The Rise of TV Quiz Shows
Before quiz shows hit prime time on television, they were already a staple on television’s ubiquitous precursor, radio. Quiz shows, popular for their informal feel and their inclusion of everyday people, started out slowly on network radio. In the early 1930s, it consisted almost solely of music and comedy. Soap operas, minstrel shows, news, commentary, and sporting events rounded out the programming.
During the Depression, however, the quiz show caught on. The beloved big-band show, the sportscast, the mystery hour, even the soap opera, were transformed into some kind of prize-giving game, quiz, contest or jackpot. By 1940, 50 quiz shows were on the air. By the time the 1940s had ended, 200 such shows had air time, including "Colonel Stoopnagle," "Professor Peter Puzzlewith," and "Dr. IQ," which was emceed by a man who would drop jingling silver dollars into the hands of winners, a sound that could be heard by every radio listener.
One of the most popular and intelligent shows was "Information, Please," which called on the audience to send in questions to stump a panel of experts. The show aired for 14 years, until its finale in 1952, and was noteworthy not only for its success, but for its integrity. At the time, radio programs made their way on air in two ways. They were underwritten by big name sponsors, who were expected to be involved with the show, or they were funded by individual producers, making them self-sufficient. Dan Golenpaul, the producer for "Information, Please," earned kudos when he fired the Reynolds Tobacco Company, which had run a series of untruthful commercials and also demanded that panelists on the show smoke its cigarettes.
But with the outbreak of WW II the radio quiz shows became mere ghosts of what they once were. The federal government restricted many shows, fearing the unfettered access that quiz shows granted to broadcasting studios in wartime. Those shows that did survive gave away patriotic prizes.
After the war, the quiz shows came back strong. One of the most popular was "Stop the Music," launched in 1948 and emceed by Bert Parks. The prizes on "Stop the Music" were larger than any before. Its ratings soared so high that it bumped off the classic radio comedy, the "Fred Allen Show."
As television moved into millions of homes in the 1950s, the popular quiz shows followed. Like many other radio quiz show producers, Louis Cowan, who had conceptualized the show "Quiz Kids" in 1940, tried his hand at television. A TV version of "Quiz Kids" proved only a modest success, never catching on the way the radio show had. But Cowan also produced the radio show "Stop the Music," which was one of the few radio quiz show conversions to do well on television.
Cowan’s first huge hit, "The $64,000 Question," was inspired by a radio show "Take It or Leave It," a quiz show that offered an escalating series of money prizes, until the contestant could win a grand prize of $64. The figure had not changed through the radio show’s 10-year run from 1940 through 1950.
Cowan knew that $64 would not excite television viewers, so he added three zeroes to the total. To most people of the mid-fifties, $64,000 was a staggering sum. At the time it was offered, machinists earned $80 a week, or $4,000 a year. A steak at Howard Johnson’s cost a $1.95. Stenographers came home with $55 a week, or about $2,800 annually. A three-bedroom split-level home in Bethpage, Long Island cost $14,000, and a new Ford sold for a couple of grand. Cowan said that once he came up with the large prize idea -- and the name for the show -- he "knew just what was going to happen." Some of what he expected came true: the show became a monster hit. Fifty-five million people tuned in to one particularly dramatic episode. Fifteen thousand Americans wrote letters to CBS each week to make a case for why they should appear on the show. The show caused reverberations throughout television, opening the floodgates to an unprecedented wave of quiz shows in the latter half of the 1950s.