Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Charles Van Doren testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that he received answers to questions beforehand as a contestant on the popular television quiz show Twenty-One. Van Doren came to symbolize blatant corruption in the quiz-show industry. As a direct result of the scandal, most quiz shows in the United States were canceled and Van Doren lost his academic position, a promising career in television, and the adulation of thousands of disenchanted viewers. By 1960, federal law made it a crime to fix a game show.

Summary of Event

Television in the United States during the 1950’s emerged as a pervasive new source of information and entertainment that reached a large audience. To tap into this vast audience, television executives adapted the popular radio quiz-show format of the 1940’s. Televised quiz shows offered an attractive combination of low production costs, high entertainment value, and great appeal to commercial sponsors. Two or more contestants would contend for modest prizes of cash or merchandise by answering questions of varying difficulty posed by a moderator. The limited size of the rewards gave little incentive for television executives to manipulate the results. [kw]Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show, Charles (Nov. 2, 1959) [kw]Television Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on (Nov. 2, 1959) [kw]Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television (Nov. 2, 1959) Game shows Television;game shows Twenty-One (television)[Twenty One] Enright, Dan Freedman, Albert Doren, Charles Van Stempel, Herb Game shows Television;game shows Twenty-One (television)[Twenty One] Enright, Dan Freedman, Albert Doren, Charles Van Stempel, Herb [g]United States;Nov. 2, 1959: Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show[01070] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Nov. 2, 1959: Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show[01070] [c]Corruption;Nov. 2, 1959: Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show[01070] [c]Radio and television;Nov. 2, 1959: Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show[01070] [c]Government;Nov. 2, 1959: Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show[01070] [c]Business;Nov. 2, 1959: Charles Van Doren Admits to Being Fed Answers on Television Quiz Show[01070]

Charles Van Doren, far right, with contestant Vivienne Nearing and Twenty-One host Jack Barry during a taping of the quiz show.

(Library of Congress)

A turning point came in 1955 when quiz shows began to provide large cash prizes. The most successful of these new shows was Twenty-One, Twenty-One (television)[Twenty One] a weekly show that was launched in October, 1956, by the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Two contestants stood on a studio stage in adjoining soundproof glass booths. A correct answer earned points according to its difficulty. The first contestant to reach 21 points was the victor and could return as champion the following week to face a new challenger. However, the first few programs, played straight, failed dismally in viewer ratings. Contestants proved so inept at times that the show’s sponsor urged changes to boost ratings. The producers, Dan Enright and Albert Freedman, decided to intervene directly in all the main aspects of the production. They had no problem with fixing the outcome of each show because they regarded the shows simply as entertainment. From that point, each contestant was given the questions—and the answers—in advance and was carefully coached on how to dress and, especially, how to achieve the maximum suspense in responding. As Twenty-One rose steadily in the ratings, Enright and Freedman sharpened the image of contestants to increase viewer interest.

The producers found a particularly promising candidate in twenty-nine-year-old military veteran Herb Stempel. He had been attending a local public college under the GI Bill while supporting a wife and child. He eagerly accepted Enright’s offer of a twenty-five thousand dollar advance for appearing on a “managed” episode of Twenty-One. To underscore Stempel’s persona as a struggling former soldier, Enright selected from Stempel’s own closet a blue shirt with a frayed collar and an ill-fitting suit given Stempel by a relative. As an added touch, Stempel was instructed to get a Marine-style “white-wall” haircut. Thus attired and coiffed, Stempel, who was stocky and supremely confident, initially did well on Twenty-One. However, when Stempel’s sometimes arrogant manner began to wear on viewers, the producers decided that he should be “removed” from the show. He had won nearly fifty thousand dollars, a bonanza for the time.

Enright and Freedman found their new champion in another twenty-nine-year-old: Columbia University English instructor Charles Van Doren. His father and uncle had won Pulitzer Prizes in literature, and he himself was completing a doctorate in English literature. However, the severe constraints of a meager instructor’s salary at Columbia made Van Doren vulnerable to Freedman’s blandishments. Furthermore, Freedman intimated that Van Doren would have a unique opportunity to convey to the show’s forty million viewers a heightened respect for education and the life of the mind. Despite initial qualms about participating in a crooked scheme, Van Doren agreed to perform.

Stempel’s departure was quickly arranged, and in early December, 1956, Van Doren became the new champion. As Enright had done with Stempel, Freedman rehearsed Van Doren and instructed him on how to behave on camera. Van Doren learned to furrow his brow, squeeze his eyes shut, and bite his lip as he agonized for the correct answer to a question that he, of course, already knew. For viewers, the suspense could be excruciating.

