Friday, 19 April 2019


My obituary of Charles Van Doren, whose victories in the TV quiz show Twenty-One were the centre piece of the Fifties scandal that shocked America, and formed the basis of the movie Quiz Show, is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper sometime soon.

It is pretty much as was written, though one major part is missing: I over-wrote my word limit giving a bit of background about the quiz shows and American TV in the 1950s, and for want of space, most of that was excised. So too was Van Doren's own best line, but read to end, where it belongs, for that.

I should explain a couple of other things first. My reference to Americans (and it applies to British audiences too) not understanding that reality television is not reality was not, at first thought a reference to Donald J Trump, although I'm sure subconsciously it was. But the late 1990s wave of game-shows and so-called 'reality' programmes which began in Britain or Holland (for example, Millionaire or Big Brother) were tributes to our short memories and producers' lack of imagination. Not having to pay writers or actors is a big thing, and producers can put into the 'real' people whatever words they think the audience most wants or expects to hear.

The words 'false pretences' never appeared in what I wrote, and I am not sure if that is supposed to mean Van Doren appeared under false pretences because he wasn't as smart as they made him seem (which he was) or because he was being coached (which he knew) or whether it's just a reference to the game-show being fixed. There's also a reference to his 'hitting the canvas' which would make more sense had the original comparison to fixed pro wrestling matches (a staple of the early 1950s on American TV) been left in. It was Alan King who famously cracked on The Ed Sullivan Show, "who would've thought the most honest thing on TV was wrestling".

There is also a line about it 'not being hard to understand' why Freedman thought Van Doren would be the perfect challenger, which originally was the lead-in to his biography. Van Doren came from one of America's leading intellectual families, the kind that were called 'egg-heads' by average Americans, and they were not uncommon on TV. In those days, when most of American TV was produced by the three networks a few blocks from each other in Manhattan, there were game shows like What's My Line or To Tell The Truth which featured egg-heads (identifiable by their bow ties), New York newspaper columnists and other intellectual celebrities. It's surprising one of the Van Doren's hadn't got there. Charles father Mark, and his uncle Carl, who also taught at Columbia, won Pulitzer Prizes in back to back years, Mark for poetry, Carl for a biography of Benjamin Franklin. Carl's wife Irita, Charles' aunt, was the books editor of the Herald Tribune, just behind the Times as New York's best books section. They were part of that 'long-hair' cultural world which dominated radio and that niche of TV, much the way a similar group do British media nowadays.

Quiz shows became big business when in 1954 the courts overturned a ban by the Federal Communications Commission which had banned them as 'gambling', ruling the money was legitimate prize winning. As you could tell by the titles of the shows, which Millionaire would echo in our own inflationary times, The $64,000 Question or Tic Tac Dough (which, like Twenty-One was produced by Dan Enright and Jack Barry, though Barry did not host Tic Tac Dough). The gimmick of Twenty-One was that it was played like blackjack, with the questions being more difficult the higher the 'card' number.

When I was a kid, there was a popular newspaper advice column by Dr Joyce Brothers, who also appeared frequently on TV. She had been the first woman winner on the $64,000 Question, but after the scandals broke, it emerged that the producers had tried to stop her winning by stacking the questions against her (something I've often believed was done on the GE College Bowl and its British copy, University Challenge) but she was too good, and answered them anyway.

By 1955, $64,000 Question was the year's top rated programme, at 47.5, which was almost half the country, not just those watching TV. In 1956 it had dropped to fourth (at 36.4) with I Love Lucy at Number One. Although Lucy was a 'celebrity' sit-com (like Burns & Allen or later Ozzie & Harriet) it was also a working-class one (as evidenced by the neighbours, Fred and Ethel Mertz), but working class sitcoms (of which The Honeymooners would be the best example) were about to be phased out in the late Fifties by more middle-class, consumer-aspirational shows like Donna Reed, Leave It To Beaver, or Father Knows Best: set in comfortable suburbs with fathers who seemed to work invisible professional jobs and mothers who kept house in fancy dresses and strings of pearls.

This was the transition foreshadowed by Van Doren's triumph over Herb Stempel. In 1957 Twenty-One broke the year's top 30 for the first time, at number 26 (a 27.6 rating) while $64,000 had falled to 19 (28.1). Gunsmoke had taken over the top, with a 43.1 mark, and four more of the top ten programmes were westerns. By 1961, quiz shows had disappeared from prime time -- the nest big one would be the syndicated Jeopardy, but that generally aired at 7pm just before network prime.

Stempel went public in the Journal-American with his story of fixing (he had deliberately missed an easy question about the Oscar-winning film Marty) and a frustrated contestant from the show Dotto turned over the notebook of Marie Winn, a winner on the show, which contained her questions and answers. In the Congressional Hearings, another Twenty-One contestant, James Snodgrass, produced a similar cheat-sheer which had been sent to him by the show's producers by registered mail.

The show's sponsors, who wanted more drama, were of course unpunished. Barry and Enright both eventually came back into TV. Van Doren, of course, landed on his feet with the help of family connections. His 2008 New Yorker article is worth reading; his account of dealings with TV and movie producers was contested, but it rang true in my experience with the former. It also included a line which I used in my last graf, before the quote about his self-delusions having 'something to do with my family, I suppose'. It seemed to me he wanted to be something different from what he was expected to be (perhaps he should have stuck with astro-physics?). But he said "I was foolish, prideful and avaricious". To me that was the money quote, and I don't understand why it was excised from the story.

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