The Film & More|
When CBS premiered "The $64,000 Question" in 1955, the show was more than a hit; it was a national phenomenon. No program in the short history of television had ever attracted so many viewers so quickly -- 47 million in ten weeks. Audiences loved the idea of watching people like themselves compete for huge sums of money by answering tough questions. "The common man as genius," one writer called it. More quiz shows followed, including "Twenty One" and "Tic Tac Dough." At the times these shows aired, the crime rate and movie theatre attendance actually dropped.
What the viewing audience was to learn, but only much later, was that many of the TV quiz shows were fixed. Initially, popular contestants were favored with easier questions; they were "rehearsed" by the show's producers for hours before airtime. When producer Dan Enright saw ratings plummet for his show "Twenty One," he went even further, providing contestants with answers before air time. To make the charade convincing, Enright coached his hand-picked winners down to the smallest detail: when to stutter, mop their brow, bite their lip, even how to dress. The most famous of these contestants was Charles Van Doren. Young, intelligent, and handsome, Van Doren was "a bona fide egghead with enough sex appeal" to create a sensation.
Slowly and painfully, the deceit unraveled. When a Congressional investigation revealed that wholesome Van Doren and the quiz shows were a fraud, Americans felt angry and betrayed. The film provides a look at the formative years of television and the scandal's impact on the TV business and a naive America.