Popular 1950s game shows included What’s My Line ?, Twenty-One, I’ve Got a Secret, Name That Tune and You Bet Your Life. Viewership ratings are the fuel that powers television generally and game shows most particularly. It did not take long for game show producers to figure out that they could manipulate their shows to enhance viewership. For example, contestants, who were popular with the audience, would be given advantages that other contestants did not receive, thus making it more likely that the popular contestant would win and come back for the next show. Of course, the audiences would come back with him or her. The rigging of game shows was a badly kept secret. There were newspapers stories about the suspicions and congressional committees held hearings. But, the contestants were tight-lipped and nothing was proven. That is until a contestant on the game show Twenty-One had a pang of conscience and admitted the scheme. (“The Quiz-Show Scandal,” Walter Karp, American Heritage, May/June 1989 Volume 40 Issue 4.) (See discussion of Twenty-One below.)
What’s My Line? had a run from 1950 through 1967. It was the longest-running U.S. primetime network television game-show. On the show, four celebrity panelists must determine a contestant’s occupation by asking only “yes” or “no” questions. Each show featured a celebrity guest contestant, who would have been well known to the panelists. Using the “yes” or “no” question format, the panelists, who were blindfolded, had to guess the identity of the guest. Over the years, the list of guest celebrities made up a virtual who’s who of the entertainment and sports world. The show was moderated by John Charles Daly and regular panelists were Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, and Bennett Cerf. What’s My Line? won three Emmy Awards for “Best Quiz or Audience Participation Show” in 1952, 1953, and 1958.
I’ve Got a Secret featured four celebrity panelists who try to guess a secret about the contestant. The contestant’s “secret” was something that was unusual, amazing, embarrassing or humorous about that person/people. The secret was always shown to the television and studio audience. Each panelist had one 30-second period to ask questions that will help them try to guess the secret; if a panelist failed to guess the secret before the buzzer, the contestant received $20 and the next panelist gets a turn. The process repeats until either the secret is guessed, or if all four panelists are unable to guess the secret, the contestant receives the maximum payout of $80. During the final segment of each show, a celebrity guest revealed his/her own secret, each followed by a segment, in which the panelists participated. The regular celebrity panelists were game show host Bill Cullen, comedian Henry Morgan, TV hostess Faye Emerson, and actress Jayne Meadows.
Name That Tune was a game show that pitted two contestants against each other to test their knowledge of popular songs. The contestants stood across the stage from two large ship’s bells as the studio orchestra started playing tunes. The orchestra also featured a vocalist for the show’s entire run. The position was held by Kathie Lee Gifford, then known as Kathie Lee Johnson, who performed until 1978. When a contestant knew the tune s/he ran across the stage to “ring the bell and name that tune!” Additional challenges included contestants bidding to see who could “name that tune” in as few notes as possible – “I can name that tune in (insert number) notes.” Four tunes were played every game, and each tune was worth increasing dollar amounts. The first tune was worth $5 and each subsequent tune was worth double the previous tune, up to $40 for the fourth and final tune. The player with the most money after four tunes won the game and played the bonus game called the “Golden Medley.” In the Golden Medley Marathon, a winning home viewer and the winning studio contestant worked as a team. This time, the two players had to correctly guess five tunes in 30 seconds, and if they did so they split $10,000 and returned the next week to try and do it again. They could keep coming back for up to four additional weeks, and potentially could win a combined $50,000.
You Bet Your Life was a comedy quiz series that aired on both radio and television. The show was hosted by Groucho Marx with announcer and assistant George Fenneman. The show debuted on ABC Radio on October 27, 1947, then moved to CBS Radio debuting October 5, 1949, before making the transition to NBC-TV and NBC Radio on October 4, 1950. Because of its simple format, it was possible to broadcast the show simultaneously on radio and television. The last episode in its radio format aired on June 10, 1960. On television, however, the series continued for another year, debuting in its final season on September 22, 1960. Gameplay on each episode of You Bet Your Life was generally secondary to Groucho’s comedic interplay with contestants and often with Fenneman. Groucho almost always had a cigar in his mouth, and he often used it as a prop in his improvised skits.
Contestant teams on You Bet Your Life usually consisted of one male and one female, most selected from the studio audience. Occasionally, famous or otherwise interesting figures would appear on the show. Groucho would introduce the contestants and engage in humorous conversations in which he would improvise his responses or employ prepared lines written by the show’s writers using pre-show interviews. After the contestants’ introduction and interview, the actual game began. Couples were allowed to choose from a list of 20 available categories before the show; then they tried to answer a series of questions within that category. From 1947 to 1956, couples were asked four questions. From 1947 to 1956, if a couple ended their quiz with $25 or less, Marx would ask a very easy question so they could receive consolation money of $25 (later $100), which did not count toward the scores.
