The Quiz Show Scandal, or Why Jeopardy! is Played Backwards

Some perspective on why Alex Trebek makes contestants answer in question form

Abstract: The game show Jeopardy! was shaped by a scandal that had destroyed America’s trust in all quiz shows. Everything that seems counter-intuitive about it is there for good reason. It may not have ever been made otherwise.

Photo by Joseph Hunkins

Ah, Jeopardy! The nerdy little quiz show that just won’t quit. The game where your most valuable resource is your mind. The pace is lightning quick, there’s no multiple choice, and there’s no phoning a friend.

In the words of Ken Jennings, the show’s biggest winner-to-date:

Jeopardy! is an oddity, beamed into your home every night from an eggheaded, alternate-reality America where television never dumbed down.

But there’s that one thing, though. The thing where every clue has to be answered is in the form of a question. Like “What is Albania?” or “Who is Anne Boleyn?” Ever wonder what’s up with that?

Well, to get to the bottom of it, we’ve got to go way back. Back before the Alex Trebek reboot of Jeopardy! in the ’80s. Even back before Art Fleming hosted the show when it first aired in the ‘60s.

To do this right, we gotta go . . .

Back to the 1950s

Quiz shows took American TV by storm in the mid-’50s. When The $64,000 Question was on, President Eisenhower would leave orders not to be disturbed. People went out to movies and restaurants less. Even crime stats dipped.

In its debut season, it became the only show to ever block I Love Lucy from being first in the ratings.

But The $64,000 Question wasn’t the only quiz show on the air. There were lots of programs all vying for the same trivia-crazed audience. Up to twenty-four at one time. Shows like Twenty One, The Big Surprise, Dotto, and Tic-Tac-Dough.

The competition was fierce, to say the least. Between contestants, and between shows.

A Challenger Approaches

In 1956, Charles Van Doren, an English instructor at Columbia, met a man named Al Freedman at a party. Freedman worked in television and expressed interest in Van Doren’s academic lineage.

Van Doren’s father was a full professor at Columbia. He was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic. His mother was a novelist who also wrote for The New Yorker. And his uncle had won a Pulitzer of his own. This for his biography, Benjamin Franklin.

Freedman asked Van Doren if he ever thought to try his luck on a quiz show. It turned out Freedman worked on Twenty One and had a problem on his hands. The show’s reigning champion, Herb Stempel, kept winning week after week. But Stempel proved unpopular with viewers. As a result, the show was suffering in the ratings. And the show’s sponsor, Geritol, was anything but happy.

The Big Showdown

After much coaxing, Van Doren agreed to face Stempel. Audiences reacted well to this new challenger, and the gameplay was riveting. The two competitors played to four straight ties. Twenty One was becoming a national phenomenon.

In the end, Van Doren beat Stempel. And so began his four-month winning streak. He would go on to win over $129,000. Well over a million dollars today if you adjust for inflation. He even made the cover of Time Magazine.

Van Doren soon took a second job at NBC’s Today where he hosted an hourly segment on arts and culture. Remember, this is the era before the dumbing-down of American TV. Van Doren was passionate about introducing America to great new literature. On Friday mornings, he would even read his favorite new poems on-air.

Stempel’s Side of the Story

Meanwhile, Herb Stempel’s moment in the limelight was done. About a year after his defeat, he started telling his story to anyone who would listen. A much different account of what went on behinds the scenes at the show. Twenty One was rigged, he said. The outcomes were scripted. Not only were contestants told what to say, they were also coached how to say it. When to pause for dramatic effect. When and how to mop a sweaty brow to avoid smudging their makeup.

But no one seemed to take Stempel seriously. He had no supporting evidence, and no one else would corroborate his claims. Remember, this was also the era when journalism had to be fact-checked. The New York Journal-American almost ran the story but pulled it for fear of a libel suit.

Stempel found no one willing the listen to the story of how the producers forced him to “take a dive.” It seemed everywhere he went, people wrote him off as a sore loser.

Everything Hits the Fan on Dotto

In May 1958, a man named Edward Hilgemeier, Jr was a backup contestant on another quiz show called Dotto. While the show was on-air, Hilgemeier poked around the backstage area and found a notebook. The notebook was full of answers. The very same answers contestant Marie Winn was delivering on stage that moment.

Hilgemeier sent a sworn affidavit to the Federal Communications Commission about his findings. And by August, the show was off the air.

Overnight, everyone wanted to hear what Herb Stempel had to say.

Of DAs, Grand Juries and Congressmen

Rumors surrounded the sudden cancellation of Dotto. New York District Attorney Joseph Stone felt compelled to investigate. He needed to know if television networks were committing fraud in his city.

He brought in both Stempel and Van Doren in for questioning, among others. Stempel stuck to his story that Twenty One was rigged, but Van Doren insisted it wasn’t. Stone told Van Doren he could lie to him but he couldn’t lie to the grand jury.

But if Van Doren had lied to Stone, he lied to the grand jury as well. The foreman of which Van Doren admits was a Columbia prof he recognized on sight.

Without warning or reason, a judge ordered all the grand jury sealed. To this day, no one knows why. That’s when Congress got involved, suspicious someone was covering something up.

Before the Congressional Subcommittee, Stempel still insisted that the game was fixed. And by some accounts (but not his own) Van Doren went into a brief period of hiding.

The proof everyone was looking for was soon given by another Twenty One champion. James Snodgrass had felt dubious of the show’s pre-game coaching sessions. As a safeguard, he sent himself the notes from every coaching session via registered mail. These notes proved that Snodgrass was fed the answers ahead of time.

After Snodgrass’s revelation, Van Doren gave a statement expressing regret. He was ashamed of his participation in the deception.

After his testimony, he returned home to learn he’d lost two jobs in one day. Both Columbia and Today were distancing themselves from him.

The Aftermath

In the end, Congress determined no laws had actually been broken. The hastily drafted legislation that regulated broadcast television had no provisions for deception. No one had foreseen such corruption. The law made sure no one could broadcast profanity but had no safeguards against fraud.

Back in New York, DA Stone charged some of the people who had lied to the grand jury with misdemeanor perjury. This included Van Doren. But no one served any jail time.

It looked like quiz shows were done. Although they all promised to clean up their act, viewers weren’t buying it. Ratings plummeted across the board. By the end of the season, every quiz show had been canceled.

The Question That Re-started It All

For the next few years, network television was almost devoid of game shows. There were some games of chance that couldn’t be rigged. But if any skill was involved, it was relegated to some physical task. Something no one could tamper with.

Usually, this meant bowling.

Fast-forward to 1963. Game-show host Merv Griffin and his wife, Julann, were on a plane flying back to New York. Merv was reviewing his notes for a new show he was developing when Julann asked if it was one of the shows she liked. Something knowledge based.

Merv reminded her of the scandal. He said no one trusted quiz shows anymore. People would assume you’d be feeding answers to the contestants.

And that’s when Julann came up with one of the most brilliant twists in game show history. She said:

“Well, why don’t you give them the answers? And make people come up with the questions?”

The Griffins played around with that idea for a while and within a year Jeopardy! was on the air. The only show with clues answered in question form. And the first quiz show to get the green light since the scandal.

Without that one little twist, Griffin may never have got the show made. And the world of TV game shows might have stayed dumbed down forever.

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