The Quiz-Show Scandal


In October 1956 the twenty-nine-year-old scion of an illustrious American literary family took up a suggestion that countless Americans were then making to their more erudite friends and relations. He could use some extra money; Columbia University paid him meagerly enough to teach English alongside his famous father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren. So why not try to get on one of those new television quiz shows? If he happened to get lucky, he might win a few thousand dollars. From this innocuous impulse flowed a complex moral tale.

By 1959 a boiling scandal would rage with terrifying fury around the tall, lanky figure of Charles Lincoln Van Doren. It would come to seem the symptom of a deep moral rot in the nation largely because of Van Doren himself. But in the autumn of 1956 this charming, gifted young man was merely one of numberless would-be contestants gravitating toward midtown Manhattan, the quiz-show capital of a quiz-crazed country. Among those whom the scandal would eventually envelop was the Reverend Charles (“Stoney“) Jackson of Tullahoma, Tennessee, who was desperately trying to get on “The $64,000 Question,” to repay debts incurred while working with youths, and become what he called the “protestant Father Flanagan.” Another aspirant was young Eddie Hugemeier, Jr., part-time actor, part-time comic, part-time butler, who wangled his way onto so many quiz shows in this age of quiz mania that contestanthood was his chief source of income. Then there was the quiz world’s nemesis, chubby Herbert Stempel of New York, aged twenty-nine, who was winning prize money hand over fist in the autumn of 1956 on a quiz show called ‘Twenty-One.” Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions and answers in advance from the show’s producer, Daniel Enright, “one of the nicest people I ever met before he got greedy enough to enter into such an unholy alliance,” as Enright’s publicity agent was to testify before a congressional committee in October 1959. Truly these television quiz shows inspired greedy dreams—inside the television industry especially. The main fact is this: When “The $64,000 Question” made its debut on June 7, 1955, over the CBS network, it became, almost at once, the mass-media equivalent of the Klondike gold strike. In the space of ten dizzying weeks, forty-seven million Americans were watching the likes of Redmond O’Hanlon, a New York City policeman, win $16,000 as an amateur expert on Shakespeare, and the lovable Gino Prato, a soft-spoken immigrant cobbler, win $32,000 as an expert on Italian opera. No entertainment program in mass-media history, not “Amos ‘n Andy” in radio days or Milton Berle in the first years of video, had ever acquired so huge an audience so quickly or inspired so many stories in the press, including one on the front page of the frosty New York Times when a U.S. Marine captain, expert in food and cookery, became the first contestant to ask for and answer a $64,000 question.

Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions in advance.

“The $64,000 Question” would “set back by at least a season, if not by years, TV’s already enfeebled yearning to leaven commercialism with culture.” So Time magazine predicted with scornful accuracy that August while independent television producers, rushing forth to the Klondike, concocted “The Big Surprise” (top prize $100,000), “Do You Trust Your Wife?” ($100 a week for twenty years), “The $64,000 Challenge” (graduate school for winners on “The $64,000 Question”), and dozens of others. The quiz mania even leaped across national boundaries. Italy thrilled to its 5-million-lire quiz (about $8,000). Mexico had its 64,000-peso question ($5,120).

Formats varied greatly, but nearly all quiz shows had this in common: secret manipulation by the quiz-show producers, who made sure that popular contestants were asked questions they would answer correctly and unpopular ones were asked questions they were likely to miss. The favored winners were more or less innocent —at least in the first year or so. And then there was “Twenty-One,” a quantum leap deeper into fraudulence and corruption, which made its debut over the NBC network on the evening of September 12, 1956, sponsored by the makers of Geritol, relief for “tired blood.” The handiwork of Enright and his longtime partner, Jack Barry, the show’s master of ceremonies, it was modeled after the card game, pitting two contestants against each other, the winner being the one who stopped with the higher point total or with twenty-one points outright, the points acquired by answering questions ranging in difficulty from one to eleven. There was no limit to how much a contestant might ultimately win, but alas for Barry and Enright Productions, it could not get a single convincing winner. “Twenty-One” did not call for narrow expertise, which made the tricks of favoritism easy to work. It drew its questions from 108 separate categories of information, which is to say, it needed talking encyclopedias and human almanacs. What it got in its first dismal weeks were contestants floundering in failure and tie scores of 0 to 0—in short, a complete, humiliating fiasco.