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My New Book!

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

March 26, 2024: What is Game Show Studying?: Quiz Show Scandals

[On March 30, 1964, the legendary game show Jeopardy debuted. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that classic and a handful of other game show histories! Add your thoughts, obviously in the form of a question, in comments!]

On three ways to contextualize the fixing scandals that dominated the quiz and game show world in the late 1950s.

1)      Entertainment: As with many cultural forms, there are tensions and even contradictions present in the genre of the game show, and illustrated by that name itself: these are indeed games, with rules and results and winners and losers and so on; but they are also shows, designed to appeal to audiences (and needing to do so in order to stay on the air of course). It seems that one of the first and most prominent fixing scandals began as a direct result of that contradiction: the September 1956 debut episode of the NBC quiz show Twenty-One (hosted by Jack Barry) went quite poorly, as the two contestants got most of the questions wrong; the show’s main sponsor Geritol complained to the network and producer Dan Enright and demanded a change. Just a few months later Twenty-One featured an extended run of victories by Herb Stempel, the contestant who would later raise the first accusations of fixing (on his behalf, and then in favor of his successor as champion, Charles Van Doren).

2)      Law: If these scandals were thus very much about entertainment, the responses to them quickly and thoroughly became about something very different: the law. When a fixing scandal for a second game show, Dotto, emerged in August 1958 (as the Twenty-One scandal was also really breaking), the result was nothing short of a nine-month-long New York County grand jury investigation, in the course of which a number of producers and contestants apparently committed perjury rather than admit to their roles in the scandals. The grand jury did not ultimately hand down indictments, but the whole thing then escalated even further, to an August 1959 U.S. Congress subcommittee investigation. That did produce a significant and enduring legal change, a 1960 amending of the influential Communications Act of 1934 which make fixing game shows illegal.

3)      Identity: Quiz Show (1994), the Robert Redford-directed film which focuses on the Twenty-One scandal in particular, certainly engages with all these histories and themes. But I would argue that the film focuses even more on another context, a more ambiguous but also perhaps even more definingly American one: the role that identity and community played for individual figures like the Jewish underdog Stempel (played by John Turturro) and WASP son of privilege Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes). It isn’t always easy to remember that each and every game show contestant is a complicated human being, with all the baggage of heritage, family, community, psychology, and more that influence each of us. But Redford’s film asks us to keep that in mind, not just for these quiz show scandal figures but for everyone who takes part in the long and ongoing tradition of game shows.

Next game show histories tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other game shows you’d highlight?

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