'Quiz Show Scandal' tells a riveting tale of manipulation and deceit

January 06, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The feature film "JFK" and the continuing deluge of TV docudramas "inspired by real events" have convinced some that history should not be learned from television or film. Nothing lies quite as convincingly as the visual image.

Then there's "The Quiz Show Scandal," at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

The one-hour documentary on how TV quiz shows in the 1950s were rigged is TV telling a piece of its own history and telling it better than it has ever been told in newspaper, magazine or book. It's riveting and resonant, and the filmmakers go out of their way to show its relevance to the way many viewers connect with their TV sets today.

The general outline of the quiz show scandals are widely known. In the early 1950s, when television was still very young as a mass entertainment medium and sponsors had near-total control over programs, a series of quiz shows became huge hits.

CBS introduced "The $64,000 Question" in 1955, and it became a cultural phenomenon. The cumulative audience was estimated at nearly 50 million for the first 10 weeks. Attendance at movies, plays ands nightclubs dropped dramatically on the nights it aired. Contestants became instant celebrities.

And then it was discovered that some of the shows were rigged. Contestants the sponsors wanted on the show for their audience appeal were coached by the producers and, in some cases, fed answers before the programs. The viewers, who had believed and rooted so fervently for these contestants, learned they were duped.

The smartest of many smart decision made by the filmmakers was to narrow their focus to two of the contestants who participated in the fraud -- Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University English instructor from a famous and wealthy family, and Herbert Stempel, a young man from a less privileged background who was attending college on the GI Bill. They were opponents on a show called "Twenty-One."

You will marvel at the manipulation involved in their casting. The producers knew viewers would love the glib and handsome Van Doren.As for Stempel, "Viewers would watch him and pray for his opponent to win," Dan Enright, who produced the rigged show, says in an interview. Once Van Doren and Stempel are introduced, it is impossible to walk away from this documentary. Indicative of the film's hidden surprises is the reaction one has to the image of Van Doren and Stempel standing side-by-side; you will understand the public's reaction to the TV debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 in a way you never did before. Nixon was Stempel; Kennedy, Van Doren. These duels connected with our deepest and most complex feelings about social standing, class, privilege and upward mobility.

"The Quiz Show Scandal" does have one failing. After involving viewers so deeply in the lives of Van Doren and Stempel, it fails to say what the two are up to today.

Michael Lawrence, who directed and co-produced the documentary, lives and works in Baltimore. In a phone conversation last week, he said both are still alive, but that Van Doren, who became co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show before the scandal brought him down, has tried to stay out of the public eye. Stempel is today a municipal employee in New York City, Lawrence said.

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