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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why Do We Hate the Word "Rigged?" This May Explain.


The following was originally posted by me to the GSN Message Boards on 9 February 2012.  It contains material that is relevant to a recurring theme in comments I've been forced to moderate out of existence, and it is hoped this will explain why those comments were deleted.  Additionally, with the GSN Message Boards closing shortly, I wanted to ensure this essay was permanently archived in a place where it could be easily accessed.  Please bear with me.

And now, kids, it's time to gather around the ol' computer set and listen as your Uncle Dev tells you a little story. It's a story with a message, too, so make sure you listen good.

Once upon a time in a distant land, when dinosaurs walked the Earth and cars were big enough to require their own ZIP Codes, there was a radio quiz called Take It or Leave It, which offered a top prize of $64. It was popular with listeners for some time, and then this newfangled invention called "television" came along and started sweeping the nation. The producers of Take It or Leave It decided they wanted to bring their show to the video screen, but felt that they needed a better "hook" for viewers than just a potential $64 jackpot. It was then that someone got the brainstorm to add a few zeroes -- three of them, in fact -- to that top prize, and that's how The $64,000 Question was born... and when the quiz show arms race of the 1950s began.

According to legend, there was one person who wasn't thrilled with the notion of offering such astronomical amounts of money on a game show. Although he did not work for the production company or its sponsor, he was on friendly terms with the EP and expressed his concerns, which included the high difficulty level of the questioning putting the top prizes out of the reach of the so-called "Everyman." "The only way this show is going to work," he cautioned his friend, "is if it's rigged." The man who made that suggestion was none other than Mark Goodson, who even in those days was a highly-respected authority on game show production.

Although Question did not directly take Mr. Goodson's advice to heart, they did acknowledge that the sponsor (Revlon) looked more favorably on some contestants than others. To that end, they decided to subtly manipulate the show to give players Revlon liked an easier time of it, and to try and force off players they didn't care for. The best-known example by far was Dr. Joyce Brothers, who would in later decades become a famous pop psychologist. In 1957 she was a contestant on Question with the unlikely subject of boxing as her area of expertise. Revlon did not like her in the least bit, and the producers tried everything they could to force her off the show, up to and including a curveball question about a boxing referee. But Dr. Brothers prevailed in spite of these hurdles the show was throwing up at her, and went on to claim the full $64,000.

However, while Question did not actually "script" the series -- contestants were not actually fed answers to questions, nor were they told when to, in the vernacular, "take a dive" -- other shows were much less scrupulous about this. Twenty One, the archetypal one-on-one quiz show created by Jack Barry and Dan Enright (The Joker's Wild, Tic Tac Dough), dove into this arms race headfirst after a nearly-disastrous debut episode, which was not at all manipulated by the producers (who felt the show was of such high quality that rigging wouldn't be necessary, but a pair of know-nothing contestants in the very first game convinced them otherwise in a hurry). On Twenty One, contestants were given answers to just about every question they would be asked, were told how to dress and carry themselves on camera, when to ask for which point values, when to give a wrong answer, and how many tie games the producers wanted. It was very much like laying out a pro wrestling match, with the participants being told what to do and when to do it at just about every turn; they were even told when and how to mop their brows for the best dramatic effect!

Twenty One was a smash hit for NBC at the time, and bred by far the most famous of the early quiz show champions, Charles Van Doren. In many respects the Ken Jennings of his day, Van Doren parlayed his long run on Twenty One to minor celebrity status, becoming one of the most popular personalities during the early days of television; he even ended up with a recurring segment on NBC's nascent Today show, discussing cultural topics. He would go on to win over $190,000 all told on Twenty One, an absolutely staggering sum of money in the '50s.

However, even then, there were allegations of cheating, or at least that not everything was as it seemed. In particular, the accusations made by Herbert Stempel, the Twenty One champion Van Doren had defeated to begin his long reign, had a certain unsettling ring of plausibility to them. Stempel argued that he had been ordered by Dan Enright to deliberately lose to Van Doren, as he (Enright) felt Van Doren had more ratings potential. However, very few people paid Stempel much mind initially, writing him off as a "sore loser." That, however, would soon change.

In 1958, roughly two years into the quiz show craze, a single notebook caused the whole thing to come crashing down. It happened behind the scenes of Dotto, a relatively minor but inventive series built around identifying famous faces from connect-the-dots puzzles. While waiting for his turn to go on, a reserve contestant noticed the show's champion seemed to be giving all the answers to her questions a bit too smoothly -- and then remembered he had seen her with a notebook in hand backstage. He somehow contrived to get his hands on that notebook, and sure enough, inside were notes on all the questions she was being asked on the show, along with the answers. Armed with this evidence, he went to the network, and after a careful review of a kinescope confirmed the worst, Dotto was immediately yanked off the air pending a full investigation.

