Those were the days, my friends…
Americans were shocked to discover, in the 1950’s, that their favorite TV quiz shows were fixed. Producers of highly popular shows like The 64,000 Question and Twenty-One had conspired with sponsors to rig the shows by adjusting the difficulty of the questions or by actually giving the answers to the contestants they had decided should win. It was their attempt to make the show more “dramatic,” thus ensuring that viewers would continue to watch.
It all hit the fan, though, when a handful of contestants spilled the beans. The shows were cancelled; grand jury and congressional investigations followed. No one was actually convicted of cheating, however, because oddly enough, it wasn’t technically illegal to rig a quiz show at the time. Congress corrected that oversight after the scandals broke. Some participants were convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, though, and others had their professional reputations ruined.
The most notable case was that of Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel. They competed against each other on Twenty-One. When Stempel was forced to lose, he became the first former contestant to blow the whistle. Van Doren, a respected professor at Columbia University, eventually confessed that he had been “deeply involved in a deception.” The story was brilliantly told in the 1994 film Quiz Show. (Watch the actual Van Doren vs. Stemple showdown). In July of 2008, Van Doren broke a fifty-year silence and told his story to the New Yorker.
After the scandals, quiz shows disappeared completely from television for about 10 years, and when they returned, there were strict limits imposed on how much money could be won.
Like I said, Americans were shocked to discover that they had been duped, but they soon changed the channel and started watching professional wrestling, secure in the knowledge that they had found something completely on the up-and-up.