Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Without Their Advance Knowledge

An intellectual from a respected family couldn’t be a cheater, right?

That attitude was the whole lynch-pin surrounding TVs quiz show scandal. The realisation that an intellectual could be a cheater—and was a cheater—and the fact the intellectual seemed like a nice young man is why viewers were so outraged they had been had. Television still had some self-respect in the ‘50s. Amidst the quiz shows, laugh-track laden sitcoms and strident commercials were documentaries, live drama and Edward R. Murrow. Today, no one cares that reality shows aren’t real. The audience doesn’t expect anything lofty out of television, just entertainment.

Among the millions of Americans fooled by the performance of Charles Van Doren (photo to right) on “Twenty One” was noted critic John Crosby. Crosby was not one to admire quiz shows—he was scathing against “Stop the Music” and even “To Tell The Truth”—but “Twenty One” was, well, intellectual, so it had to be good. One can’t blame Crosby, though. An intellectual from a respected family couldn’t be a cheater, right?

John Crosby’s Television & Radio
If you have to watch giveaways—and these days you have to turn the set off—I can only recommend “Twenty-One”, the only wheel in town that reminds me of the big table at Cannes. That is, the contestants stand to lose big dough as well as win it. Of course, they’re losing house money—but still it’s money that would otherwise be in the bank—and they’re matched evenly against another contestant rather than playing against the house which adds a certain morbid, and altogether fascinating allure to the proceedings.
The current winner is Charles Van Doren, the son of Mark Van Doren, the author, who has run up his score to $99,000. Young Van Doren, an English instructor at Columbia University, may reopen the whole argument about progressive schools which I thought we had safely behind us. He is a product of progressive schools, having attended City and Country School and St. John’s College before taking his Ph.D at Columbia. However, the very breadth and variety of his interests, which have been fair awe-inspiring, are the result, teammates say, not so much of formal schooling as the fact that he is Mark Van Doren’s son and was reared in a family of lively intellectual curiosity whose members were incessantly running to the encyclopedia to make sure they had it exactly right.
“Twenty-One” demands wide general knowledge, not specialized information, as do most of the others. The emcee, Jack Barry, simply throws a category at the contestants without their advance knowledge or consent and consequently Mr. Van Doren has had to be very nimble-witted about the United States government past and present, Shakespeare, kings and queens, the Air Force, the theater, opera and heaven knows what else.
On “Twenty-One”, two contestants are acoustically sealed off from one another in isolation booths, the manufacture of which must be one of the growing industries of our hemisphere, and are asked to pick a number from one to eleven, the size of the number determining the difficulty of the question. Frequently they pick either ten or eleven and consequently the two contestants get the same questions on, say Lincoln. There are two sets of questions and you can, if you’re bright enough, win twenty-one points which are paid off per point at a rate which jumps $50 every time a contestant surmounts each set. Everyone straight on that?
Well, whether you are or not, Van Doren last session was playing for $2,000 a point against a rival, Miss Ruth Miller, who had already got her twenty-one points. Consequently, Van Doren stood to lose $40,000 of the $46,000 he had built up over the weeks and the tension as he hesitated over Lincoln’s two Secretarys of War and two Vice Presidents was something terrible. Still, he got it right and went on to demolish Miss Miller on a question pertaining two World War II and run his winnings up to $99,000.
Miss Miller had to walk off with a mere $2,500 and she looked as if a two-mile race, not only beaten but exhausted. I learned at my grandpa’s knee that in gambling there had to be a loser as well as a winner — but this is the only TV giveaway that plays quite like that. Of course, I suppose the sponsor would be horrified to hear it called gambling but that’s what it is — except that the house gives you the chips to play with originally. After you’ve played a week or so, though, it’s your money and I suppose losing it is as painful as any other kind of losing.
NBC seems confident enough of its entry to throw it up against the perennial champion “I Love Lucy” (9 p.m. EST Monday’s) and it may put a dent in the ratings.

Crosby’s column is from January 11, 1957. The scandal claimed “Twenty One” on October 17, 1958. Crosby was livid when he realised he had been duped. He put his anger in print. “The moral squalor of the quiz mess reaches through the whole industry,” he wrote in November 1959. He opened that column with “Charles Van Doren may go down as the Shoeless Joe Jackson of his age. ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe,’ is the plea on the lips of a million true believers—and the answer is silence.”

Van Doren wasn’t silent more than 50 years later. You can read his story to The New Yorker here.

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