1950s quiz show scandals

The 1950s quiz show scandals were a series of scandals involving the producers and contestants of several popular American television quiz shows. These shows' producers secretly gave assistance to certain contestants in order to prearrange the shows' outcomes while still attempting to deceive the public into believing that these shows were objective and fair competitions. Producers fixed the shows sometimes with the free consent of contestants and out of various motives: improving ratings, greed, and the lack of regulations prohibiting such conspiracy in game show productions.[1]

Host Jack Barry and contestant Charles Van Doren on the set of Twenty-One in 1957. NBC took the show off the air after the scandals made headlines; its production was dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show.

The scandals took place at a time when television was still emerging as a medium and had yet to become the established cultural force in American society that it is today. When the behavior of the producers and contestants was exposed, the public reacted with shock. Many expressed concern about the potential for the young medium of television to influence society in negative ways.

In response to the scandals, the government was widely pressured to impose stricter regulations on broadcasters. As a direct consequence, Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit networks from prearranging the outcomes of quiz shows. In the United States, it has since become standard industry practice for game show producers to monitor their own shows closely for cheating and to ensure fairness in play and compliance with broadcasting law to the highest degree possible.



The popularity of radio quiz shows between 1938 and 1956 led to the creation of television quiz shows. [2] In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that radio and television quiz shows could give prizes to contestants, provided the contestants did not contribute any of their own money.[3]

In September 1956, the Jack Barry-hosted game show Twenty-One premiered on NBC, its first show being played legitimately with no manipulation of the game by the producers at all. That initial broadcast was, in the words of co-producer Dan Enright, "a dismal failure", as the two contestants were so lacking in the required knowledge that they answered a large number of the questions incorrectly. Show sponsor Geritol, upon seeing this opening-night performance, reportedly became furious with the results and said in no uncertain terms that they did not want to see a repeat performance.[4]

Three months into its run, Twenty-One featured a contestant, Herb Stempel, who had been coached by Enright to allow his opponent, Charles Van Doren, to win the game. Stempel took the fall as requested. A year later, Stempel told the New York Journal-American's Jack O'Brian that his winning run as champion on the series had been choreographed to his advantage, and that the show's producer then ordered him to purposely lose his championship to Van Doren. With no proof, an article was never printed.[5]

Stempel's statements gained more credibility when fixing in another game, Dotto, was publicized in August 1958. Quiz show ratings across the networks plummeted and several were cancelled amid allegations of fixing. The revelations were sufficient to initiate a nine-month long New York County grand jury.[4] Although contest-rigging was not a criminal offense, several producers and dozens of contestants chose, rather than publicly admit they were frauds, to perjure themselves before the grand jury by denying they participated in fixing the shows. No indictments were handed down, but, in an unusual move, the judge ordered the findings and testimony sealed. This aroused public suspicion that corruption was involved, which in turn attracted the attention of the US Congress. A formal congressional subcommittee investigation began in August 1959.[6] The producers and contestants did not dare to perjure themselves before Congress. Enright was revealed to have rigged Twenty-One; Van Doren also eventually came forth with revelations about how he was persuaded to accept specific answers during his time on the show.[7]

In 1960, Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit the fixing of quiz shows. As a result of that action, many networks canceled their existing quiz shows and replaced them—at the prodding of incoming FCC commissioner Newton Minow[8]—with a higher number of public service programs.[7][9]

Integrity questioned (1957–1958)




In late 1956, Herb Stempel, a contestant on NBC's Twenty-One, was coached by Enright. While Stempel was in the midst of his winning streak, both of the $64,000 quiz shows (The $64,000 Question and its spin-off, The $64,000 Challenge) were in the top-ten rated programs but Twenty-One did not have the same popularity. Enright and his partner, Albert Freedman, were searching for a new champion to replace Stempel to boost ratings. They soon found what they were looking for in Charles Van Doren, an English teacher at Columbia University. Van Doren decided to try out for the NBC quiz show Tic-Tac-Dough. Enright, who produced both Tic-Tac-Dough and Twenty-One, saw his tryout and was familiar with his prestigious family background that included multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and highly respected professors at Columbia. As a result, Enright felt that Van Doren would be perfect as the new face of Twenty-One.[10]

