Saturday, January 1, 2011

IT'S A SET UP!!!!: Rigged Game Shows

Last Sunday, I watched a news report on Richmond’s WRIC channel 8 station about Gabe Okoye and Brittany Mayti, who lost $800,000 on the series premiere of FOX’s Million Dollar Money Drop. Here was the question:

Which of these was sold first in stores?
A. Macintosh Computer
B. Sony Walkman
C. Post-It Notes

The couple placed $800,000 on “Post-It Notes” and $80,000 on “Sony Walkman”. The correct answer was originally “Sony Walkman” and the couple lost $800,000. However, the correct answer was actually Post-it Notes, with the Post-It Notes first sold in 1977, the Macintosh Computer first sold in 1984, and the Sony Walkman first sold in 1979. Because of FOX’s “mistake”, Okoye and Mayti will have a chance to come back on the show and play for the million dollars a second time. Reading and watching Million Dollar Money Drop almost cheating two contestants out of a bundle of big bucks (even though they still lost the game and won nothing) inspired me to write this week’s article on rigged and crooked game shows throughout the years.

Let’s take a moment to jump in the time machine and go back to a simpler time, a time where cable television was non-existent and the “Big Three” networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) ruled the television airwaves; let’s go back to 1956. During this time, many American households had switched from radio to television as their primary source of entertainment. Game shows, particularly quiz shows, were growing in popularity due to the U.S. competing with Russia during the Cold War.  Another reason why quiz shows were doing well during that era was because the television audience, as well as the studio audience, enjoyed watching contestants on various quiz shows winning a substantial amount of money for answering questions that required a large amount of knowledge in a wide range of subjects. With this in mind, it wasn’t uncommon to see “big money” game shows airing at the time such as The $64,000 Question and Tic Tac Dough. These big money game shows brought in big time ratings for the networks airing the shows, but unfortunately have also produced rigged episodes in an attempt increase their ratings, which nearly ruined the game show industry in the process. The first show to lead the chain of quiz show scandals was The $64,000 Question.

The $64,000 Question title card
The $64,000 Question debuted on CBS on July 7, 1955 hosted by Hal March. This show was based on the 1940’s CBS radio quiz show Take It or Leave It (later changed to The $64 Question in 1950). The premise of The $64,000 Question was the contestant answering questions pertaining to the category of their choice and doubling their money with each correct answer starting from the first question worth $1. If a contestant can answer all seventeen questions correctly, they won $64,000. Each contestant who played could stop the game after answering any question correctly and take the cash they have won.  However, if the contestant answers any question incorrectly before reaching the $8,000 question, they left the game with nothing. If the contestant answers any question incorrectly beyond the $8,000 question, the contestant left the game with no money, but received a new Cadillac as a consolation prize. For three years, this show took America by storm by taking the number one spot in nighttime television ratings at the time for about three years, that is until Twenty-One came on to the scene.

