Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Television Needs Fixing

Quiz shows were the reality shows of the 1950s. They featured real people, using real brains to win really big money.

They (well, some of them) turned out be as real as today’s reality shows. They were fixed to build phoney tension to make sure the audience came back week after week so the sponsor could push his wares.

Today, would anyone care if a show is faked? If they’re entertained enough, probably not. After all, it’s just a TV show. How much less cynical we were in the 1950s.

The quiz show scandals caused all kinds of moral outrage—especially among U.S. Congressmen who (oh, here’s that cynicism again) saw a chance to score points with voters by staging an “investigation” to get to the bottom of it all.

Herald Tribune syndicate columnist John Crosby weighed in. Crosby had spent 13 years at this point ridiculing the banality on television. The quiz show scandal gave him a chance to rip virtually the entire industry, including the F.C.C. His comments resonanted. Portions of the column were widely quoted. Let’s bring you the whole column. It was apparently first published on October 16, 1959.
Did Quizlings Outdo Chicago's Black Sox?

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.
But the trouble is I can’t quite cast these quizlings in the role of the Black Sox players of 1919. Shoeless Joe Jackson was an authentic genius. There was an air of papier mache about all the quiz heroes—that shoemaker with the appealing face, the taxi driver who used to answer the questions before they were asked.
I AM SHOCKED not so much by the fact that these have proved to be false gods as by the fact that they got to be gods in the first place. There is not the slightest question but they were gods all right. Why? Because they were intellectuals and knew the gestation period of elephants (one of the questions asked potential candidates?) I doubt it.
I think mostly because they were little people being propelled to fame and fortune overnight. They were each a little Cinderella story and it’s hard to say which was the greater lure, the fame or the fortune. The money was good but I think maybe the fame was even more enticing in our fame-hungry world.
BUT THEREIN LIES the fraud on the populace. If they didn’t truly possess this outlandish information, the public would never have made these shows so wildly popular and, if they weren’t so wildly popular, they never would have been worth millions to the Lou Cowans who owned “$64,000 Question” and “$64,000 Challenge,” and Barry and Enright who owned “21” which they sold for millions of dollars. As usual, it is not the guy in the ring who makes the killing. It is the fixer outside.
The moral squalor of the quiz mess reaches clear through the whole industry and I do not see why Congress shouldn’t pursue its investigation a little further. If it did, Congressmen would discover that nothing is what it seems in television. Well, nothing apart from its news and public events shows.
No scandal has ever touched the honest and hard-working news men who are competent and incorruptible. Why are they so exceptional? Well, largely because each news operation is network-owned and operated and the ad agencies kept strictly out of the office. This has given them an esprit de corps denied all the others. (The situation isn’t perfect. The news guys would like far more voice than they have, more time, more money, more everything but they’re proud of what they get on the air).
BUT IN EVERYTHING ELSE the heavy hand of the advertiser suffocates truth, corrupts men and women. Rod Serling, one of TV’s noted dramatists and author of “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” tells of doing a TV play based on the Till case, the Mississippi lynching. Somehow the victim became a foreigner from an undesignated country; the scene shifted to New England, last place in the world it could happen, and the diatribe was directed at some vague, formless injustice that didn’t merit the shouting. The script, in short, became a lie. Rigged TV drama, rigged quiz shows.
People in the business say: “Yeah, but that’s the way things are. Why fight City Hall?” The feeling of high purpose, of manifest destiny that lit the industry when it was young, when the Ed Murrows and Fred Coes and Pat Weavers ran the place, when talent was all over the place, is long gone. The money changers are in the temple and the place has reeked of corruption for a long time.
THERE IS A FEELING that corruption reaches into the highest echelons, into the trafficking for frequencies itself, and this has helped weaken the moral fibres in the lower echelons. Why fight City Hall? The Federal Communications Commission has been touched with scandal in the granting of a license in Miami and certainly it cannot be accused of being either energetic or notoriously interested in the honesty of quiz shows or anything else. The whole industry—who’s in, who’« out, who’s rich, who’s poor—rests insecurely on a rating system that is trusted by no one and is misused by every one.
The worst crumbs in the business are now in the saddle and the best and most idealistic and creative men in the business either can’t get work or they quit in disgust and go on to better things in the movies or the theater. Perhaps the quiz mess is the Black Sox scandal of television and maybe it could be used to clean up the rest of the mess.
Here we are more than 65 years later. Did television change for the better?


  1. No, I wouldn't say anything in the industry has changed for the better, but at least now most viewers have figured out that the news men aren't "incorruptible" and their shows aren't much more real than the rest of what's on.

  2. The Game Show mess is a BlackSox scandal? HA. More like tossing a pitcher for throwing spitballs. Consider Charles Van Doren became a regular reporter for NBC's "Today" show. It's tempting to say about the only difference between then and now is that now we can see it all in HD. But I see one important difference. These days at both the national and local levels, it's very hard to keep the sales department out of the newsroom. And that's where we're in trouble.