After achieving winnings of $69,500, Stempel's scripted loss to the more popular Van Doren occurred on December 5, 1956. One of the questions Stempel answered incorrectly involved the winner of the 1955 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. The correct answer was Marty, one of Stempel's favorite movies. As instructed by Enright, however, he gave the incorrect answer On the Waterfront, which had won the previous year. Although the manipulation of the contestants helped the producers maintain viewer interest and ratings, the producers had not anticipated the extent of Stempel's resentment at being required to lose the contest against Van Doren.[11]

Another former contestant, James Snodgrass, made lists of all the questions and answers on which he was coached and mailed them to his own home in a series of registered letters before his games aired. The dates on these letters served as indisputable proof that the show had been rigged, and Snodgrass testified before Congress on this matter in 1959.[12]

The Big Surprise


In December 1956, Dale Logue, a contestant on NBC's The Big Surprise, filed a lawsuit against the show's production company, Entertainment Productions, Inc., seeking either $103,000 in damages or reinstatement on the show as a contestant. Her claim was that, after being asked a question she did not know in a "warm-up" session, that she was asked the same question again during the televised show. Her assertion was that this was done intentionally with the express purpose of eliminating her as a contestant. At the time Logue's lawsuit was filed, Steve Carlin, executive producer of Entertainment Productions, Inc., called her claim "ridiculous and hopeless".[13] Assertions that Logue had been offered $10,000 to settle in January 1957 were called baseless.[14] Charles Revson, head of Revlon and The Big Surprise's primary sponsor, asked the producers if Logue's accusation was true, and was told that it was not.[15]

In April 1957, Time magazine published an article detailing the depths to which producers managed game shows, just short of involving the contestants themselves.[16] This was followed by the August 20, 1957, Look magazine article "Are TV Quiz Shows Fixed?", which concluded "it may be more accurate to say they are controlled or partially controlled."[15]



In August 1958, Stempel and Logue's credibility was bolstered when Edward Hilgemeier, Jr, a stand-by contestant on Dotto three months earlier, sent an affidavit to the FCC claiming that while backstage, he had found a notebook on set containing the answers contestant Marie Winn was to deliver.[17]



The American public's reaction was swift and dramatic when the fraud became public; between 87% and 95% knew about the scandals as measured by industry-sponsored polls.[18] Through late 1958 and early 1959, quiz shows implicated by the scandal were quickly cancelled. Among them, with their last-aired dates, were:

  • Dotto (August 15, 1958)
  • The $64,000 Challenge (September 7, 1958)[19]
  • Twenty-One (October 16, 1958)
  • The $64,000 Question (November 2, 1958)[20]
  • Tic-Tac-Dough, primetime edition (December 29, 1958)
  • For Love or Money (January 30, 1959)[21][22]

In late August 1958, New York prosecutor Joseph Stone convened a grand jury to investigate the allegations of the fixing of quiz shows. At the time of the empaneling, neither being a party to a fixed game show nor fixing a game show in the first place were crimes in their own right. Some witnesses in the grand jury acknowledged their role in a fixed show, while others denied it, directly contradicting one another. Many of the coached contestants, who had become celebrities due to their quiz-show success, were so afraid of the social repercussions of admitting the fraud that they were unwilling to confess to having been coached, even to the point of perjuring themselves to avoid backlash. Producers who had legally rigged the games to increase ratings, but did not want to implicate themselves, their sponsors, or the networks in doing so, categorically denied the allegations. After the nine-month grand jury, no indictments were handed down and the judge sealed the grand jury report in August 1959.[4] In October 1959, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, under Representative Oren Harris's chairmanship, began to hold hearings to investigate the scandal. Stempel, Snodgrass, and Hilgemeier all testified.[23]

The expansion of the probe led CBS president Frank Stanton to immediately announce cancellation of three more of its large-prize quiz shows between October 16 and October 19, 1959: Top Dollar, The Big Payoff, and Name That Tune,[24] explaining that this decision was made "because of the impossibility of guarding against dishonest practice".[25] On November 2 when Van Doren said to the Committee in a nationally televised session that, "I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. The fact that I, too, was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol."[26]



