Twenty One, The Quiz Show Scandals

A movie I always loved was Quiz Show, the 1994 film directed by acting legend Robert Redford.  The movie is about the infamous practice of game show rigging that went on in the 1950s, especially at NBC with their hit show “Twenty One.”  Proclaiming to audiences that the questions to the answers were kept in a secure bank vault, the reality was that the contestants were outright told the answers before the broadcast, and were also told when to take a dive when the audience grew tired seeing them win.  It was a stunning fraud perpetrated to keep rating high and sell the sponsor’s products, in this case Geritol, a “tired blood” supplement.  The movie focused on Columbia University teacher Charles Van Doren, a handsome, well bred, and well spoken intellectual, and Herbert Stempel, an unemployed everyman from Queens who was asked to take a dive.  Stempel went along with the fraud because he was promised a future on television which he never received.  Incensed by NBC kicking him out the door, Stempel blew the whistle on the whole charade, eventually getting the attention of federal prosecutors in Washington DC who helped blow the lid off the thing.  The movie is great because its a rich and sumptuous look at the glamorous side of late 50s New York City, precipitating the look and feel of shows like “Mad Men” and “Pan Am.”  What I have below is the actual episode of the show that the movie was based on, so you can see for yourself where reality differs from the movie.  The most striking thing about watching the actual Van Doren/Stempel contest is what amazing acting these guys did in the phoniest of situations.  They were just regular guys with no entertainment backgrounds asked to put on a show in front of 50 million people.  It’s truly remarkable.  I’m also including the trailer for Quiz Show just to entice you to watch in case you haven’t seen it.



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