And then the dominoes began to fall. One after another, allegations of rigging and dishonest conduct were breaking all around the horn, from The $64,000 Challenge to Tic Tac Dough to Break the $250,000 Bank to Name That Tune, with their sponsors feigning innocence and producers and contestants alike doing everything up to and including perjury to protect the good thing they had going. But the damage had already been done; television's innocence had been shattered in the name of ratings and advertiser revenue, and viewers, no longer able to deny the mounting evidence that they'd all been royally had, began tuning out in droves. One by one, the once-mighty quiz shows began dropping off the proverbial cliff in the ratings books, and ultimately all of them were cancelled. As for Charles Van Doren, the first "celebrity contestant" of game show history, he finally confessed that he had indeed been given the answers to his Twenty One questions, then immediately retired in disgrace from public life. He was never seen or heard from again.

The backlash against the quiz shows also nearly took down every game show, even the ones that weren't played for high stakes. Even the standard-bearer for urbanity and class in the genre, the seminal What's My Line?, found itself under the microscope lens of the FCC, despite the fact they never gave away more than $50 to each contestant. Gil Fates, years later in his book about the show, confessed that Goodson-Todman decided to short-circuit the investigations by quietly announcing to the Line staff that henceforth, every contestant that appeared on the show would get the full $50 regardless of what John Daly's cards said to the contrary. Thus, there would be no practical need for rigging the show and, therefore, nothing for the federal investigators to be concerned about. This apparently satisfied the FCC, and Line would go on to enjoy another decade as the crown jewel in the G-T family. (A similar ruling was made for Line's sister series, I've Got a Secret.) Not even an innocuous stunt show like Beat the Clock was spared; when the big-money shows were in their prime, Clock began offering a Bonus Stunt for an accruing jackpot worth up to $64,000. Once the scandals began breaking, the Bonus Stunt vanished, and when it finally returned, it was played for far less money.

The Quiz Show Scandals, as they are now known, destroyed careers and ruined reputations. Many of the producers and their cronies found themselves blacklisted for years following, and perhaps none more so than Messrs. Barry and Enright. All of their shows, bar one, were cancelled in the wake of the Twenty One scandal, and neither of them could find work in television for nearly a full decade. (The one creation of theirs that did survive only did so because they had the foresight to sell the series and format directly to the network, NBC, and so their names weren't attached to it when the you-know-what hit the fan. That series, by the way, was the legendary Concentration.) Indeed, even when Jack Barry was "allowed" back into the television business, Dan Enright remained persona non grata as far as any network was concerned, even though he was indeed a "silent partner" for many of Barry's projects during the early- to mid-1970s. Very notably, this fact went unacknowledged until the CBS series finale of The Joker's Wild, in which the imminently-unemployed Barry explicitly mentioned Enright was still his partner. (It's generally believed that Rhyme and Reason, a 1975 Match Game clone for ABC that bears striking similarities to a typical B&E series, was produced by Enright directly under the alias "W.T. Naud Productions," a company that has never been heard from again.)

As for the game show genre itself, the Scandals created a backlash against any series that offered huge amounts of money, or were Q&A-style formats. For virtually the entire decade of the 1960s, game shows found themselves reduced to simple parlor games played during daytime hours, with enforcedly low stakes and severe limitations being placed on winners. This was when the concept of limiting champions to x-number of appearances and "winnings caps" became de rigeur for the entire genre. Indeed, it wouldn't be until 1964 when a quiz-type series (the original Jeopardy! on NBC) became popular again, and even then it was played for relatively low sums of money that didn't even come close to what the primetime quizzers of 6-7 years prior were giving away. Indeed, "big money" would not return to the genre at all until 1973, when The $10,000 Pyramid broke the five-digit barrier for the first time since the Scandals (if one doesn't count 100 Grand, a blink-and-miss-it attempt by ABC in the '60s to revisit the quiz show era in prime time).

And that, my friends, is why people like myself get so up in arms over suggestions that any modern game show is "rigged." We've been there, we've done that, and we've seen the far-reaching damage it did to the industry. It would take a clinically insane person to ever want to risk reliving that nightmare, no matter how much advertising revenue was at stake. And it is certainly not an accusation to be tossed around lightly whenever you feel like a show isn't producing enough winners, or is producing too many of them, for your taste.

Thus ends the lesson for today. Learn from it and profit... and never again accuse a game show of being "rigged."

Unless, of course, you have incontrovertible evidence. 8^)

3 comments:

  1. [Insert the sound of an game show audience clapping here.]

    ReplyDelete
  2. Regardless of all that, some good and most all nothing but your opinion, you can't convince me that The Chase isn't rigged. No way in hell Mark Labbett has all those answers without being fed the answers beforehand. Its just too much. I t can be proven too. Take him away from the game show and let some people not associated with the game show quiz him. Guarantee you he misses 20 out of a 100. But on the show he gets 99 out of a 100 right.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Why don't you ask him (Labbett) yourself, DaddyDuck? As far as I'm concerned, he (and the other Chasers) are NOT given the questions in advance.

      Delete