Famed psychologist and game show contestant Dr. Joyce
Brothers celebrating her victory.
The show was so successful that it not only spawned a spin-off called The $64,000 Challenge, but it also increased Revlon cosmetics sales by 200 percent because it was the show’s sponsor. This show also made contestants into celebrities overnight with their success on the show, especially the now famous psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, the second $64,000 winner in the show’s history. Although the show was successful during its time, producer Mark Goodson spoke to one of the show’s producer, Lou Cowan, and said “I felt that it was an interesting idea in theory, [but], in practice, I don’t think that little people, average people are ever going to reach for those high stakes and risk your money or they’re going to fail along the way. [Cowan] said, “I don’t think you’re right”. I said “Lou, the only way this show is going to work is if it’s rigged, if you fix it.”(1)  And lo and behold, after Cowan left the show, the producers started to rig and manipulate the show in order to maintain its incredible success and sponsors. The rigging of the show manly revolved around the manipulation of the contestants. The producers and sponsors would often hold meetings to discuss which contestants would stay on the show to play for the “big bucks” and which contestants to get rid of from the show. According to Mark Goodson, “[w]hat they would do is take that [contestant] aside and ask him 200 questions in his [or her] own field. And they would examine his [or her] answers and they would then know what he [or she] knew.” (1)  From this information, if the producers wanted to keep the contestant on the show, they would ask the contestant easier questions, but if the producers didn’t want a contestant on the show, they would ask the contestants questions that almost had nothing to do with the category the player selected or more difficult questions that the producers chose to ensure that the contestant could not possibly answer that question correctly.  None of these acts of fraud would be contested to the news medium until a contestant by the name of Reverend Charles "Stoney" Jackson appeared on The $64,000 Challenge. Jackson won $4,000 on the show answering questions pertaining to “The World’s Greatest Lovers”. Most of the contestants on The $64,000 Challenge were indirectly given the answers to the question for the show, and didn’t realized it until they were on the air. Jackson recalls one of the moments he was briefed by stating it in a PBS interview:
  “I came to New York for the Challenge. They had a producer, her name was Shirley Bernstein. She was the sister of the late Leonard Bernstein. When I was in the office, she looked at me and said, "Do you know who wrote a poem similar to Marlowe's on Hero and Leander?" I said, "No, I do not." As I walked out of the office, she yelled at me, "It was Thomas Hood." In that booth, I was totally surprised when the question turned out to be Thomas Hood. There was the temptation to say to Ralph Story, "I know the answer to this because Shirley Bernstein gave it to me." It was a con game, that's all -- a scam from start to finish.” (1)

Upset with the issue, Jackson contacted Time magazine and The New York Times to report the scam, but neither of those companies cared, but rather had the “Why ruin a good thing?” philosophy. Many other “big money” game shows during the 1950’s such as Tic Tac Dough and The Big Surprise followed in the crooked footsteps of the producers of The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge and briefed some of their contestants about the questions before going on the air. But of all of the game show scandals arising at the time, the most famous of these scandals would be the notorious, infamous Barry & Enright game show Twenty-One.

Charles Van Doren's appearance on the
cover of Time magazine
Twenty-One premiered on NBC on September 10, 1956 with Jack Barry as the show’s emcee. The object of the game was to be the first contestant to get to 21 points first by answering questions ranging in difficulty from one point (being the easiest) up to 11 points (being the most difficult). A correct answer earned the contestant the point value they were going for, while an incorrect answer deducted the point from the contestant’s score. The game could end in one of four ways: if either contestant stopped the game after certain questions and the player with the highest score was the winner, if either contestant reached the score of 21 points, if neither contestant reached the score of 21 points in five rounds and the player with the highest score was the winner, or if the game ended in a 21-21 tie. The difference in scores determined the winner’s winnings. The winner received $500 for each point separating the contestants' scores. For example, if the winner won a game 21-11, they would win a total of $5,000.  The $500 figure increased by $500 each time the contestants went to a 21-21 tie. The winner of the game became the current champion, and could keep playing on the show as long as they kept winning their games. The champion could opt to walk away with their winnings after winning any game because if the champion lost any future game they played, the new champion's winnings would be taken out of their final total. The show was advertised to have contestants winning huge cash prizes and there was no limit to how much a contestant could win or how long they could stay on the show. Before the show had staggering ratings as it had been remembered for, Twenty-One had a rough start. On some of the first episodes of the show, there were several games which ended with a 0-0 tie. These shows were so bad that Twenty-One’s sponsor, Geritol, threatened to end their sponsorship with the program. This also easily eliminated the home viewer’s excitement for either contestant to win large amounts of money, rewarding them for their incredible knowledge of general trivial; therefore, this show brought in less than average rating because of the multiple tie games. Dan Enright, one of the show’s producers commented that, “[Twenty-One] lacked all drama, it lacked all suspense. And next morning, the sponsor called my partner, Jack Barry, and me and told us in no uncertain terms that he never wanted to see a repeat of what happened the previous night. And from that moment on, we decided to rig Twenty-One.”(1)  

