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NBC’s 1950s quiz show scandal

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In the mid-1950s, in prime time, quiz shows were the thing. CBS started the ball rolling with “The $64,000 Question.” NBC countered with “Twenty-One.” The shows were very popular.
In August 1958, a contestant on “Twenty-One,” Herbert Stempel, said the game was fixed and that Charles Van Doren, who had defeated him, was in on the fix.
After at first denying the charges, Mr. Van Doren finally confessed before a congressional subcommittee. Albert Freedman, the producer of the show, asked Mr. Van Doren to come to his apartment, Mr. Van Doren said, and, “He told me that Herbert Stempel, the current champion, was an `unbeatable’ contestant because he knew too much,” according to the text of Mr. Van Doren’s testimony as recounted in the book “CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye.”
Mr. Freedman, the testimony continued, “said that Stempel was unpopular and was defeating opponents right and left to the detriment of the program. He asked me if, as a favor to him, I would agree to make an arrangement whereby I would tie Stempel and thus increase the entertainment value of the show.
“I asked him to let me go on the program honestly, without receiving help. He said that was impossible. He told me that I would not have a chance to defeat Stempel because he was too knowledgeable. He also told me that the show was merely entertainment and that giving help to quiz contestants was a common practice and merely a part of show business. This, of course, was not true, but perhaps I wanted to believe him. He also stressed the fact that by appearing on a nationally televised program I would be doing a great service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general by increasing public respect for the work of the mind through my performances.
“In fact, I think I have done a disservice to all of them.”
Mr. Van Doren, 30, who had been an English professor at Columbia University in New York, was forced to resign his post. He later wrote books under an assumed name and worked for a time for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Finally, in the ’80s, he felt comfortable enough to author books using his real name.