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The American Experience
Teacher's Guide

Themes: Media, ethics, law, technology, television and the media, the '50s

Before Viewing Discussion:

  1. Discuss with students how reality relates to non-fiction television: What are the goals of non-fiction programs such as talk shows, newscasts, magazine shows, game shows, documentaries, and so-called "real drama" or reality programming like "Cops"? Are such programs "show business"? What responsibilities do non-fiction television producers have to their audiences–must they be truthful? When, if ever, might they not? Is it ever ethical to present shades of truth? If yes, present some examples. Do students believe the non-fiction programs they see today? How would they feel if they learned certain scenarios were "rigged"?

  2. "It couldn’t have happened in any other medium," said Joseph Cates, producer of The $64,000 Question, regarding the quiz show scandal. Talk with students about the visual nature of television: Why might seeing contestants in a quiz show influence the audience’s feelings about them? How do such signifiers as clothing, mannerisms, styles, age, and weight affect an audience’s perceptions? How might these perceptions influence drama, tension, and, ultimately, ratings?

After Viewing Discussion:

  1. After the scandal, Charles Van Doren noted that he now believed the difference between good and evil was "not cut and dried." Discuss with students the motivations of those involved: What were the motives of the producers? Sponsor Charles Revson? Contestant Herb Stempel? Charles van Doren? What power did each have? What power did each believe he had? Do students think these people were good, bad, or both?


  1. In 1961, Newton Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech in which he famously called television a "vast wasteland." Years later, he noted that the words he’d hoped to impress upon his audience at that time were "public interest." Discuss Minow’s words with your class. Then divide students into two groups, and have them debate which description better suits television today. Ask them to consider the following: In what ways is television helpful or detrimental to the audience? What are producers hoping to attain? Who is most and least successful? How are the producers’ goals and the networks’ goals similar and different? How do people make use of television? How do students use it? What do students feel they gain or lose by watching TV? (It might be helpful to remind students that the networks care about show ratings because they use them to set advertising costs. Money is a very important part of the equation.)

  2. Ask students to choose one of the following people–Herbert Stempel, Charles Van Doren, Daniel Enright, Patty Duke, James Snodgrass, Jack Barry, Dave Gelman, Jack O’Brian, Joseph Stone, Sonny Fox among others–and write a week’s worth of journal entries from that person’s point of view. The entries may be from any week between Herbert Stempel’s debut on "Twenty-One" until Charles Van Doren’s confession before Congress. Students may use the People and Events and Interview sections for further research. Have your class consider the following: What role did this person play in the scandal? What was the person’s goal regarding involvement in "Twenty-One"? What does he/she have to gain or lose? What might they feel a need to confess in private to a journal? Did this person hurt anyone? Help anyone? What sorts of hopes might this person have? Worries?

  3. What role do game shows play in today’s society? Ask students to compare and contrast a variety of current game shows, such as public radio’s "Says You" and "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me," and TV’s "Jeopardy" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Have them consider the following: What values are protrayed? What values might the audience of each have? Who is each program aimed at? What are the producers’ goals? How are sponsors represented? How is tension and drama built? How do the various tasks involved differ? How does the audience benefit, it at all, from listening or watching? How do the contestants benefit? Are these shows "entertainment"? believable? worthwhile viewing? Which game shows, if any, do students believe serve a beneficial purpose?

  4. Ask students to develop a quiz show of their own that the class can play based on a history topic they are currently studying. When developing questions and formats, have them consider the many variables that go into analyzing history: facts; political motivations; roles of gender, race, and class; primary documents; among others.

  5. Show the feature film "Quiz Show" to your class and ask them to compare it with the American Experience documentary "The Quiz Show Scandal." How do they differ? What is the goal of each film? What goes into making them? What sort of research might each production require? Did the feature film take license with the storyline? If so, how and why?


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