Six-week Twenty One champion Herbert Stempel
The rigging of Twenty-One made The $64,000 Question’s acts of chicanery look like mere mishaps. Twenty-One was almost completely choreographed, with a vast majority of the contestants fully complying with the producers for the rigging of the show.  The producers (for a lack of better works) “left no stone unturned” while they were in the process of creating the perfect quiz show. The producers coached the contestants what to say to the host, how to dress for certain episodes, which questions to answer correctly and which ones to miss on purpose, how much money they should win on the show, how to react to certain questions, when to take dramatic pauses, and even down to pretending to “crumble under the intense pressure” by sweating inside the booth with the help of switching off the air conditioning at the contestant’s request. “You want the viewer to react     
emotionally to a contestant. “Whether he reacts favorably or negatively is really not that important. The important thing is that he react. He should watch a contestant, hoping that the contestant will win or he should watch the contestant, hoping the contestant will lose.” (1); this remark was said by Enright when commenting about the acceptance of Herb Stempel, one of the more infamous contestants, onto the show.  

After taking almost four hours to complete a difficult preliminary quiz containing over 100 categories and passing it with flying colors, Herbert Stempel was the perfect candidate for the program at the time. Herbert Stempel served in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps from 1946 until 1952.  In 1952, he began attending City College of New York under the G.I. Bill after serving in the Army.  Based on this information, Stempel was to pose as an ex-G.I. working his way through college. He was asked by the producers to put on an old, ill-fitting suit and get a “Marine-type” style haircut in order to create the appearance that he was an overconfident, smug, know-it-all nerd. Stempel would often go to Enright’s office before going on the show and review the questions he was to answer for that show and the stage cues he had to memorize in order to make the show genuine, such as taking dramatic pauses while thinking about a question to build suspense and when to mop his brow to reduce the sweat caused by nervousness. According to Stempel, “The hardest part of the show was not remembering the answers or knowing the answers, but, rather, remembering, "Mop your brow twice, count to ten," and "Breath heavily." This was the hardest part of the show was remembering the stage directions which Enright had choreographed.” (1)  For the month and a half that he was on the program, he became an overnight success, a national icon, and amassed a total of $49,500 from his “victories”. But soon enough, the show’s ratings started to plummet and America was growing tired of Stempel’s incredible run on the show, so the producer’s decided to get rid of him.

Stempel and Van Doren's fourth game in process
The process began by Enright docking Stempel’s total earnings and using that money as insurance for the producers in case they got “caught in the act”. It eventually resulted in the producers forcing Stempel to lose his next game against his next challenger, Charles Van Doren. One of the questions that Stempel was told to take a dive on was pertaining to the category of “Movies and Movie Stars”. The question was “What motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?” The correct answer was Marty--- but Stempel was told to give the answer On The Waterfront. It was ironic that he was told to take a dive on that question because Marty was his all-time favorite movie; therefore, he knew the answer prior to being coached the correct answer to that question. On a side note, while I was watching the Stempel/Van Doren episode, I noticed that Stempel looked sad and heartbroken while he was answering that question because of the fact that after he lost this game, he would revert from the lap of luxury to mundane process that was his life. However, the question that ultimately decided the winner of the fifth game (at $2,500 a point) was “Name the second, third, fourth, and fifth wives of Henry VIII and describe their fate”.  That night, about 15 million viewers all across the nation watched as Charles Van Doren become the new champion winning $20,000 that night. Van Doren was a handsome, quick-witted, American Bachelor who was smart as a whip and was perfect eye candy for the home viewers. This Columbia University professor was everything that Enright was looking for when searching for the “perfect contestant” for Twenty-One. Since Van Doren’s began his “reign of terror” on December 5, 1956, Van Doren’s and the show's popularity flourished. Van Doren won a total of $129,000 on the show, made it to the cover of an issue of Time Magazine, was hired as a host of NBC’s Today Show, and was praised by his students and viewers alike. Twenty-One was now the most popular show on television, constantly beating I Love Lucy in the primetime ratings until after the spring of 1957, when Van Doren lost. Van Doren eventually lost to Vivian Nearing on March 11, 1957.  Meanwhile, a dejected Herb Stempel was still feeling bitter about throwing his final game. There was even one instance when while he was walking through the backstage, two technicians were talking amongst themselves, and one said, “At least we finally have a clean-cut intellectual on the program, not a freak with a sponge memory”. Stempel felt hurt, used and betrayed when he left the studio. Upset by this matter, he attempted to blow the whistle on Enright’s whole ploy by calling Jack O’ Brian, a columnist for the Journal-American newspaper, to report the whole story of what was really happening. No one would buy Stempel’s story “because there was no real [confirmation] from anybody else who had been on the show [that it had been rigged]”.(1)   The newspapers refused to print the story until two things happened: the Dotto Scandal, and the discovery of proof that Twenty-One had been rigged.

