FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After the quiz show scandal of 1959 demonstrated that several of the popular television programs had been rigged, the Federal Communication Commission’s oversight of television networks came under close scrutiny. Chairman John C. Doerfer was forced to resign after it was discovered that he had accepted gifts from the networks and relied too heavily on the networks’ own reassurances of honesty without thorough independent investigation.

Summary of Event

During the 1950’s, as television in the United States was growing in popularity, networks and advertisers sought ever-higher viewer shares. Amazingly popular quiz shows featured outrageous prizes. Whereas radio quiz shows had never offered more than about one hundred dollars (and often much less) in prize money, television quiz shows gave high monetary awards from the very start. However, after the infamous quiz show scandal exposed widespread network rigging of the shows, the government stepped in, trying to learn how the networks were able to pull off the deception for so long. The U.S. Congress focused on the poor oversight of the networks by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and its chairman, John C. Doerfer, who should have been censuring the networks but were, instead, ignoring the problem. [kw]Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks, FCC Chairman John C. (Mar. 14, 1960) Storer, George Minow, Newton Doerfer, John C. Federal Communication Commission Storer, George Minow, Newton Doerfer, John C. Federal Communication Commission [g]United States;Mar. 14, 1960: FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks[01100] [c]Government;Mar. 14, 1960: FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks[01100] [c]Radio and television;Mar. 14, 1960: FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks[01100] [c]Corruption;Mar. 14, 1960: FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks[01100] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Mar. 14, 1960: FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks[01100] [c]Communications and media;Mar. 14, 1960: FCC Chairman John C. Doerfer Resigns for Accepting Gifts from Networks[01100]

John. C. Doerfer, center.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

U.S. president Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and John Doerfer[Doerfer] Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Doerfer chairman of the FCC in 1957, a time when the television industry was coming under intense public scrutiny. Complaints about advertisers controlling station content bombarded the agency throughout Doerfer’s tenure. The public felt cheated by the amount of time stations devoted to advertising, and many felt networks were broadcasting too much fluff. Because intellectual and educational programming was less popular, however, advertisers paid less to sponsor such programs. Networks justified their behavior by citing the need to pay off their operating expenses.

Doerfer and the FCC were slow to respond to these critics. Under increasing pressure, Doerfer did force networks to add a weekly hour of educational programming to their schedules, but his actions appeased few. Critics wanted far more educational content, and they wanted far less advertiser control. Doerfer maintained that FCC monitoring would inevitably lead to censorship, a practice he wanted to keep the FCC well clear of. He argued that if the FCC regulated program content, the agency would be in violation of the 1934 Communications Act of 1934 Communications Act. In November of 1959, when Charles Van Doren testified before Congress that he had, in fact, been told what answers to give on NBC’s quiz show Twenty One, Doerfer’s attitude and policies came under congressional fire.

The quiz show scandal originated a year earlier, in 1958, when Herbert Stempel, Van Doren’s chief rival on NBC’s popular program, claimed, after Van Doren defeated him, that Twenty One was rigged. He also claimed the network instructed him to give a wrong answer so that the huge prize would go to the more popular Van Doren. Stempel also said the two contestants were coached throughout their run on the air. Of course, the networks denied any wrongdoing, as did Van Doren, and Stempel was portrayed as a sore loser. The FCC barely investigated, with Doerfer taking network claims of innocence at face value. More contestants, from a variety of networks, started coming forward with similar stories, but the FCC still refused to investigate. In particular, Doerfer trusted NBC’s assurances too blithely. Finally, Congress called a series of hearings to investigate the scandal, and the FCC’s failure to oversee the networks came under as much scrutiny as did the networks’ quiz shows themselves.

Only under this pressure did Van Doren finally decide to tell the truth, bringing the quiz show industry to a screeching halt, recovering only after many years. Equally significant, the FCC’s role in the scandal forced changes in the oversight of television programs. As Congress examined the agency and its chairman, more compromising details were revealed. Congress believed Doerfer’s attitude was part of the deception, and evidence seemed to support this opinion.

Doerfer was accused of accepting favors from media magnate George Storer, president of Storer Broadcasting, Inc. Storer lived large and feted his friends. In 1958, he took Doerfer on a plane ride to Florida and then Bimini. Congressional hearings wrapped up in December of 1959. Then, in early 1960, even with the quiz show scandal still a highly publicized nightmare for his agency, Doerfer maintained a close relationship with Storer. Doerfer flew with his wife to Miami on Storer’s planes and took a cruise from there to the Florida Keys on Storer’s yacht. Though he claimed to have paid for the plane tickets himself and said the event was purely social, few believed him. Indeed, his former outspoken defense of network freedom marked him as a hypocrite, and most believed he had been bribed. At best, he had displayed a sincere conflict of interest in continuing to spend extended time with Storer. His behavior highlighted to the public the increasing advertiser control of network programming, starkly displaying the FCC’s ineffective oversight.

President Eisenhower requested Doerfer’s resignation and received it on March 14, 1960, though Doerfer insisted he had done no wrong. Doerfer went into private law practice in the Washington, D.C., area, having completed a law degree in 1934. However, in 1963, he moved to Florida to work for Storer as a legal consultant until 1974.

Impact

Doerfer was replaced briefly by fellow Republican Ford, Frederick W. Frederick W. Ford. In 1961, when Democrat John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency, he appointed Newton Minow to the FCC chairman position. Minow took an immediate reform stance, making the now-famous “Vast Wasteland” speech, in which he targeted the mindless nature of much television programming. Minow suggested that the FCC would take action against the control exerted by advertisers over programming. Pledging that broadcaster licenses would no longer be renewed without scrutiny, he refused to relicense Melody Music, whose owners had been involved in the quiz show scandal. However, NBC, the best-known guilty player in the scandal, had its license renewed even after the courts required heavy scrutiny of its FCC application. Courts ruled that the FCC treated larger corporate entities, such as NBC, as though they were less prone to corruption than those owned by individuals, such as Melody Music.

Minow was replaced by the time the federal courts finally forced the FCC to review its inconsistent decisions and relicense Melody Music in 1965. Thus, Doerfer’s turbulent chairship of the FCC came at a critical time in television history, and his compromised position with regard to the networks who he should have been overseeing drew legal and public scrutiny to the agency. Storer, George Minow, Newton Doerfer, John C. Federal Communication Commission

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baughman, James L. “Minow’s Viewers: Understanding the Response to the ’Vast Wasteland’ Address.” Federal Communications Law Journal 55, no. 449 (May, 2003): 449-458. Using Minow’s famous public address as a starting point, Baughman provides a thorough analysis of changes at the FCC and in network programming following Doerfer’s forced resignation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brinson, Susan L. “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Case Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 47, no. 2 (June, 2003): 276-288. Examines Doerfer’s role in keeping the FCC from regulating the content of quiz shows. Discusses the congressional hearings leading up to Doerfer’s ouster.
  • 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 and the consequent scandals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, Joseph, and Tim Yohn. Prime Time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950’s TV Quiz Scandal—A D.A.’s Account. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Summarizes the quiz show scandal, from its origins in network advertiser collusion to its conclusion, after show contestant Charles Van Doren testified before Congress.

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