Law and politics


All of the regulations regarding television in the late 1950s were defined under the Communications Act of 1934, which dealt with the advertising, fair competition, and labeling of broadcast stations. The act and regulations written by the FCC were indefinite in regard to fixed television programs. Because no specific laws existed regarding the fraudulent behavior in the quiz shows, whether the producers or contestants alike did anything illegal is debatable. Instead, one inference could be that the medium was ill-used.[11] After concluding the Harris Commission investigation, Congress amended the Communications Act to prohibit the fixing of televised contests of intellectual knowledge or skill.[27][28]

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law on September 13, 1960. The legislation allowed the FCC to require license renewals of less than the legally required three years if the agency believes it would be in the public interest, prohibited gifts to FCC members, and declared illegal any contest or game with intent to deceive the audience.[11]



Many quiz-show contestants' reputations were ruined, including:

  • Charles Van Doren, who had become a regular on NBC's Today, lost his job in the television industry. He was also forced to resign his professorship at Columbia University. Van Doren took a job as an editor at Encyclopædia Britannica and continued working as an editor and writer until his retirement in 1982. He refused requests for interviews for more than three decades and chose not to participate in the production of The Quiz Show Scandal, a 1992 one-hour documentary aired on PBS. He later turned down an offer of $100,000 to act as a consultant on the 1994 Robert Redford-directed feature film Quiz Show (on which Stempel was a consultant) after discussing the matter with family members, who, with the exception of his son John, were against his participation.[29] In 2008, Van Doren broke his silence, describing his quiz show experience in an essay-length memoir published in The New Yorker.[29] Van Doren died on April 9, 2019. Stempel, who was his opposing contestant on Twenty-One, died a year later almost to the day.[30]
  • Teddy Nadler, whose $264,000 haul on The $64,000 Challenge stood as a record for two decades, resorted to applying for a temporary job with the United States Census Bureau when his prize money started running short; he failed the civil service exam.[31] In 1970, producers exonerated Nadler, stating that they had shown him questions beforehand but that he already knew the answers and did not need them given to him.[32] Nadler died on May 24, 1984.[33]
  • Leonard Ross, who at age 10 won a combined $164,000 on The Big Surprise and The $64,000 Challenge, had major mental-health issues, including depression and attention deficit disorder, which limited his ability to work as an author and attorney in adulthood; most of his work was completed by other co-authors. After an unsuccessful cingulotomy, Ross died by suicide on May 1, 1985, at age 39.[34]

Hosts and producers


In September 1958, a New York grand jury called producers who had coached contestants to appear in testimony. A prosecutor on the case later estimated that of the 150 sworn witnesses before the panel, only 50 told the truth.[18]

Other producers met the same fate as Barry and Enright but, unlike them, could not redeem themselves afterwards. One of the more notable is Frank Cooper, whose Dotto ended up being his longest-running and most popular game creation. Hosts such as Jack Narz and Hal March continued to work on television after the scandals. March died in January 1970 from lung cancer. Narz, who passed a lie-detector test at the time of the Dotto affair, had an extensive career as a game-show host after the incident (which also allowed him to help his brother, James, who later took on the name Tom Kennedy, break into the television business.) Narz died in October 2008; Kennedy died in October 2020. Sonny Fox, the original host of The $64,000 Challenge, left long before it could become tainted and became a popular children's host in the northeast, remembered best as the host of Wonderama. (Fox later stated that his unintentional "predilection for asking the answers" was a factor in his decision to only rarely host game shows after the scandals.[35]) Fox died in January 2021.



