The premiere of The $64,000 Question as a summer replacement in 1955 marked the beginning of the big money quiz shows. Following a Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that exempted "Jackpot" quizzes from charges of illegal gambling, Louis G. Cowan, the creator and packager of the program, Revlon, its main sponsor, and CBS were able to bring this new type of quiz show on the air. Based on the popular 1940s radio quiz show Take It Or Leave It with its famous $64 Question, The $64,000 Question increased the prize money to an unprecedented, spectacular level. It also added public appeal with a security guard and a "trust officer" who monitored questions and prizes, and its fairly elaborate set design, which included an "isolation booth" for the contestants. Intellectual "legitimacy" was further claimed through the employment of Prof. Bergen Evans as "Question Supervisor." With its emphasis on high culture, academic knowledge, and its grave, ceremonious atmosphere, The $64,000 Question represented an attempt to gain more respectability for the relatively new and still despised television medium, while at the same time appealing to a large audience.
Each contestant began his or her quest for fortune and fame by answering a question in their area of expertise for $64. Each subsequent correct answer doubled their prize money up to the $4,000 level. After this stage contestants could only advance one level per week and were asked increasingly elaborate and difficult questions. They were allowed to quit the quiz at any level--and keep their winnings--but missing a question always eliminated the contestant. Nevertheless, contestants were guaranteed the $4,000 from the first round, and if missed a question after having reached the $8,000 level, received an additional consolation prize--a new Cadillac. At this level, candidates were also moved from the studio floor to the "Revlon Isolation Booth," a shift designed to intensify the dramatic effects at the higher levels of the quiz.
Besides its use of such spectacular features, the appeal of The $64,000 Question was also strongly grounded in the audience's identification with returning contestants. Thus, many of the early competitors were transformed from "common people" into instant superstars. Policeman Redmond O'Hanlon, a Shakespeare expert, and shoemaker Gino Prato, an opera fan, are among the noted examples. The popularity of these and other contestants proved the viability of "the serialized contest," a concept that The $64,000 Question and many imitators (e.g., Twenty-One; The Big Surprise) followed.
Due to the immense success of The $64,000 Question (at one point in the 1955 season it had an 84.8% audience share), CBS and Cowan created a spin-off, The $64,000 Challenge. This program allowed those contestants from The $64,000 Question who had won at least $8,000 to continue their quiz show career. The format was changed into a more overt contest; two candidates competed against each other in a common area of expertise. As a minimum prize, contestants were guaranteed the amount at which they beat their opponents. Additionally, the $64,000 limit on winnings was removed, making the contests even longer and more spectacular.
The combination of these two shows allowed the most successful candidates to become virtual television regulars, as in the case of Teddy Nadler, who had accumulated $252,000 by the time The $64,000 Challenge was canceled. These programs held top rating spots until Twenty-One found a format and a contestant, Charles Van Doren, which were even more appealing to the audience.
The need for regular contestants to appear over long periods of time, one of the central factors in the popularity of the big prize game shows, also proved to be an central factor in their downfall with the quiz show scandal of 1958. The sponsors of the programs implicitly expected and sometimes explicitly demanded that popular contestants be supplied with answers in advance, enabling them to defeat unpopular competitors and remain on the show for extended periods. Although no allegations against Entertainment Productions, Inc. and CBS were ever substantiated, Barnouw points out in The Image Empire that their production personnel claimed that Revlon had frequently tried to influence the outcome of the quizzes. Ultimately, both shows were canceled due to public indignation and waning ratings in the wake of the scandals.
One of the most significant results of the quiz show scandal and the involvement of sponsors in it was the shift in the power to program television. The scandal was used as an argument by the networks to completely eliminate sponsor-controlled programming in prime-time broadcasting and to take control of program production themselves.
Dr. Bergen Evans
June 1955-June 1958 Tuesday 10:00-10:30
September 1958-November 1958 Sunday 10:00-10:30
Sonny Fox (1956)
Ralph Story (1956-1958)
Steve Carlin, Joe Cates
April 1956-September 1958 Sunday 10:00-1:30
Barnouw, E. A History of Broadcasting in the United States: Volume III--The Image Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Boddy, W. Fifties Television: The Industry and its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Schwartz, D., S. Ryan, and F. Wostbrock. The Encyclopedia of Television Game Shows. New York: Zoetrope, 1987.