March 11, 2010

Goodbye, Charlie Van Doren...

On this date in 1958, Charles Van Doren finally lost, after almost two months of victories, on the hit TV quiz show Twenty One.

Van Doren came to the show after attending a variety of prestigi
ous colleges, including England's Cambridge University, and earning (in addition to his bachelor's degree) a master's in astrophysics and a doctorate in English. When he left the show, he was a game show star with $129,000 in prize money, a 3-year contract as a cultural correspondent for Today (morning TV show), and guest appearances on other NBC shows.

Pretty good, huh?

ut soon accusations that the quiz show was “rigged” arose. Van Doren denied any wrongdoing and said that it was “silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows.” By November of 1959, however, Van Doren admitted in a Congressional hearing that he had been given questions and answers ahead of time.

It turned out that, not only was Twenty One a scripted show—with contestants coached in how to build drama with gestures such as wiping their foreheads or pausing with furrowed brow, apparently thinking hard—but other quiz shows popular at the time were rigged as well: The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge, The Big Surprise, Dotto, and Tic Tac Dough.

Doren was certainly not the major cheater in this plot. He testified that he had asked to go on the show honestly, and with his wide-ranging interests and learning, and his intelligence, he might have done very well, but the show's producers assured him that quiz shows were for entertainment only; scripting them, they claimed, was common practice and just a part of show business. The other producers and contestants were participants in the scheme as well.

Do you think that today's TV quiz shows are fair and above-board?

Quiz Show (the 1994 movie about the scandal).

Did you know...?
  • TV was a new medium in the 1950s, and quiz shows became very popular. For one thing, during this time intellectual knowledge was greatly respected. But the main thing that kept audiences interested was the amazing amounts of money awarded.
Before TV, there were some radio quiz shows. However, the money given out in those shows was almost never over $100. The show that was the “parent” of The $64,000 Question (on TV) was The $64 Question (on radio). And the prizes didn't go up gradually—they jumped from $64 to 64 THOUSAND dollars in just one step. (In today's money, that would be half a million dollars).
  • When the shows were “found out,” because there was nothing illegal about cheating on game shows, nobody went to prison. However, Congress quickly passed a law making any future cheating on game shows a federal crime. President Eisenhower said that the cheating was “a terrible thing to do to the American people.”
  • People felt particularly lied to because a ridiculous amount of effort was made to show that the contestants could not possibly know the questions ahead of time. On some shows, contestants were put into glass isolation booths (with no air conditioning, so they would sweat as if nervous or thinking hard), armed police brought sealed envelopes with the questions, or complicated machines delivered the questions as if they had been untouched by human hands.
Is “Reality TV” really real?

Do some thinking about what is known as “reality TV.” Do you think some of these shows are scripted, even though they claim to be UNscripted?

Is there any evidence, either for or against their reality?

According to a CNN poll, 57% of adults surveyed believe that “Reality” TV shows provide a “distorted” view of actual events, with clever editing to pump up the drama or suspense. Another 23% of adults surveyed believe that the shows are “totally phony.”

I personally know someone who was approached at a mall and asked to appear in a reality TV show that focuses on mothers and daughters. The teenage girl immediately said that her mother would never go along with it, but she was told, “That's okay. We can find someone who's believable as your mother.” The girl still refused to take part . This tiny anecdote suggests that at least some show producers don't mind a big does of “false” in their “reality.”

Do some online quizzes
at FunBrain or FunTrivia.

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