Dotto host Jack Narz
Dotto was a daytime game show that premiered on January 6, 1958 on CBS hosted by Jack Narz. The show later switched to a primetime game show airing on NBC, because of its immense success during the daytime. The main objective of Dotto was for players to answer questions correctly, which enabled the players to connect the dots to a portrait, which revealed a person, place, or thing. On a side note, this is similar to the first round of the ‘90s Nickelodeon game show Get The Picture, appropriately named “Connect The Dots”. The first player to correctly identify what the picture was, whether or not all of the dots had been connected, won the game and was rewarded $10 ($100 in the primetime version) for each unconnected dot. In spite of the show’s success, Dotto met its untimely demise when a standby contestant found a small notebook containing the answers to questions and puzzles for that show in a contestant’s dressing room. The standby contestant then took the notebook and showed it to a newspaper reporter. To say the least, Dotto was immediately taken off the air and the story went national. It turned out that Stempel’s story about Twenty-One had made sense after all.  If that was not bad enough, James Snodgrass, a former Twenty-One contestant, would later testify that he had a copy of the question and answers he sent to himself by mail two days before his appearance on the show. One of the questions on his cheat sheet read, “May 11, 1957- the following are questions for the first game on the television quiz program, Twenty- One. Category: American literature, 11 points. Identify the major American poets who wrote the following lines of poetry.” (1)   This was the irrefutable evidence that Twenty-One was rigged. Soon after, all quiz shows during the 1950’s were being investigated. A law was soon passed by Congress prohibiting the fixing of quiz shows and any other form of contest.(2)

One by one, the quiz shows that were once welcome with open arms by households across the nation were now a disgrace to the television community and soon dropped by all television networks. As a result of all of the madness, many of the former contestants and producers who were participants in the rigged shows were ruined. Many of the contestants were arrested and charged, not for being on the rigged shows, but for perjury. Charles Van Doren’s life, like many other contestants, had been ruined. He was fired from his job as a professor at Columbia University and his hosting job from the Today show. Van Doren stayed out the public spotlight until his court appearance in 1959. Stempel graduated from City College of New York under the G.I. Bill and later he became a high school social studies teacher for the New York school system.  As far as the producers are concerned, Jack Barry was blacklisted from the television industry until 1969 and Dan Enright’s reputation as an American producer was tarnished. He moved to Canada to work on local television stations there until he was able to find a job in the U.S. until 1975. Barry and Enright would eventually team up with each other again in 1972 to produce incredible shows (which weren’t tampered with) like Bullseye and The Joker’s Wild.  

Because of the scandals, “big money” game shows would not be seen again until the premiere of The $10,000 Pyramid in 1973 on CBS. Networks were now forced to establish winnings limits on all game shows in order to meet the “Standards & Practices” guidelines.  During the 70s and 80s, most shows had a winnings cap of $25,000-$125,000 per champion that appeared on the show. The winnings cap on all game shows was abolished in 2007. Each show now is closely monitored by their own “Standards and Practices” departments. There were still some speculations that a quiz show scandal would arise again, such as the accusation of Michael Larson “cheating” on Press Your Luck by memorizing the board’s bouncing light patterns in 1984 (shown in the video above) and Terry Kniess’s perfect Showcase bid in 2008 on The Price is Right. (Click here to listen to Kniess‘s radio interview concerning his “perfect bid”).  The first time that America would see a game show scandal since the 1950s would be the never-aired 2010 FOX game show Our Little Genius.

