Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Radio’s Battle of the Books

Is there much doubt that Mark Goodson and Bill Todman were the class act of the game show business?

They were the producers whose panellists on television wore evening clothes, who made sure someone with charm and grace (Kitty Carlisle, Arlene Francis, Joan Alexander) regularly filled one of seats every week (conversely, Hal Block was let go from “What’s My Line” because he was deemed too boorish). And they began in the radio business when game shows were taking a beating for being loud and shallow. In fact, one of the shows they produced was Louis G. Cowan’s “Stop the Music” which is credited with lighting a fuse of anger that got give-away shows banned by the FCC in 1949 (something immediately challenged in court by Radio Features, Inc., known more for churning out soap operas). It’s no wonder they decided to put a high-class sheen on their TV shows, especially at night.

So in light of the outrage over the loud, low-brow giveways, it’s perhaps not surprising that Goodson and Todman came up with something other than filthy lucre as the prize for one of its radio shows. Books. Syndicated New York Herald-Tribune columnist John Crosby aimed his cynical eye at that one in print. This appeared in newspapers on December 21, 1948.

Radio Risks Disaster in Book Gifts

NEW YORK, Dec. 22—The introduction of $1000 worth of books as part of the $27,000 prize for “Hit the Jackpot” is possibly the most significant development in recent give-away history, easily surpassing the gift of Adolph Menjou to a Mrs. Claire Stark on the “Whiz Quiz” program.
Menjou, as a matter of fact, was only loaned to Mrs. Stark for the evening; she had to return him the same night in good condition. The books, on the other hand, are a permanent gift and could easily be a prelude to disaster for the giveaways or even for radio. The supposition that give-away contestants can read is perhaps unwarranted, but they can learn, can't they?
The printed page is a competitive medium, and, while it has been consistently losing ground to the blandishments of radio, it still seems to be a risky proposition to expose a radio listener to $1000 worth of books, the sheer bulk of which is sufficient to keep him entertained for a couple of years without any assistance from the radio.
The idea of giving away books was that of Bill Todman and Mark Goodson, producers of “Hit the Jackpot.” Todman in particular has become increasingly sensitive to the charge flung by irresponsible columns, this one included, that give-aways — he doesn’t like that word either— are a form of lunacy for which give-away producers will be held accountable on the day of judgment, The addition of books to the grand prize is intended to add tone to the give-away industry, putting if in the same class as the Rockefeller Foundation. I expect the press releases will be designating Todman and Goodson as philanthropists as soon as the CBS publicity staff learns how to spell it.
A thousand bucks worth of books is a lot of books, 331 by my count. Rinehart and Co. were needled into donating the books, which was no easy job. It took virtually the publisher’s entire active list to make up $1000 worth, and consequently there will be some strange and highly specialized titles in the lucky winner’s library.
Along with “The Lost Weekend” and “Short Novels of the Masters,” the winner will find 10 manuals on applied electricity (“Industrial Electric Heating,” “Primary Storage Batteries”). His mental health will be almost too adequately cared for (“Mental Defect,” “The Substance of Mental Health” and “Psychiatry for the Curious”). His sexual knowledge will be suitably enlarged (“Sex in Our Changing World”). And his nerves will be soothed by "Calm Your Nerves.”
If the winner really wants to buckle down and improve his mind, he’ll find “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” “The Citizen and the Law,” and the entire “Rivers of America” series (37 volumes). There are also about 25 pounds of mysteries.
Oh, yes. “The Hucksters” is on the list too, a case of radio biting the hand that feeds it. But the two volumes I consider most appropriate to a give-away award winner are “Living Abundantly” and “Living Prayerfully.”
While making this genuflection to culture, Messrs. Todman and Goodson are by no means depending on it entirely, since a grand prize composed only of books would attract about as many customers as a concert in Cleveland. Along with the books go a new De Soto, a plot of land near Palm Beach, a two-bedroom house ready for construction, and a lot of other things more familiar and infinitely more precious to give-away winners.
Incidentally, the hook gift idea has spread to another CBS show—“Winner Take All” which is offering about 100 books also from the Rinehart stable. If strong steps aren’t taken soon, this reading will take root in the homes of the multitude, and, once rooted, will be as difficult to get rid of as the give-aways are.

“What’s My Line?” “I’ve Got a Secret.” “To Tell the Truth.” “The Match Game.” “Password.” “The Price is Right.” “Family Feud.” Huge television hits, all. Other producers could only envy a string of hits like that. When it comes to game show success, you might say Goodson and Todman (get ready to groan) wrote the book on it.

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