As the new champion of Twenty-One, Van Doren projected an image in sharp contrast to Stempel. Van Doren was tall and pleasant-looking, and he appeared intelligent, modest, and congenial. Viewers were captivated by his charming manner and command of obscure facts. He vanquished challenger after challenger. He received thousands of letters praising his performance, and he received gratitude (especially from parents) for being such a good role model for the values of education and intellectual achievement. Van Doren made the cover of Time and joined NBC’s Today program. He had become something of a folk hero.

Van Doren, however, was never comfortable as part of a systematic scam. Despite pleas that he continue with the show, he departed after fourteen weeks with total winnings of $129,000. Ratings sagged, but the show survived until October, 1958, mortally wounded by the corruption charges that would be leveled by Stempel.

Stempel detested Van Doren for his privileged Ivy League background and high public esteem. He also deeply resented the crude manner of his own dismissal from Twenty-One. Through bad investments, he had quickly lost his winnings from the show, and when Enright refused his request for financial help, Stempel vengefully determined to expose the show as a fraud.

Initially, Stempel approached two New York City newspapers with his accusations but was rebuffed because he had no corroborating witnesses. However, by early 1958, rumors and revelations of corruption on other quiz shows gave his claims a new credibility. A New York County grand jury, after taking sworn testimony from about one hundred fifty witnesses, recommended a number of indictments. For reasons not clear, however, the presiding judge sealed the jury report and dissolved the investigation. Van Doren was among those who had denied under oath any knowledge of quiz-show fraud.

Nonetheless, by early 1959, public outcry led to an investigation by the U.S. Senate. In November, 1959, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight convened in Washington to examine charges of fraud and deceit lodged against various quiz shows. Stempel was the first to testify. After admitting his own complicity, he angrily denounced Twenty-One producers Enright and Freedman and strongly implied the collusion of Van Doren, who had continued to plead his innocence.

Van Doren had anguished about having so long deceived the Twenty-One audience. On November 2, he appeared under subpoena before the subcommittee in a packed room that included Stempel. Van Doren delivered an impassioned confession of guilt and apologized to all he had deceived. Both Columbia University and the Today program fired him, and he was charged with Perjury;Charles Van Doren[Van Doren] perjuring himself before the New York grand jury. However, Van Doren and others found guilty in the quiz-show scandals received suspended sentences because there was no federal statute that made the manipulation of television quiz shows a criminal offense. To prove fraud, a prosecutor would have to demonstrate how quiz-show scams caused serious monetary loss to viewers. Cheating viewers was not illegal.

Meanwhile, public anger and plunging ratings forced the cancellation of nearly all television quiz shows. Despite their central roles, Twenty-One producers Enright and Freedman also received suspended sentences. Van Doren fled New York City for a private life in Chicago, working as an editor for the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Impact

Several significant changes resulted from the quiz-show scandals. First, television networks regained control of programming from the producers, which made fraud more difficult to conceal. A kind of innocent trust was clearly lost after the scandal. Some condemned the entire television industry; others tempered harsh criticism of the scandals with sympathy for appealing participants such as Van Doren. Others, finally, remained detached or cynically indifferent to the whole mess.

The Senate hearings put a national spotlight on the rigged programs. Everyone from editorial writers to religious leaders argued that American society had lost its moral compass. Most agreed that the quantum jump in prize money in 1955 brought greed to center stage. With so much more at stake, producers tried to maximize profits regardless of the ethical implications. Again, Twenty-One’s producers regarded what they did as pure entertainment, having nothing to do with right or wrong. For contestants, finally, there was the exciting lure of what a sudden fortune could mean for achieving the good life. They also dreamed of overnight fame.

The big-money television shows did gradually return but only in a much sobered and regulated environment. The Communications Act of 1934 Communications Act of 1934 was amended in 1960, making it a crime to fix a game show. The tawdry scams of the 1950’s became a fading memory, as did Van Doren, the scandal’s human face. Game shows Television;game shows Twenty-One (television)[Twenty One] Enright, Dan Freedman, Albert Doren, Charles Van Stempel, Herb

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Kent. Television Fraud: The History and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Overall excellent account, particularly in assessing the scandal’s effects on television and the nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard Books, 1993. A masterful discussion of Twenty-One’s descent into a kind of institutionalized corruption.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensonne, Glen. A Time of Paradox: America Since 1890. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Places the quiz-show fiasco within the broader frame of American social life during the 1950’s, an age of supposed innocence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Barbara, Marvin Bensman, and Jim Van Dyke. Prime Time Television: A Concise History. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. Chapter 4 focuses on the programming of fixed quiz shows.

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