THOSE OLD GOOD GAMES
By: Paul Grey
A QUIZ SHOW PROMISING AN ASTONISHING PAYOFF DEBUTS ON NETWORK television during the summer doldrums. The new prime-time entry attracts good ratings and earns a place on the fall schedule, at which point it becomes a national craze and TV’s No. 1 hit. Competitors scramble to come up with big-money quiz shows of their own, offering richer pots and more intricate contest rules. The year is 1955.
The notorious scandals that followed so thoroughly rattled the fledgling medium of commercial television that 44 years would Uelapse before another summer up-start offering dazzling dollars in prime time would again galvanize the TV audience and spur a rash of imitations . The similarities between what is happening now and what happened during the 50s may not amount, in Yogi Berra’s diagnosis, to a case of déjà vu all over again, but those interested in looking ahead and guessing how the current quiz-show mania will play can find some suggestive clues by looking back.
The Millionaire of its era was The $64,000 Question, first broadcast by CBS on June 7, 1955. Producer Louis Cowan had dreamed up the idea and persuaded Revlon, without much difficulty, to sponsor it. The concept seemed promising: present ordinary Americans who happen to possess extraordinary expertise in a single field. Put these contestants through a series of questions that grow more difficult the more they win. After $4,000, contestants return each week to face a question that will double their money if they get it right. At $8,000, they are put in an isolation booth so that studio audiences won’t distract or coach them.
No one foresaw how phenomenally successful this formula would be when it hit the small screens. Viewers in the ‘50s had not had time to become media savvy; at the start of the decade, less than 10% of U.S. households had a TV set, a figure that would swell to nearly 90% by 1960. Watching television, except in a few large cities, essentially meant choosing among the offerings of the three networks. Thus, for 30 min.. each week a massive audience witnessed, live, a parade of people trying to use their heads to strike it rich. Question quickly spawned a number of instant folk heros and heroines: the New York City cop who had brushed up his Shakespeare ($16,000); the shoemaker opera buff ($32,000); the young psychologist named Joyce Brothers whose specialty was prizefighting ($64,000). Dr. Brothers, who went on to a notable TV career, attributes the appeal of the 50s quiz shows to lucky timing: “We were in a race with Russia to prove we were brighter, better, more intelligent,” she says. “Today that’s no big whoop.” Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, agrees. “Back in the ‘50s, this was a rare instance where intellectualism and know-ledge were really celebrated,” he says. “Education had suddenly become a very, very front-page, desirable commodity. Bear in mind that these quiz shows are play-ing right about the time that Sputnik is being launched—and we can’t get a rocket off the pad!”
The success of Question begat The $64,000 Challenge, in which those who had won $8,000 or more on Question could reappear. And then there was Twenty-One, which premiered on NBC Sept. 12, 1956. This program, chiefly the brainchild of producer Dan Enright, roughly adapted the rules of blackjack to a TV-quiz format: two contestants, two isolation booths, a series of questions worth from 1 to 11 points and drawn from 108 categories. Not only were these rules cutthroat; they were virtually impossible. No one would watch a show featuring two prepares to try for The $64,000 Question people being baffled by question after question. Faced with a choice between boring reality and exciting TV, Enright and his staff began coaching the contestants and scripting the results.
And that, as the nation would learn several years later, is how a young English instructor at Columbia University named Charles Van Doren defeated a C.C.N.Y. graduate student named Herb Stempel and became the reigning Twenty-One champion for 14 weeks, ultimately winning $129,000. Van Doren became so famous and popular that when he finally lost his title, NBC gave him a $50,000 annual contract and a spot on its Today show. For a while, at least, America fell in love with an egghead, until the country learned he had been coddled.
But trickeries of some sort existed on all the popular TV quizzes, not just Twenty -One. Myth has it that the accusations of rigging and the subsequent investigations drove the shows off the air. In truth, Question, Challenge and Twenty-One had all been canceled by the fall of 1958 because of plummeting ratings. When the full extent of the quiz-show tampering became clear during a 1959 congressional hearing, President Dwight Eisenhower called the deception “a terrible thing to do to the American public.”
Which it was, but that public was bored well before it was disillusioned. That maybe the most telling lesson of the ‘50s phenomenon. No one is going to rig the new crop of quiz shows; contestants already enjoy mostly laughable questions and plenty of outside, on-air help. The viewers will have to answer the only question that really matters: For how long?
—With reporting by
William Tynan/New York
Watching Drama Become Farce.
By: Richard Goodwin
I I 1959 I WAS IN WASHINGTON WORKING AS AN INVESTIGATOR FOR a congressional committee when rumors of quiz-show fraud began to surface. An investigation in New York City had ended, the New York Times reported, with the grand jury reports mysteriously impounded, their contents kept secret. Its suspicions aroused, the committee sent me to New York, where we began an inquiry that was to expose a massive fraud.
In the congressional hearing room, one of the more famous contestants carefully described how he had been instructed in the acting techniques appropriate to a man rising to conquer intense pressure. We then showed film of the show. As we watched his pretended labors of concentration and the jubilant excitement of the master of ceremonies at each successful prodigy of recall, the committee members and the audience burst into laughter. Yesterday’s high drama had been transformed
into today’s hilarious farce.
But the country was not amused. Ralph McGill, the revered editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote that “television had robbed people of a kind of faith which it is dangerous to destroy in a democracy, and it is the more so because it is a reflection on all of us and on our national character. The quizzes revealed our deep psycho-logical lust for material things.” When the hearings ended, the quiz shows disappeared. But they were not dead. They had merely entered a 40-year sleep, destined to reappear in our own, wildly materialistic time. And as the times are different, so are the quizzes. Today’s shows are almost certainly not fixed. Not only would it be impossible to keep such fraud secret in this age, when every rumor finds a ready voice, but it is not necessary. The questions are too easy, answerable by a person of modest intelligence and learning. The early quizzes asked for information almost no one could provide—e.g., the complete menu of a royal dinner in Enlightenment France. To-day’s shows are built on the most degraded of advertising techniques: use this deodorant, and you too can have great sex; you too could win a million dollars with a little luck and a reliable lifeline; that jubilant contestant up there could be you. They reflect a change to values more appropriate to the age of Clinton.
Of course what the shows, old and new, have in common is the money. Top winners in the ‘50s won as much as $200,000, equivalent to almost $1.25 million of our money. Todays prodigies have to be satisfied with a mere $1 million—so far. Both of them reflect their times. Today, as in the ‘50s, we are embarked on a time of great prosperity, driven by that “lust for material things.”
But even as the last witness was leaving our Washington committee room, far to the south young blacks were risking protests over their exclusion from “white only” lunch counters, and across town a young Massachusetts Senator was preparing a race for President, promising to “get America moving again.” It is hard to detect such stirrings today. But history’s most tumultuous shifts always come as a surprise. And America has always been about something more than money. If that has changed, then the country has not just changed, it has become a different country.
TIME Magazine, Inc.
January 17, 2000, (pgs. 84-85)
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