when
Edward Hilgemeier, Jr. a twenty-four-year-old part-time butler/actor and
contestant hopeful for the quiz show DOTTO/CBS/1958 discovered answers to the
questions for the quiz show in the hands of one of the show's current
contestants (Marie Winn).
Initially, he was paid off $1500 to keep quiet, but
later squealed to the New York Post newspaper (who refused to print the story).
The Federal Communications Commission and the New York City District Attorney
were later informed.
These allegations forced Colgate-Palmolive, the show's
sponsor, to cancel their advertising support of both daytime and primetime
Consequently, with investigations underway, the New York
Journal-American, the World-Telegram and the New York Sun newspapers finally
agreed to run banner headlines like "TWENTY-ONE FIXED" on August 28, 1958. (The
New York Journal American was told about the fix earlier by previous quiz show
contestant Herbert Stemple from TWENTY ONE/NBC/1956-58 but had shelved the
The first quiz show canceled for cheating during the 1950s scandal was
the quiz/audience participation program DOTTO/NBC/1952-58 hosted by Jack Narz.
The next to go was THE $64,000 QUESTION/CBS/1955-58 and then TWENTY-ONE/NBC/1956-58.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower commented "I share the American general reaction
of almost bewilderment that people could conspire to confuse and deceive the
American people. Nobody will be satisfied until this whole mess is cleaned up."
Probably the most famous collaborator in this deception was quiz show contestant
Charles Lincoln Van Doren, an associate professor at Columbia University who was
recruited by the quiz show TWENTY ONE with full knowledge of how the fix was
During the show, Van Doren would act nervous and breathing heavily as
he struggled to answer the question to which he already knew the answer. To add
authenticity to his anxiety, the Isolation Booth where he stood isolated from
all other distractions/influences was heated to make him sweat. After defeating
ex-GI Herbert Stempel, Charles Van Doren became an instant hit with the public.
Within three months, Van Doren had earned more than $143,000 in winnings; captured a
cover spot on Time magazine; appeared as an occasional guest on THE STEVE ALLEN
SHOW; and was hired (at $50,000 a year) as a staff regular on the NBC's TODAY
SHOW. Finally Rep.
Oren Harris' Legislative Oversight Committee sent a
congressional subpoena to Charles Van Doren and on November 2, 1959 he testified in
Washington, D.C. to Congress saying:
"I was involved, deeply involved, in a
deception...(the producer) took me into his bedroom where he could talk alone.
He told me that Herbert Stempel, the current champion, was an 'unbeatable'
contestant because he knew too much. He said that Stempel was unpopular and was
defeating opponents right and left to the detriment of the program. He asked me
if, as a favor to him, I would agree to make an arrangement whereby I would tie
Stempel and thus increase the entertainment value of the program. He also told
me that the show was merely entertainment and that giving help to quiz
contestants was a common practice and merely part of show business. This, of
course, was not true, but I wanted to believe him. He also stressed the fact
that by appearing on a nationally televised program, I would be doing a great
service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general, by
increasing public respect for work of the mind through my performances."
In the end, Van Doren's precarious house of cards collapsed and consequently
his careers at Columbia University and the NBC Network.
The scandal prompted the networks to set up standards and practices divisions
to police game shows and in May 1959 the FCC levied a $10,000 fine and a year in
jail or both for anyone influencing, prearranging or predetermining the outcome
of a TV contests of knowledge, skill or chance.
For a time, all quiz shows that gave away large money jackpots disappeared
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