Some show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the “secret word,” a common word revealed to the audience at the outset of each show. If one of the contestants said the word, a toy duck resembling Groucho—with eyeglasses and a mustache—descended from the ceiling to bring a $100 prize, which would then be divided equally between that segment’s two-person team. The duck was occasionally replaced with various other things; for example, in one episode, Groucho’s brother Harpo came down instead of the duck, and in another a female model attired in a tight bodice and very short skirt came down in a birdcage with the money. In his conversations with contestants, Marx would at times direct their exchanges in ways to increase the likelihood that someone would use the secret word.
The televised You Bet Your Life went the way of most prime time game shows in 1961, the victim of quiz scandals and dwindling audience interest in the game show format.
Twenty-One was modeled after the card game. Two contestants faced off against each other in a battle to get 21 points. Points were acquired by answering questions ranging in difficulty from one to eleven. The questions had an increasing monetary value. The greater the value of the question, the harder the answer. If a player missed, he was eliminated. The winner could continue as long as he wanted to challenge the ever-increasing risk. The winner being the one who stopped with the higher point total or with twenty-one points outright. Twenty-One was one of the most popular game shows on TV. At one point, when contestant Charles Van Duren was playing and winning week after week, more than 25 million viewers watched each show. Van Duren accumulated winnings of about $130,000, which has a 2020 value of $1,248,415. (TFC, Vol. VI, p. 44.)
Charles Van Doren, an unknown college professor with a prestigious family background that included multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, became a national phenomenon as a contestant on Twenty-One. Between November 28, 1956, and March 11 of the following year, Van Doren was by far the most popular, the most lauded, the most talked-about person on television. Twenty thousand admiring letters poured in on him. He gave out press interviews to some five hundred reporters and appeared frequently as a guest on other television shows. He had to hire a secretary—whom he later married—to handle his mail and a talent agency to cope with all the book, lecture, and movie contracts that were waved in his face. He was the pride of the nation’s teachers, a model for schoolchildren, “so likeable,” wrote a Chicago television critic, “that he has come to be a ‘friend’ whose weekly visits the whole family eagerly anticipates.”
But, it was too good to be true; the show was fixed by the producers, who determined who the winner would be based on audience and viewer popularity. To ensure that the favored player won, he was given the questions and answers before the show. A former Twenty-One contestant, who was jealous that Van Doren was chosen over him to be the designated winner, went public with the scheme. This led to investigations by state criminal authorities, Federal regulators and Congressional committees.
A formal congressional subcommittee investigation began in summer 1959. Van Doren eventually came forth with revelations in nationally televised hearings about how he was persuaded to accept specific answers during his time on the show. “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.” Van Doren, who had become a regular on NBC’s The Today Show, lost his job in the television industry. He was also forced to resign his professorship at Columbia University.
Due to the fact that there were no specific laws regarding fraudulent behavior in quiz shows, it is debatable whether the producers or contestants did anything illegal. But, the viewing public was outraged and viewership dropped significantly. Over the course of the second half of 1958, other quiz shows were implicated in similar scandalous conduct and were canceled rapidly. Among them, with their cancellation dates, were the following shows: Dotto (August 16); The $64,000 Challenge (September 14); The $64,000 Question (November 9); and, Tic-Tac-Dough, primetime edition (December 29).
In 1960, the United States Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit the fixing of quiz shows. As a result of that action, many networks canceled their existing quiz shows and replaced them with a higher number of public service programs. Most networks also imposed a winnings and appearances limit on their existing and future game shows. Quiz shows virtually disappeared from prime time American television for decades. The demise of the big-money quiz shows also gave rise to television’s newest phenomenon: westerns. Nevertheless, nobody involved with the scandal ever suffered formal legal punishment of any kind.
“The Quiz-Masters,” sung by Pete Seeger, written by Ernie Maars (1961) (no audio available; the song borrowed the tune of “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” https://youtu.be/mr03En-8fH8. )
A dozen big companies are giving away
Hundreds and thousands of dollars, they say;
They ask you some questions, and someone keeps score,
And they slip you the answers a few days before
Hoodie dang fol dee diedo,
Hoodie dang fol dee dum,
Come along to the quiz show,
And join in the fun!
Well, something for nothing is hard to resist,
Especially when it will never be missed;
And, since you are only an average guy,
You’re quite taken in by the size of the lie –
You act out your part in a natural way,
And then our dear $pon$or has $ome-thing to $ay;
And millions are buying the things he can make –
You’re getting some grea$e that fried out of his $teak –
Now that you’re a liar, the company can choose
The minute their puppet will stumble and lose –
H you like your job, and you don’t want the sack,
You’d better give part of the gravy right back –
You’re a national hero wherever you’re seen.
Your face is on every newspaper and screen;
And just like a saucer of milk for a pup,
Those suckers a-watching keep lapping it up –
Then one day it’s over – someone smelled a rat;
The bag has been ripped, and they’ve let out the cat;
The companies find that they aren’t alone,
For Congress is starting a quiz of their own –
Just see how they dig for the messiest smear –
It’s the juiciest scandal in many . a year’.
We’re all played for sucker, so why should he pay
When the big-shot behind him is getting away?
Yet Congress discovered a long time ago
The profit$ concealed in a questioning show,
And Congressman Walter can tell you the tale –
How quizzers get votes, and contestants get jail …