The quiz-show scandals exhibited the necessity for stronger network control over programming and production. Quiz-show scandals also justified and accelerated the growth of the networks' power over television advertisers concerning licensing, scheduling, and sponsorship of programs. The networks claimed to be ignorant, and victims of the scandals. The NBC president at the time stated, "NBC was just as much a victim of the quiz-show frauds as was the public."[36]

A big-money quiz show did not return until ABC premiered 100 Grand in 1963. It went off the air after three shows, never awarding its top prize. Quiz shows still held a stigma throughout much of the 1960s, which was eventually eased by the success of the lower-stakes and fully legitimate answer-and-question game Jeopardy! upon its launch in 1964.[37] The biggest winner across the 11-year original NBC run of Jeopardy!, Burns Cameron, won only $11,100 in his playing career -- $7,070 in his five days and an additional $4,040 from his Tournament of Champions win, a full order of magnitude less than the 1950s quiz shows at their peak.[38] Later incarnations of Jeopardy! substantially raised money values and removed limits on winning streaks. Cameron was invited by Sony Pictures Television to participate in the 1990 ABC summer Super Jeopardy! tournament of past champions to represent the original version against players on the contemporary version, where he was eliminated in the first round and won $5,000. Cameron, who died in June 2023, won $16,100 overall in his appearances. Under the current scoring model, Cameron's wins would be worth $391,400 ($141,400 for his five day winnings and $250,000 for the Tournament of Champions win).

Barry and Enright eventually found a loophole in limits the networks imposed on winnings by selling shows directly into syndication, a business model the Federal Communications Commission was actively encouraging in the 1970s by way of rules such as the Prime Time Access Rule and Financial Interest and Syndication Rules. Its revival of Tic-Tac-Dough would regularly produce "six to eight" winners each year who netted more than the networks' limits,[39] including one, Thom McKee, who would surpass Nadler's winnings with a total payday of $312,700 over a 46-episode run.[40] Barry and Enright eventually brought its winnings limits into line with the networks' so that they could sell the programs to network owned-and-operated stations.[39]

Big money quiz shows would not enjoy widespread popularity in the United States again until the late 1990s. In 1999, ABC launched the American adaptation of the British game show franchise, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to both enormous critical success and high ratings. Around the turn of 21st century, other American television networks launched similar quiz shows offering large sums of money, including Fox with Greed and NBC, who first revived Twenty-One then later adapted the British game show, The Weakest Link. In 2003, Sony Pictures Television changed the rules on Jeopardy! to allow players to win until they are defeated. At the end of Season 20 in July 2004, contestant Ken Jennings won over one million dollars after his thirtieth win in the first season of the rule. He won 74 games over two seasons, and only one other player (James Holzhauer) won over one million dollars during the Alex Trebek era (until January 7, 2021). Two other contestants, Matt Amodio and Amy Schneider, accomplished the million-dollar feat during the interregnum between Alex Trebek's death and the naming of Ken Jennings as full-time host. In 2008, Sony added the Australian version's Million Dollar wedge to Wheel of Fortune where a player can win a huge sum by landing on the wedge and meeting a series of standards. Today, numerous high-stakes game shows and reality competition shows continue to air on broadcast American television.

