Quiz Show Scandal

Quiz Show (1994)                                                                                               Director & Producer: Robert Redford                                                              Starring:                                                                                                                             John Turturro                                                                                                                  Rob Murrow                                                                                                                       Ralph Fiennes

By Rebecca Doser and Yoshifumi Kobayashi

quiz show the cover
Fig.1: The movie Quiz Show (1994) portrayed the problematic way of being in television industry.

Quiz Show (Fig.1) is based on  the scandal of the Twenty One quiz show that appeared in the late 1950s. The Twenty One was broadcasted by NBC and was the television show that awarded a sum of money to the winner regarding to the fight over a bunch of trivial quizzes between two contestants. The directors of the show started to fabricate the results by telling the winner when to win or lose to make it more entertaining in order to  raise the viewers and keep the show’s solo sponsor, Geritol, at the end. The exposure of this scandal changed the way of sponsoring a television show and brought to light the extent a television show will go in order to provide entertainment.

First, we will examine what made executives of  Twenty One decide to manipulate the results of the quiz show and why that sequence became one of the greatest scandals of all time in television industry. There was a very important fact of the system in sponsorship of television at that time behind the scandal. The fact was that “throughout the 1950s, the networks served primarily as time brokers, offering airtime and distribution (their affiliates) and accepting the payment for it” (Baran, 2015, p. 186). That is, in 1950s it was just natural that one company hired one program to air to enable advertising of the company’s product throughout the program. As Baran states, “the networks relied on outside agencies to provide programs”(p. 186), moreover, there was only one agency to rely on to produce the program at that time.

Fig.2: Geritol was the only sponsor of the Twenty One quiz show
Fig.2: Geritol was the only sponsor of the Twenty One quiz show

In the case of Twenty One quiz show, Geritol, a  medical company, was the one and only sponsor that the show can rely on (Fig.2). For the sponsoring company such as Geritol, the effectiveness of the show and how well the show could advertise its product mattered significantly. On the other hand, no matter how meaningful or interesting the show was, it could not be broadcasted without the agencies that financially supported. This dilemma caused the quiz show scandal that took place in the late 1950s. Since the representative of the sponsoring company was concerned and not satisfied with the advertising on the show by the current champion, Herb Stempel, the representative ordered to change the person who would promote the product, otherwise he would quit sponsoring. When the sponsor insisted on abandoning its sponsorship, those who ran the program Twenty One had to obey the order if they wanted to keep airing the show. This meant that they needed to fabricate the honesty of the show by changing the champion on purpose. Eventually, the directors of the show dismissed Stempel and brought Charles Van Doren who could potentially elevate the sales of Geritol’s products as Van Doren’s father and grandfather were well known public figures. Thus, the quiz show used Van Doren as a source to advertise Geritol and accrue attraction.

When the fraud finally came out in public, it affected not only the quiz show and NBC, which owned the show, but also the whole industry of television in regards to how much control a sponsor should/could have over the program. It was evident that “the content of television was altered” (Baran, 2015, p.187). To illustrate this, sponsorship by one single sponsor was taken over by spot commercial sales: “selling individual 60-seconds spots on a given program to a wide variety advertisers” (Baran, 2015, p. 187). This change  that impacted a whole television industry was a result of the quiz show scandal in 1950s that suggested instability of adopting the solo sponsorship.

As a result, it  became relatively harder to commit ad-pull policy towards a television program, which was what the representive of Geritol suggested, unless all advertising agencies unite in ceasing to sponsor. That is, television programs do not necessarily twist the truth of the show when they are sponsored by multiple  companies and get enough money to run the show, though it is not true for some reality shows on TV nowadays. Even though there seems to be no worries anymore as for ad-pull policy, television still tends to exaggerate the content of a show in order to entertain the public. This idea lead to social responsibility theory that explains “how media should operate” (Baran, 2015, p. 366). Baran (2015) defined the theory as “media must remain free of government  control, but in exchange media must serve the public” (p. 366). Therefore, television as a mainstream medium “Give(s) the public what they want” just like it was said in the movie. When the public wants entertainment, television gives entertainment. Staged reality shows are not really real, but that what we expect to be real and thus we enjoy the show even if we are aware of the untruthfulness of it.  However, the problem is that to what extent television producers are allowed to make a show entertaining. If the truth is too boring to call it entertainment for the public to watch, then why not add some extra spices to let it be fun enough if that is what the public wants? Social responsibility theory says we, as the public, are responsible for the content of a program when television gives us what we want. Therefore, television is not to blame since we are the ones who want it and watch it for fun.

quiz show, chasing Van Doren's personal scandal
Fig.3: All the tv clues left the court and followed after Van Doren to record and to interview him.

Meanwhile, however, the comment mentioned by Richard N. Goodwin in the opening of this movie had me think about today’s television for a while. He said, “(I) used to be a man (who) drives a car, but now the car drives the man.” This line was not on the script that I checked, so Morrow who played Goodwin must have ad-libbed that line, which I think was very well thought because it interpreted the role of television today. For me, the line was connected to the last scene when all the cameras followed Van Doren’s personal scandal of being fired from Columbia University, ignoring the public scandal of the Twenty One quiz show that was still going on the court inflight the relatively bigger scaled scandal. Since television crews followed and recorded Van Doren, that was what the public saw on television. What I am trying to say here is that television is limiting what we can see, and it all depends on what the television crews capture. Thus, television companies decide what the public watches as well as what the public wants since they may have guessed Van Doren’s scandal was more interesting to the public than the television scandal as he had more connection to the public. Goodwin also described in the last scene that “I thought we were going to get television. The truth is like the television is going to get us.” In other words, it is not us who controls television, but but it is television (companies) that have control over us. Ultimately, we are responsible for what the television broadcasts according to social responsibility theory, however, the decision was all in those who work in television industry’s hand  when they produce a show at the end.

Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 8.” Public Relations. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print                                                                                                                  Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 14.” Public Relations. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print