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The Quiz Show Scandal | Article

Charles Revson

While much of the attention on the quiz show scandals has been placed on the shows' producers, at least some of the pressure to deceive the public came from the show’s sponsors. One sponsor clearly implicated was the cosmetics company, Revlon, operated by Charles Revson.

Revlon was the sponsor of "The $64,000 Question," the program that led the way for many other high-stakes quiz shows. The program's originator, Louis Cowan, worked hard to find a sponsor for the show. Cowan first contacted the cosmetic mogul Helena Rubinstein, who did not own a television and was woefully unaware of the medium’s advertising potential. Chrysler also did not take Cowan’s offer, fearing that sponsoring a big-money quiz show while working hard to keep employee salaries low would antagonize their labor force. A vacuum cleaner company also turned down Cowan’s offer on the grounds that the show seemed too glamorous for their product.

Through another ad agency, Cowan made contact with Revson, who had doubts that his modest-sized cosmetics company would be able to sell its brightly colored lipstick and nail enamel using black-and-white television screens. Revson could also exert tighter control over magazine ads than he could over live TV commercials. However, his competitor Hazel Bishop had boosted its sales by sponsoring the show "This is Your Life," so Revson signed the deal with the producers of "The $64,000 Question" but insisted on the right to pull his sponsorship after 13 weeks.

Revson never exercised this right. The show proved so successful that movie theaters and restaurants complained of poor attendance on Tuesday nights, the evening "The $64,000 Question" aired. The crime rate dropped around the 10 P.M. air time, as did the number of long-distance telephone calls. Revlon’s sales tripled in its second year as sponsor.

Revson asked for a spin-off that would take advantage of the show’s vast audience of 50 million people. The producers of "The $64,000 Question" responded with "The $64,000 Challenge." The show took winners from the original show who competed for more money. After Charles Revson told his programmers, "Get me some famous faces and make them smart," celebrities were added to the mix,

In the fall of 1955, direction for "The $64,000 Question" was given to Martin Revson, brother to Charles and second in command at Revlon. At weekly meetings chaired by Martin and sometimes attended by Charles, every aspect of the program was reviewed. The group discussed ratings, media coverage, telephone calls, letters and how each of these feedback mechanisms reflected each contestant’s performance.

The upshot was that attractive contestants were fed the right answers. Shirley Bernstein, a producer for "The $64,000 Question," said that in pre-game warm-ups she often asked contestants questions that were identical to those used on a broadcast "either because the contestant was very nervous or the sponsor had requested a particular outcome of a match."

Steve Carlin, executive producer of Entertainment Productions, Inc., which packaged "The $64,000 Question" and its sequel, "The $64,000 Challenge," testified in Congressional hearings about the quiz show riggings. He told the committee that Revlon, the sponsor of both the shows, expected their decisions concerning contestants to be carried out.

"There is a tradition in television . . . of trying to please the client," Carlin testified. "If you have a client whom you see once in thirteen weeks, pleasing becomes a relatively simple matter. But if you have a client whom you see each week, a very persuasive client, pleasing him becomes more difficult. You have to please him every week, not every thirteen weeks. We were willing to please the client."

Appearing before the Congressional Committee, Mert Koplin, another producer of "The $64,000 Question," was asked why so many quiz shows had been rigged. He replied: "We had to." Revlon, he testified, wanted high ratings. To achieve high ratings, Revlon wanted contestants that viewers wanted to watch. Koplin estimated that between 60-70 percent of the winners on his two shows received some "help," and often without their knowledge. As well as repeating questions on the show that had already been asked of a contestant, questions kept in the bank vault were often changed at the last minute to suit a contestant’s area of expertise.

While Revlon usually got its way, there was a notable exception: the young Dr. Joyce Brothers. Brothers had written to "The $64,000 Question" and was brought in because the weekly meeting had concluded that more women were needed. However, Brothers was told by Koplin that her field of psychology, like philosophy, was too vague for the show. Brothers asked for examples of the kinds of specialties that might be appropriate. The answers that came back from Koplin were "lacrosse, wrestling, boxing. . . "

Brothers returned in several weeks -- this time as a boxing expert. After Brothers’ first appearance on the show, Martin Revson made it clear that he disliked her personality, looks, and clothing, and added that he also found her unbelievable as a boxing expert. Revson wanted her off the show. Koplin brought in Nat Fleischer, a boxing writer, to come up with the hardest of boxing questions to stump Brothers.

Producers decided to knock her off at the $16,000 mark with a question not about boxers, but about a far more arcane subject: boxing referees. "The $64,000 Question" host Hal March asked, "What man refereed the comeback attempt of an ex-champ against Jack Johnson at Reno, Nevada." Brothers answer was Tex Rickert -- and she was right.

Her success -- and her celebrity -- increased with each appearance, and if more attempts were made to knock her off the show, they failed. Brothers became the first woman to win the top prize of $64,000 (and only the second of all the contestants to do so) and then went on to make several appearances on "The $64,000 Challenge," earning a total of $132,000. Investigators, who at first suspected her ability to cram so much so fast, asked her how she had become an expert about boxing. She told investigators that she boned up on boxing by reading reference books, including one called "Ring Facts," written by the man who was hired to stump her: Nat Fleischer.

Brothers parlayed her sudden TV fame into a successful career as a television talk-show hostess and author of a syndicated column. She was one of the few involved with the quiz shows to come out with an untarnished reputation.

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