See also



  1. ^ Venanzi, Katie (1997). "An Examination of Television Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s". Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  2. ^ "The Rigged Quiz Shows That Gave Birth to 'Jeopardy!'". History.com. History Channel. 18 April 2019. Retrieved 2022-01-14.
  3. ^ "FCC v. American Broadcasting Co., Inc., 347 U.S. 284 (1954)". Justia. 18 April 2019. Retrieved 2024-02-19.
  4. ^ a b c "The Museum of Broadcast Communications - Encyclopedia of Television - Quiz Show Scandals". www.museum.tv. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 2016-10-15.
  5. ^ "Quiz Show Scandal: Program Transcript". PBS. The American Experience. Retrieved 2016-10-16.
  6. ^ "TV Quiz Shows". CQ Almanac. 1959. Retrieved 2016-10-15.
  7. ^ a b Gross, L. S. (2013). Electronic Media: An Introduction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  8. ^ Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest", address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C., May 9, 1961.
  9. ^ Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 86–752: Communications Act Amendments, 1960
  10. ^ Anderson, Kent. Television Fraud: The History and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1978. Print.
  11. ^ a b c Anderson, K. (1978). Television Fraud: The history and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport and London: Greenwood Press.
  12. ^ ""A Make-Believe World": Contestants Testify to Deceptive Quiz Show Practices". Historymatters.gmu.edu. Retrieved 2014-02-18.
  13. ^ "Sues Quiz Program For $103,000". The News-Palladium. 1956-12-27. p. 22. Retrieved 2020-10-16.
  14. ^ Torre, Marie (1957-01-08). "Out of the Air". The Evening Review. p. 10. Retrieved 2020-10-16.
  15. ^ a b Matthews, Melvin E. Jr. (2019-05-01). Loss of Innocence: America's Scandals in the Post-War Years. Algora Publishing. ISBN 978-1-62894-356-6.
  16. ^ "Television Quiz Shows Rigged?". The Gazette. 1957-04-21. p. 27. Retrieved 2020-10-16.
  17. ^ "28 Aug 1958, Page 6 - The News Journal at Newspapers.com". Newspapers.com. Retrieved 2016-10-15.
  18. ^ a b Boddy, W.(1990). Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  19. ^ "Charged With Fix, $64,000 Challenge Taken From Air". The Lima Citizen. 1958-09-14. p. 40. Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  20. ^ "$64,000 Question, First Big-Money Quiz, Ended". Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 1958-11-05. p. 27. Retrieved 2020-10-17.
  21. ^ Rahn, Pete (1959-02-03). "'Rigged' Quiz Show Cancelled". St. Louis Globe-Democrat. p. 27. Retrieved 2020-11-07.
  22. ^ "TV Quiz Show Cancelled to Avoid Fraud". The Star Press. 1959-02-01. p. 26. Retrieved 2020-11-07.
  23. ^ United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (1960). Investigation of television quiz shows. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, Eighty-sixth Congress, first session. Washington : U.S. Govt. Print. Off. p. III.
  24. ^ "TV Ban Criticized". Fort Lauderdale News. 1959-10-17. p. 6. Retrieved 2020-11-07.
  25. ^ "Name That Tune Goes Off Air After Tonight". Opelika Daily News. 1959-10-19. p. 1. Retrieved 2020-11-07.
  26. ^ United States. Congress. House. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (1960). Investigation of television quiz shows. Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House of Representatives, Eighty-sixth Congress, first session. Washington : U.S. Govt. Print. Off. pp. 624.
  27. ^ 47 U.S.C. § 509.
  28. ^ Roth, Gary Franklin (September 1972). "The Quizzes and the Law: Fifteen Years after "Twenty-One" How Far Can They Go?". Performing Arts Review. 3 (4): 629–654. doi:10.1080/00315249.1972.9943360. ISSN 0031-5249.
  29. ^ a b Van Doren, Charles, "All the Answers : The quiz-show scandals—and the aftermath", The New Yorker, July 28, 2008
  30. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (April 10, 2019). "Charles Van Doren, a Quiz Show Whiz Who Wasn't, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 14, 2021. Retrieved December 22, 2021.
  31. ^ "Off the Map". Time Magazine. Time Inc. March 28, 1960. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved September 1, 2007.
  32. ^ Singer, Dale (1970-09-06). "Remember Teddy Nadler? Quiz Show Phenomenon Remembers When . . ". Independent Press-Telegram. p. 75. Retrieved 2020-10-12.
  33. ^ "Teddy Nadler, TV Quiz Show Winner, dies". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 1984-05-24. pp. 1, 4. Retrieved 2022-03-01.
  34. ^ Dowd, Maureen (May 25, 1985). "The Early Death of a Bedeviled Genius". The New York Times. Retrieved August 3, 2011.
  35. ^ "The American Experience | Quiz Show Scandal | Sonny Fox on The 64,000 Challenge". www.pbs.org. Archived from the original on 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-12-08.
  36. ^ Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics, William Boddy, University of Illinois Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0-252-06299-5
  37. ^ "A garbage-can Memory Produces a CHAMPION OF CHAMPIONS". Swarthmore College Bulletin. December 1967. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
  38. ^ "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A GENIUS TO BE A CONTESTANT" "We Want Average Americans Who Are Aware of What's Going On" from Daytime TV magazine, July 1974
  39. ^ a b "Ask Bob: Mr. T: Kids' New Superhero". The Palm Beach Post. 1983-10-16. p. 250. Retrieved 2020-10-12.
  40. ^ Slenske, Michael (January 2005). "Trivial Pursuits". The List. Retrieved 2008-08-22.

Further reading


External sources