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A Fascinating Documentary on the ‘50s Quiz Show Scandals

I was ordained a minister, not a saint .”

--The Rev. C.E. (Stoney) Jackson, winning contestant on “The $64,000 Question” and “The $64,000 Challenge”

There are now federal laws on the books prohibiting such fraud, and everything today appears to be on the up and up.

But in the late 1950s, when television was still a baby, when as many antennae sat on rooftops as chimneys, and when viewers were as trusting as they were apathetic, America was rocked by . . .

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The Quiz Show Scandals.

Nationally, these were the post-feel-good Eisenhower years when the public sought vicarious release from the economic blues. It arrived on cue--an explosion of gaudy quiz shows in both prime time and daytime that offered a welcome retreat from fiscal reality at a time when America was suffering through its most severe recession since World War II.

In the narrower, pragmatic realm of behind-the-scenes television, however, these were the years of greed-fed cynicism and corruption during which a massive hoax was perpetrated in the name of entertainment and such secretly rigged quiz programs as “The $64,000 Question” on CBS and “Twenty-One” on NBC became public fixations, if not almost a national religion.

Cheating made for good theater. So popular was “The $64,000 Question” that an astonishing 84% of the nation’s TV households tuned in for one particularly suspenseful episode. Plus, CBS then crowed, it was because of this program that the nation’s crime rate, water consumption and movie, theater and baseball attendance plummeted on Tuesday nights. And the sales of its sponsor, Revlon, tripled.

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The benefits may have been real enough. Yet many of the shows themselves were dishonest, their results fixed, their contestants--mostly decent, ordinary Americans seduced by fame and money--recruited as co-conspirators.

The broad outline of the deception is fascinatingly traced in “The Quiz Show Scandal,” an hour from the PBS series “The American Experience” that airs at 8 p.m. on Channel 24 and 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15. And what a disillusioning experience--a deafening wake-up call--this was.

The first and most successful of the big-money quiz programs, “The $64,000 Question” added three zeros to radio’s "$64 Question,” emerging at a time when TV programs were heavily influenced, if not flat-out controlled by sponsors. Quiz show producers turned to rigging “under enormous pressure” from these sponsors, narrator Will Lyman notes tonight.

For example, “Twenty-One” producer Dan Enright recalls that when their sponsor, Geritol, warned them to never again repeat the dullness of the premiere episode, he and his partner, the late Jack Barry, “from that moment on decided to rig” the show.

Tonight’s documentary producers, Julian Krainin and Michael Lawrence, unfortunately could not wring an interview from disgraced mega-contestant Charles Van Doren, the once-gleaming icon and aristocratic literary scion who ended up so tarnished from the scandals that he has hidden himself virtually from public view ever since. “He agreed to be in the film, but then he changed his mind after he got pressure from his family not to do it,” Lawrence said by phone recently.

Other quiz show figures balked too. “Some people have their own memory of the past, and they consider this (the quiz shows) nothing more than frivolous entertainment,” Lawrence said.

One who doesn’t is the now-destitute Rev. C.E. (Stoney) Jackson, who was initially ignored years ago when he tried to reveal the truth about his $16,000 winnings on “The $64,000 Question” and its spinoff, “The $64,000 Challenge.” “It was a con game,” says Jackson tonight, “a scam from start to finish.”

The producers also have on camera Herb Stempel, the still-embittered “Twenty-One” champion who in 1956 was ordered to take a “dive” so that the taller, glibber, smoother, tweedier, statelier, WASP-ier Van Doren could soar to superstardom. And, among other quiz show figures of varying prominence, they have the contrite-sounding Enright. “For some reason, he’s wanting to unload the guilt of this,” said Lawrence.

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Actually, Enright, who bounced back from this debacle to enjoy a long run of successful TV production, has been publicly confessing his “Twenty-One” sins for some time. It was the master illusionist Enright who rehearsed contestants on questions and answers, and had the air conditioning in the isolation booth switched off to make them sweat as the music suspensefully ticked off the seconds. It was Enright who turned the 29-year-old Stempel into a reverse Pygmalion, making him wear a shirt with a frayed collar, an ill-fitting suit, a cheap wristwatch that ticked like an alarm clock and a Marine-style white-wall haircut to make him resemble a penniless veteran working his way through college.

Stempel also learned from Enright the fine points of being a contestant: how to bite his lip to show extreme tension, how to pat--not wipe--his brow for maximum effect, how to breathe heavily into the microphone and sigh, how to pause five seconds before answering, how to increase the drama by stuttering.

With Stempel, Van Doren, 10-year-old science/math wizard Robert Strom and supply clerk Teddy Nadler, who returned to St. Louis with a record $264,000 in winnings, America had found itself new heroes who appeared to embody the national ideal of achievement through hard work, ingenuity and brainpower.

And their seemingly remarkable display of intelligence could not have been more timely, giving the nation an ego boost just when the Soviet Union had shown its technological supremacy by putting into orbit an 184-pound satellite that was to be known as Sputnik.

As a balm for America’s bruised psyche, however, the quiz shows were to endure only slightly longer than the Edsel. A tattling standby contestant on a daytime game show became the catalyst of destruction. A grand jury investigation ensued, followed by noisy congressional hearings and public humiliation for Van Doren. There were indictments for perjury before the grand jury, but no one went to jail.

The extent of the conspiracy may never be known. Sponsors denied involvement, and so did the networks. Although there’s no proof otherwise, these professions of naivete make you gag a bit, denials that tonight’s otherwise compelling program glaringly omits from discussion.

As history, the quiz scandals were little more than a segue to the tumultuous ‘60s. But as a social phenomenon, they were much more intriguing. “It’s marvelous how long it went on, considering the number of Americans who had to be corrupted to keep the camera whirring,” wrote The New Yorker after the lid had blown. “We are fascinated by the unimaginably tactful and delicate process whereby the housewife next door was transfigured into a paid cheat.”

What do the quiz scandals tell us about ourselves? That is the $64,000 question.

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