The history of quiz shows

Born on radio and brought to overripe maturity by television, the quiz show and its siblings, the quiz show and the game show, have become staples of programming, constituting one of the most listened to and watched kinds of entertainment ever devised. The basic idea grew quite naturally out of the early mind-teasing games and spelling bees that Americans played in school and at home. One of the very first shows to capture the public's imagination was called Dr. I.Q. and it featured the doctor as a mental banker as a "mental banker," who posed questions to volunteers in the audience. His assistant's call, "Doctor, I have a lady in the balcony," became a household phrase, as did the doctor's ringing acknowledgment of a right answer, "Give that man 20 silver dollars!"

Dr. I.Q.'s questions were fairly easy, and the radio audience had the pleasure of competing vicariously and occasionally congratulating themselves for their astuteness. In 1938 the first of the "egghead" quiz shows appeared. Called Information Please, it was a panel show that put such polymaths as Franklin P. Adams, John Kieran, and two guest experts each week on the firing line. Information Please reversed the usual format in that the public was asked to provide the questions - the harder the better - and watch the experts squirm. The panelists themselves were encouraged to go farther than simply answering the questions-they were expected to be witty along the way, as in this exchange between guest panelist John Gunther and master of ceremonies Clifton Fadiman. Fielding the question "Who is Reza Pahlevi?" Gunther hesitated, then answered, "The ruler of Persia. "Are you shah?" queried Fadiman, to which Gunther responded "Sultanly."

Information Please soon spawned a short-pants version known as the Quiz Kids, a program that recruited precocious youngsters for its panel. Typical of the kinds of questions these juvenile geniuses thrived on was this literary number puzzler posed by interlocutor Joe Kelly: "Divide the number of Ali Baba's thieves by the number of quints (short for quintuplets), add the horsemen of the Apocalypse, and subtract the number of days it took to make the world."

"Five," said 14-year-old Cynthia Cline in an instant. "I beg to differ," interjected 13-year-old Virginia Booze. "The answer is six," she declared, explaining in detail that there were forty thieves, which divided by the five quints gave eight, plus four horsemen made twelve, minus six days for the creation of the world, which left six, not five, as the total. "For on the seventh day He rested," announced Virginia, understandably triumphant.

The quiz kids each received a $100 war bond for their appearances, and listeners whose questions were chosen were given portable radios. Other shows were equally modest in their prizes: Take It or Leave It, for example, had as the ultimate test of a contestant's ability: a "$64 question." In the early 1950's, when television adopted the quiz format, cash awards grew enormously, and audience excitement rose with them. Shows like The Big Surprise, The Big Payoff, Break the Bank, Strike It Rich, and The $64,000 Question gave enthralled viewers a chance to dream of overnight wealth and instant glory.

The $64,000 Question was the prototype, and it was so successful that at one time it commanded 85 percent of the TV audience. The basic gimmick of the show. sponsored by Revlon, the cosmetic company, was to hold a contestant over for several weeks while he or she won ever-larger sums of money, and the suspense built. Contestants were picked for their encyclopedic knowledge in a particular field along with everyday qualities - a Bronx shoemaker who knew grand opera, a Marine captain who knew about haute cuisine - that viewers could identify with. As the stakes grew higher, they performed their feats of "memory" inside a glass-enclosed "isolation booth," and they agonized over their answers with some 50 million viewers looking on. Revlon was rewarded with a 200 percent increase in sales during the show's first year. 

But the success of The $64,000 Question and its spinoffs - which represented in their peak years a $100 million annual investment in production costs and purchase of time--led in a very real sense to their downfall. To keep audience involvement at a peak in an
increasingly competitive market, producers began "warming up" contestants who were favorites of the viewers with discreet clues to the questions - and answers - they might encounter under pressure.

In 1958 a disgruntled standby contestant on Dotto discovered that the show's producers had given advance cue cards to a contestant and complained to the Federal Communications Commission. Then a winner on Twenty-One reported a "fix" on that show. Finally, one of the best-known winners of all, Charles Van Doren, went before an investigative committee in the House of Representatives and disclosed that he, too, had been helped - while winning $129,000 on Twenty-One. Almost overnight, disillusionment on the part of viewers and fear of public controversy on the part of sponsors brought the world of the quiz show tumbling down. Though game shows reappeared in the mid-1960's, the stakes they offered were consistently lower and their rules against fixing considerably more stringent.


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