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The Quiz Show Scandal | Article

Dan Enright

Quizshow Enright corbis.jpg
Dan Enright, Corbis

At the time he created the quiz show "Twenty-One," Dan Enright was one of the most successful game show producers in television. Beginning in radio, Enright had worked with Jack Barry to create and produce a series of successful quiz shows. Enright’s connection to Barry went back to the late 1940s, when they worked as partners creating and packaging programs for radio and television. One of their earliest television successes was "Juvenile Jury," which included a panel of young people who answered questions submitted by home viewers, studio audience members and celebrity guests. That success was followed by a similar show with older guests called "Life Begins at 80." With "Wisdom of the Ages," the partners combined the best of both shows, mixing a panel of youngsters and the elderly. "Tic Tac Dough" was based on the game of tic-tac-toe and broadcast weekdays on NBC. Later on, a prime-time and higher-stakes version aired. After Life Begins at Eighty was dropped and Can Do, a celebrity stunt show with host Robert Alda, failed, the producers searched for a new project. Twenty One, a television quiz show based on the blackjack, was the next game these independent producers would launch.

"The show went on the air in 1956 and we felt that it had such great quality and content to it that we would not have to rig it," Enright recalls. "In fact, the first show of "Twenty-One" was not rigged and the first show of "Twenty-One" was a dismal failure. It was just plain dull."

The next morning, the show’s sponsor, Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which produced Geritol, called Enright and Barry, telling them "in no uncertain terms that he never wanted to see a repeat of what happened the previous night," remembers Enright. "And from that moment on, we decided to rig 'Twenty-One.'"

Rigging or no rigging, the show’s ratings were not impressive during the early weeks of its run. Viewers complained that its mid-week 10:30 P.M. time slot was too late. One pundit suggested that the show needed a good dose of the Geritol and Serutan sold by the show’s sponsors. Then Enright seemed to make a move certain to doom the show: He placed it against NBC’s hit show "I Love Lucy."

Enright and Barry believed they could attract more viewers if they could find guests that the audience would want to root for or against – and then choreograph these guests' involvement. The plan became reality with the appearance of an affable, 30-year old English professor from Columbia University named Charles Van Doren. Van Doren’s reign on the show would stretch for 14 weeks and his appeal would turn the show into one of the most-watched television game shows of the 1950s. "Twenty-One" became such a success that NBC bought it from Enright and Barry for $2.2 million.

Van Doren’s first victory came at the expense of Herbert Stempel, whom Van Doren replaced. Stempel was bitter about his loss and Van Doren’s meteoric rise and national fame. He began to haunt Enright’s office, saying he would expose the rigging that took place behind the scenes unless he was given more money or a steady job. Enright put off Stempel with the promise of future opportunities.

Finally, Stempel, frustrated with Enright’s broken promises, went public with the charges that he had participated in a fix. Enright denied all charges and participated in a cover-up. In his book about the scandal, "Prime Time and Misdemeanors," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joseph Stone recalls Enright’s initial reaction to the early reports. When Enright came to Stone’s office, the "Twenty-One" producer said that "unsubstantiated allegations like Stempel’s, if not repudiated, could seriously damage the reputation of the show and destroy it." Stone adds that Enright portrayed Stempel as "a disturbed person and a blackmailer." According to Stone, Enright looked him right in the eye and denied ever giving Stempel prior answers.

But the leaks about the under-handed quiz show tactics came from more than Stempel. Stone tells of another "Twenty-One" guest, Richard Jackman, who repeated Stempel’s allegations. Jackman told Stone that Enright had spent hours with him going over questions prior to his appearance. Before Jackman’s first show on October 3, 1956, Enright said, quite apocryphally, "You are in a position to destroy my career." Jackman was unsure what Enright meant; the producer told him he would find out, and soon he did.

Jackman only caught on to his involvement in the deception when he began getting questions on the show that he had been asked by Enright beforehand. Jackman played three games and raised his winnings to $24,500 before deciding he wanted out. Jackman said that Enright had asked him to reconsider his decision, given that a few more successful nights on the show might support Jackman for the rest of his life.

Jackman decided to accept $15,000 offered by Enright and then leave the show. When the scandal started to appear in the press, Enright asked to speak with Jackman asking him what he would say if the Manhattan district attorney called him in for questioning. If required to testify, Jackman said, he’d tell the truth. Three days after Jackman confessed to Stone, "Twenty-One," falling fast in the ratings as the deception was revealed, was canceled.

With the truth catching up to him, Enright finally admitted wrong-doing before a closed executive session of the congressional committee investigating the quiz show allegations. There, Enright acknowledged giving answers in advance to Stempel and other contestants. Enright even went on to say that NBC’s primary concern after the scandal had broken was "how to avoid having the story" aired, regardless of the truth. Asked if NBC executives knew about the riggings, Enright responded: "You would have to be very unsophisticated or very naive not to understand that certain controls have to be exercised."

Like so many of those associated with the quiz show scandal, Enright paid a price for his indiscretions. Only the company Screen Gems gave him an opportunity in the television business, hiring him to develop shows in Canada. Enright trained many producers who would take what he taught them to American productions.

Slowly, though, Enright worked his way back into the television business. In the 1970s he joined up once again with his old partner Jack Barry. The two returned to what they had done for so long: They produced game shows such as "The Joker’s Wild" and "Tic Tac Dough," which was popular on the networks and in syndication as well.

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