Twenty-One, hosted by Jack Barry and sponsored by Geritol1, was a simple quiz show, starting in 1956 when television was young. This is the show that would end up going down in TV infamy when, in 1958, it was revealed that one of its most popular winners, Charles Van Doren, had been fed answers to fix the result.
In the game, a contestant and the returning champion were placed in isolation booths. They were given a category that the question would fall in and chose what difficulty of question was to be asked, with the highest difficulty question earning 11 points if the answer the contestant gave was correct and the lowest difficulty question earning one point if correctly answered. The first contestant to reach 21 points or more won the game and a chunk of money. It was loosely based on the game of Blackjack. Each point was worth $500, but point values went up when there were ties and extra questions were required.
Winners on the show could take the money and leave the game, or come back the next week for more money. A contestant did not have a limit on how much money could be earned or how many shows he or she could be in. If a challenger beat the champion, the amount of money won by the challenger would be deducted from the defeated champion's final winnings.
The television audience of the 1950s loved game shows, with such popular shows as The $64,000 Question, The Price is Right2, To Tell the Truth and several others ruling the ratings of television. At one point, there were 22 different television game shows on air! The idea of a person winning so much money fascinated people. Radio game shows rarely had prizes over $50, so shows like The $64,000 Question (where one contestant could earn $64,000) were incredible successes.
Because of these successes, NBC asked producer Dan Enright to develop a game show, which would result in the game Twenty-One.
However, not all of the producers of the quiz shows were completely honest. Many of them secretly manipulated the results of the shows to create drama and exciting results for the audience.
Twenty-One hit the air on 12 September, 1956, on NBC without attracting a great deal of attention, especially as it was in a time-slot against the ratings powerhouse sitcom I Love Lucy. Geritol told the producers to raise the ratings (by any means necessary) or risk losing them as sponsor.
Producers realised that they would need to 'fix' the results to attract viewers or their show would go off the air. They would need a champion for the show who would win consistently (because the producers would give him the answers in advance) and thus make people regularly tune in to see the great champion's progress.
One great champion was student Elfrida Von Nardroff, who won a total of $225,600. She was one of the biggest winning contestants of the 1950s quiz show craze. Her celebrity was tarnished when it was found that, as with several other big winners, she had been given the answers beforehand.
One important champion was Herb Stempel3, a working class man who was very intelligent and had a terrific memory. So the producers put him on the air and regularly fed him the answers. As he competed he won a substantial amount of money. In order to make Stempel look his working class role, producers monitored his actions thoroughly. They coached him on his mannerisms on air and changed his appearance. They used his appearance as a common man to try to win ratings. The show rose to be a modest success.
However, Geritol decided that the image Stempel gave, the very one that the producers cultivated, was a negative one. Stempel was sweaty, nervous and not attractive - which is not an image that the company wanted. Geritol told the producers to come up with a new champion, so they set off searching. They discovered a Columbia University literature professor named Charles Van Doren, who was attractive, smart and charming by nature. He came from a family well-known for its association with literature. His father and uncle had each won a Pulitzer Prize award. His father was considered one of the brightest literary minds in the US.
The Van Doren Era
Charlie was just right for our show. No freak with a sponge memory but a genuinely charming young guy.
-Jack Barry, Host of Twenty-One
Charles Van Doren first went on the air on 28 November, 1956 and tied with Herb Stempel. He defeated the champion on 5 December, as producers made Stempel deliberately lose. He answered several questions wrong during that show on purpose - even ones that he would have been able to get right if he had not been fed the answers.
Many thought the reign of Van Doren was an improvement as they thought of him as an intellectual, whereas they thought of Stempel as just having a very good memory. The show became an immediate success and Van Doren a huge celebrity. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and because of him, Twenty-One received the largest ratings in its history. It became the first show to regularly beat I Love Lucy in the ratings, first winning the time slot on 18 February, 1957.
Stempel was disgruntled and angry that Van Doren received a great amount of attention where he received little. He soon told authorities that the game was fixed, but because there was no evidence, nothing happened at first.
Van Doren kept winning for about four months, collecting $129,000 in the process. He finally ended up losing on 11 March, 1957 to Vivian Nearing. As Van Doren left, ratings dropped significantly, losing 17 points4.
The Beginning of the End
All this time, Stempel had been angry and tried to tell people the truth about the show, but he was unable to generate any publicity. However, when a contestant from the quiz show Dotto, Edward Hilgemeier Jr, found that another contestant had her answers before the show, he reported this and generated some attention. Only after this happened was Stempel able to bring attention to the scandal on Twenty-One.
Stempel's accusations eventually were brought to the public eye along with evidence from James Snodgrass, a contestant who had mailed registered letters addressed to himself about the outcome of the shows along with the answers for the show. This proved that the outcomes of the show were fixed. These accusations became big news and very quickly the ratings for the quiz shows, including Twenty-One, dropped significantly. The show was cancelled because of these accusations.
A grand jury in New York assembled in late 1958 to investigate the quiz show scandals. Fixing a game show was not illegal and admitting to it could cause no punishment, except embarrassment, to the guilty people. Almost all of the important contestants and figures in the show, Van Doren among them, committed perjury by saying they did not cheat, instead of admitting to an activity that was not illegal.
In November, 1958, after the report of the New York grand jury was sealed, the House Committee on Legislative Oversight of Congress convened to investigate this again, suspecting a cover-up. Some people now admitted to fixing the quiz shows and on 2 November, Van Doren appeared at the hearings amid a media frenzy. He admitted to participating in the fixing of the quiz show, saying:
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.
Because of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s (and there were more scandals than that of Twenty-One, it was just the most important one), the networks pulled many game shows and they were never as popular as before. They also ended the practice of having one product or company sponsor a show, as it gave that company too much control. This story serves as an example of how a sponsor (Geritol in this case) can manipulate a show.
Congress also made fixing a game show a federal crime.
Charles Van Doren took a job with Encyclopedia Britannica and stayed away from the public eye following the scandal.
Quiz Show - The Film
Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing.
In 1994, Robert Redford directed a movie on the show called Quiz Show, adapted from the book by Richard N Goodwin, restoring some public attention to the quiz show scandals of the 1950s and of course Twenty-One.