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Quiz Show

February 28th, 2012 · No Comments

Lauren Bowie, Sam Foster, Becca Sears, Nick Farr
Quiz Show (1994)
Dir. Robert Redford
29 February 2012

Television Entertainment

Scandal in Game Shows


Quiz Show is based on the true story of Charles Van Doren, a professor from Columbia University, who was caught up in a cheating scandal on a game show in 1959.  Although the film is based largely on fact, there a few details that are not consistent between the two. For example, in the film, Van Doren voluntarily quit the show; this wasn’t true in reality.  Robert Wright (1980) notes, “Van Doren’s exploits had made him a national celebrity, and it was thus with some dismay that the country absorbed the news: not only had his responses been provided in advance; even the smiles and grimaces were coached; he finally lost only after being instructed to take a dive” (286). Now that television was in the homes of the majority of Americans, it seemed more probable to make money when the program was secretly rigged.  Scandal now was not only in the newspapers, but had been absorbed by television stations such as NBC, which we can see reflected both in historical events and in the production of the film Quiz Show.

According to an April, 1960 article, “Federal Communications Commission: Control of Deceptive Programming”, published by the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, the FCC was investigating the rigging of popular quiz shows such as Twenty One and $64,000 Question. The former chairman of the FCC, John C. Dooerfer, argued that the FCC didn’t have the authority to take action against “deceptive programming”.  Instead, he believed that the FCC could only take action against programming if it violated a certain law.  The attorney general at the time argued that the FCC was “currently competent to regulate program deception” by means of review of a broadcaster’s past performance in license renewal proceedings (University of Pennsylvania 868-869).
The rigging of game shows had a purpose.  Audiences liked watching the quiz shows because they enjoyed the entertainment value.  They were unaware of the behind the scenes rigging.  The “Federal Communications Commission: Control of Deceptive Programming” report notes, “Demonstratively, also, the viewers of the rigged programs were induced to purchase their sponsors’ products” (University of Pennslyvania 870).  Great entertainment produced product buying surges. In order to keep the television shows on air, it was key to keep the ratings up and to keep the audience engaged in the program.  If this did not happen, the show would be kicked off the air and the station would simultaneously lose a large audience and a large sum of money.  As it is reflected in the film, the producers wanted people to become connected to the people on the program; they wanted the audience to feel they knew the contestant on a personal level.  This would, in turn, keep people interested in the show and the final outcome at the end of the night.

The revelations of the riggings may have made audiences more media literate.  The “Federal Communications Commission: Control of Deceptive Programming” report notes, “Yet it might be argued that, to the extent that disclosure has made the mass communication audience aware of the possibilities of such practices as rigging, the experience will breed a more critical perspective which will decrease the frequency – and the success – of such attempts in the future” (University of Pennsylvania 872).   The naïve audience began to learn the lessons of media manipulation.  This leads society to beg the question, how much can we actually trust the information distributed by the media?  It is extremely important to emphasize the role advertising plays in the construction of the media, and in turn our society.

More and more often, we are seeing advertisers having a stronger influence in what happens in the media.  In the film, for example, Geritol has Herb removed from the television show because he wasn’t what the audience wanted to see.  This lead NBC casting to have Herb “take a dive” on a question on live television.  They also state later in the movie that “a Jew was always followed by a gentile.” This is entirely reflective on how media takes charge of the information they wish to distribute, or gate-keeping.  This signifies, according to Baran, that media chooses what information is shown to the audience and dictate what can and cannot be shown.  In the movie, Twenty-One was beginning to lose ratings, and in turn money, so they decided to put someone else on the air who they believed fit the description.  This idea goes hand in hand with agenda setting by the media.  They not only tell us what to think, but also what to think about, further proving the dependency theory, which states people are becoming increasingly dependent on media to understand the social world around them.  It is scary to think that this is happening even during game shows, which are seemingly harmless to those who are media illiterate.

It seems that even today, our society enjoys watching game shows, reality television and other programs broadcast by large corporations.  This makes the idea of media literacy increasingly important in order for our society to avoid falling into the traps set out by these forms of mass communication that try to shape our culture and our lives.  All of the movies watched and analyzed are a good sign- people are starting to highlight flaws in our media-run society. We can then ask the question, how is watching these movies– another form of entertainment– helpful in adjusting our current positions?  Hopefully, the viewers of such films will realize the message the producers are intending to communicate and our society as a whole can take further steps in becoming media literate.

Important Quotes

  1. “That box is the biggest thing since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and I’m the biggest thing on it.” – Herb
  2. “You see, the audience didn’t tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability.  They just wanted to watch the money.”- Martin Rittenhome
  3. “Speculation in our society has a way of becoming fact…television is a public trust. We can’t afford even a hint of scandal in our company.”- Robert Kintner
  4. “If they prefer to be lied to, they can turn on the television.” -Herb
  5. “For 64,000 dollars I hope they ask you for the meaning of life” – Mr. Van Doren


Discussion Questions

  1. How can we compare and contrast the scandals of game shows with the “reality” television of which a majority of society seems to be absorbed by?
  2. Today, many people buy into reality television and game shows that are produced and broadcast nationally.  Why do you think we haven’t learned from past scandals and historical events?  Why is it that our society is drawn to these shows when, in the back of our minds, we realize these situations aren’t actually real, as they claim to be? Is being ‘media literate’ enough to suspend such televised shows?
  3. How can we parallel The Truman Show to Quiz Show? Where can we see the dialectic relationship between the commercial interest and the political or democratic interest? How can we see the dialectic relationship of society and media reflected in Robert Redford’s film?

Works Cited

Federal Communications Commission: Control of “Deceptive Programming” L. S. T.  University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Vol. 108, No. 6 (Apr., 1960), pp. 868-892.

Wright, Robert.  “Eisenhower’s Fifties,” The Antioch Review 38.3 (1980), pp. 277-290.




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