Synopsis of TV Show
Who would have ever thought brainy people and a couple of soundproof booths could incite such scandal?
After the huge success of The $64,000 Question, NBC
wanted a piece of the profitable 1950’s game show pie. Jack Barry, who would come to emcee the show, created the format for Twenty-One with longtime partner Dan Enright. The contestants would stand inside “Isolation Booths” and answer questions from categories they chose. They were rewarded points for their right answers, and the more difficult the question, the more points. The first one to reach twenty-one was the winner.
With those simple rules, Twenty-One debuted in the fall of 1956, and owing to the facts that the cash prizes were vast (compared to other shows) and that there were no limits on how long winning contestants could stay on (thus making TV personalities out of multiple winners), the show was a hit. But TV is a fickle medium, and ratings suffered when some of the shows’ final scores were zero to zero ties—meaning not one question was answered successfully. Since there’s no one to root for in a situation like that, and since a good game show hinges on viewers rooting for their favorite contestants, producers of Twenty-One started feeding answers to likable contestants. And once again, its numbers soared.
The problem is, all good things must end. There’s no free lunch. What comes up must come down. Choose your head-wagging idiom. A soon-to-be contestant on Dotto, another popular big-money show at the time, started making waves about that show’s being rigged, which led to an investigation by the New York State Attorney General, which led to former Twenty-One winner Herb Stempel’s giving full disclosure about the cheating he bore witness to during his tenure. Rigging a game show is rarely well-received, but what made the Twenty-One scandal claw especially deep at America’s consciousness—and it’s no exaggeration to say that it did—was the fact that the contestant in cahoots with the show’s riggers was none other than the handsome and charming Charles Van Doren.
Charles, if you haven’t seen the Robert Redford-directed film Quiz Show, was the golden boy son of Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and celebrated literary critic and university professor, and the nephew of Carl Van Doren, who had also won a Pulitzer for a biography of Benjamin Franklin. A professor himself, Charles won big on Twenty-One and no one questioned a thing—game show validity and fairness were qualities that were just presumed back then, and Charles’ intellectual pedigree easily explained his trivia acumen. America was beguiled, and the young Van Doren parlayed his celebrity into a post as a poetry correspondent on NBC’s Today Show—finally living up to his family’s legacy.
But after the scandal broke, the very Americans that were so charmed were decidedly uncharmed. Charles lost both his teaching job and his splashy news show gig, and though he eventually got a job at Encyclopedia Britannica, his name would forever be associated with one of the juiciest scams in TV history. Twenty-One was canceled in the fall of 1958, as was Dotto, The $64,000 Challenge, and The $64,000 Question.
Scandal aside, Twenty-One was a precursor to later game show culture, and with the surprise success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire more than four decades later, the TV world was once more reminded how quickly watching those smarty pants squirm and triumph under the bright lights can become a national pastime.