In the Spring of '57, before computer graphics and electronic wizardry turned game shows into kaleidoscopic casinos, the hot program on the airwaves was called TWENTY-ONE, a quiz game with point values loosely based on blackjack.
The Set was simple: a lectern for the host, quiz-king Jack Barry, two isolation booths for the opposing contestants and a banner proclaiming "Geritol," the show's sponsor.
Herbert Stempel, who said he was a struggling ex-GI, was the reigning leader that season, fighting off challengers for weeks on end, accumulating $48,000 in winnings.
Enter one Charles Van Doren, a rakishly handsome Columbia University professor, who toppled Stempel, eventually winning $129,000 on his own.
Almost transfixed, the nation watched them spar and jibe, pivot and parry, listening to the nervous answers and watching the perspiration bead on their foreheads. The problem was, as both would later admit, the whole thing was rigged.
Stempel, who had been paid to take the dive, finked to the press. But it wasn't until two years later that Van Doren, subpoenaed to Washington from his family's Connecticut hideaway, finally broke down before a House subcommittee and admitted he had been "deeply involved in a deception."
The TWENTY-ONE case was at the heart of what later became known as the Great Quiz Scandal, eventually leading to a New York grand jury investigation and a congressional hearing. The toughest convictions were only for perjury, but the scandals changed the way television is dished out to the American public.
At issue was the relationship between the networks and producers who worked directly for program sponsors. Scandal analysts say the networks had no control over content, and that it was the sponsors who had the histrionics staged, backing contestants with screen-appeal, and booting those who'd been on too long.
Today's tight network control over content and producers is a direct result of the scandals, they say.
A producer of the $64,000 Question, one of the most popular shows of its time, told the House committee that his hand were tied, that cosmetics conglomerate Revlon, the show's sponsor, wanted to achieve high ratings by controlling the contestants.
Producer Merton Koplin estimated that between 60 and 70 per cent of the winners on the program received some sort of "help." He reported Revlon instructed the producers on who they felt was likeable. Indeed, sales of Revlon's "Living Lipstick," which appeared on the show, reached astronomical levels.
Show producers at the time defended the shows as entertainment, saying the participants were "paid entertainers," like actors. But that's not how the duped public saw it, and there were plenty of stoolies to go around.
•The Rev. Charles E. "Stony" Jackson, a contestant on the $64,000 CHALLENGE, told the grand jury he had been "screened" in advance with information that enabled him to win.
•Waiting backstage, a standby contestant from an NBC show called DOTTO, in which contestants guessed celebrity caricatures by filling in the dots, caught a glimpse of the current champion, Marie Winn, studying from a notebook filled with puzzle answers. The contestant told the New York Post and the show was abruptly cancelled.
•In the TWENTY-ONE case, both Stempel and Van Doren said they had been coached with answers and even gestures and expressions. To look the part of a vet, Stempel was told to get a close-cropped haircut, and wear an old suit.
Only the sweat wasn't simulated: the show's producer's intentionally neglected to ventilate the isolation booths.
The Great Quiz Scandal made for hot press at the time, and its repercussions continue in the game show world today. Contestants are carefully screened, and security is tight on the set when the games are in progress.
Despite the negative watchdog appearance these precautions create, the scandal in its own way served its purpose. The integrity of game shows was preserved, paving the way for the growth of the game show craze where players and fans alike can believe what they play and watch is fair.
-by Laura Accinelli