On January 13, 2010, FOX was to premiere with a brand new kid’s quiz show called Our Little Genius. Kevin Pollack, the host of Million Dollar Money Drop, was to be the host of the program. The show centered around child geniuses answering adult-level questions for up to $500,000.  Mark Burnett, the show’s producer, commented “I love that we’re shining a light on these academic geniuses. “So much light is shined on gymnasts, football players, singers and actors. It’s not often that you get a light shined on academics.” (3)  It wouldn’t be soon until the “Quiz show scandal of the 1950s” would once again rear in its ugly head to ruin this show.  On December 22, 2009, the F.C.C., or the Federal Communications Commission, received a letter from the parent of a child who was chosen to be a contestant on the show. The letter stated that a member of the program’s production staff met with the contestants and his parents to review the list of possible topics and also to discuss the correct answers to at least four of the questions that would be asked on the show that could be tough for the child to answer. One of the topics discussed in letter between the show’s participants and staff was the British system of naming musical notes. The contestant was told by the staff to make sure that he knew four specific notes, which included the semibreve, crochet, quaver, and the hemidemisemiquaver. There was also an additional sheet attached to the letter entitled “Addendum to the Series Rules”. This document merely stated that “in the event the Little Genius answers question 1, 2, 3, or 4 incorrectly, the contestants will be entitled to the one (1) time opportunity, but not the obligation, to restart game play with a new question set.” (4)  This was used to eliminate the possibility of any contestant leaving the game with nothing if they missed one of the first four questions.  The F.C.C. kept the author of the letter, the child contestant, and the parent of the contestant anonymous for privacy reasons.   As a result of executive producer Burnett finding out about this, the show was pulled a week before its debut date. Burnett said in a statement “I recently discovered that there was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the preproduction of ‘Our Little Genius.’ As a result, I am not comfortable delivering the episodes without reshooting them. I believe my series must always be beyond reproach, so I have requested that Fox not air these episodes.” (5)

After I watched an episode of one of the many rigged episodes of Twenty-One, I was impressed with the show they carefully put together in order to grab the interest of the general audience, down to the perfect amount of suspense and tension. What the producers were attempting to do back then was to create the perfect game show with the perfect contestants winning spectacular cash prizes. In trying to create the “perfect” game show and the “perfect” game show moments, they deceived the home viewers all across the nation, disgraced the name television game shows and ultimately destroyed themselves in the process. What the producers would later realize that priceless moments happen on their own merit and cannot be choreographed. From Bob Barker and Bob Eubanks being picked up by Samoans to Ken Jennings’ 74-game winning streak on Jeopardy!, these moments happen without warning and keep the viewers tuned in to their favorite game show to watch the next unexpected, exciting event that might happen.  

Interesting Facts: 
NBC's Twenty-One logo
- Dr. Joyce Brothers won a total of $134,000 with her appearances on The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge.
- Monty Hall, popularly known for Let's Make a Deal, took over Jack Barry's hosting duties for Twenty-One during the summer of 1958.
- The infamous Twenty-One scandal made it to the silver screen in the 1994 movie Quiz Show.
- ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire was based on the gameplay of The $64,000 Question.
- NBC brought Twenty-One back from the grave in 2000 with higher stakes and host Maury Povich. 

(3)- “Oh, Just Answer the Question, Honey”. By Edward Hyatt.  January 5, 2010.
(4)- F.C.C. Opens an Inquiry for a Game Show on Fox”.  By Edward Hyatt. February 19, 2010.
(5)- “Fox Drops ‘Little Genius’ Premiere”. January 7, 2010. 

**All screenshots have been taken from the actual episodes of Twenty-One or Google Images. No ownership is implied.**

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