A 55-year-old show that commands 23 million viewers and is the top-rated game show in history. The answer is: “What is Jeopardy!?”
In 1964, the answers-first show made its debut. But if not for a group of popular—and fraudulent—quiz shows, it may never have existed in the first place.
Throughout the late 1950s, viewers were riveted by a series of scandals related to TV quiz shows. The high-stakes games were extremely popular…and extremely rigged. Once the nation realized they were rooting for contestants in televised frauds, a grand jury, a congressional investigation, and even a change in communications law followed. But though the shows were short-lived, their format lives on in Jeopardy!.
Game shows were born right around the dawn of television, but first became popular on the radio. In 1938, Information Please, a radio show that rewarded listeners for submitting questions that stumped an expert panel, debuted. Later that year TV’s first game show, Spelling Bee, appeared. The format really took off after World War II, as more households got TVs. Low-stakes shows like This Is the Missus, which had contestants participate in silly contests, and Queen For a Day, which rewarded women for sharing their sob stories, reeled in daytime viewers.
But it took a Supreme Court suit to usher in big prizes for the shows. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in FCC v. American Broadcasting Co., Inc. that giveaways weren’t gambling. This decision paved the way for higher stakes in game shows. Suddenly, prime-time viewers could choose between a new rash of game shows with massive prizes.
The first popular high-stakes show, The $64,000 Question, created by CBS producer Louis Cowan and based on an older radio show, Take It or Leave It, paid the winners of a riveting general-knowledge quiz the equivalent of over $600,000 in modern dollars if they could beat out experts in their own fields. It was an immediate hit, and so were its most frequent winners. Soon another show, Twenty-One, reeled in NBC viewers by pitting two players against one another in a trivia game that involved isolation booths and headphones.
The shows were popular because of their tense gameplay and gimmicks like audience close-ups, lighting that emphasized a lone contestant thinking, and isolation booths, writes media historian Olaf Hoerschelmann. They “transformed people who were not celebrities or recognized experts in their field into superstars,” he notes.
The nation fell in love with contestants like Joyce Brothers. In 1955 and 1957, the psychologist won the top prize in The $64,000 Question and its successor, beating a panel of actual boxers on obscure questions about the sport. Brothers knew that her chances of getting selected for the show were higher if she could compete as a novelty contestant, so she gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport—literally—by reading 20 volumes of encyclopedias on boxing. Her wins turned her into a household name, and soon she had her own TV show and was on her way to becoming one of the most influential pop psychologists of all time.
Another quiz show darling was Charles Van Doren, a college professor and member of a famously intellectual family. In 1956, he challenged the reigning champion of Twenty-One, a nerdy-looking ex-GI named Herb Stempel, in a weeks-long run of shows that ended in multiple ties and a nail-biting conclusion. Van Doren was clean-cut and handsome, and he offset Stempel perfectly.
When debonair Van Doren finally beat awkward Stempel, it was the talk of the nation. Van Doren, now a star, was featured on other TV shows and upheld as an icon for Cold War Americans. “He is just too likable, too special, too important an icon to the American dream of success to fade from view,” gushed author Maxene Fabe in a characteristic commentary.
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What viewers didn’t realize was that both shows were rigged. “[The quiz shows’] reliance on returning popular contestants also motivated producers and sponsors to manipulate the outcome of the quizzes,” writes Hoerschelmann.
Fixing the shows wasn’t illegal, but it certainly wasn’t ethical. In Brothers’ case, the producers of The $64,000 Question had tired of her winning streak and felt that it was unfair that she had gained what they considered to be a “superficial knowledge” of boxing. So they tried to find questions that would stretch her to the outer limits of her knowledge in an attempt to oust her from the show. (She won anyway.)
In Van Doren’s case, the game show’s gaming was even more overt. Twenty-One producer Dan Enright, had been rigging the show since after its first inception, when a sponsor slammed him for producing a dull show. He coached Stempel, styling him as an antagonist to be pitted against more lovable contestants. Everything from Stempel’s clothing to his language was pre-set.
“I used to go down to Enright's office every Wednesday afternoon before the show,” Stempel said on a 1992 PBS documentary. “Dan Enright would pull out cards with the questions and answers that would be used that evening. I ran through them, he would instruct me when to pause, when to mop my brow. Everything was very carefully choreographed.” When Stempel lost ground against Van Doren during a pivotal question in the series, it was no mistake. Though the topic of the question was his favorite movie, Marty, he pretended he didn’t know it had won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture.
A year after his loss, Stempel was angry that Enright didn't follow through on behind-the-scenes promises to give him a permanent, high-salary job at the network if he threw the show. He approached a reporter with the revelation that Twenty-One was rigged. But without corroboration—and in the face of potential legal threats from NBC—the story was never printed.
Then, in 1958, a contestant from CBS’ Dotto told the Manhattan District Attorney that he had discovered materials that indicated a champion had been given answers to the show’s questions. With the legitimacy of quiz shows now in question, Stempel’s story finally made its way into print.
It was the beginning of the end of quiz shows. Manhattan convened a grand jury that heard over 150 witnesses, but its conclusions were sealed and never made public. Congress investigated instead. When Twenty-One contestant James Snodgrass, who had also been given answers on the show, turned up with registered letters he had mailed to himself at the time of the show—each featuring the questions and answers he’d been given—the jig was up.
Van Doren admitted to lying and resigned his post at Columbia. He and 17 other contestants pleaded guilty to lying under oath to the grand jury in 1959. (They all received suspended sentences and sidestepped jail.) Though the grand jury estimated that two thirds of all witnesses committed perjury, many, like Brothers, continued to deny they had been involved in any rigging. In 1960, Congress put the final nail in the shows’ coffin by amending the Communications Act of 1934. Fixing quiz shows was now illegal.
Today, the shows are primarily remembered as the subject of the 1994 film Quiz Show. But they also made Jeopardy! possible. In 1963, as he mourned the fact that quiz shows had been abandoned by networks, producer Merv Griffin told his wife that the public suspected that networks that did run the shows simply gave contestants the answers.
“Why don’t you give them the answers?” his wife, Julann, responded. Merv countered that the show wouldn’t have enough tension, so Julann countered that contestants could lose money if they asked the wrong questions. “That’ll put them in jeopardy,” she said—and a television legend was born.