Quiz Show Scandal: The Fix Is In

Twenty One host Jack Barry, center, with contestants Vivienne Nearing and Charles Van Doren.
Twenty One host Jack Barry, center, with contestants Vivienne Nearing and Charles Van Doren. (New York World-Telegram photo via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1957, Charles Van Doren ended his four-month run as champion of the quiz show “Twenty One.” It was later discovered that the show was fixed.

Here are some things you may not have known about Van Doren and the quiz-show scandal.

The game show “Twenty One” premiered on September 10, 1956 on NBC. The show featured two contestants in separate isolation booths answering questions of varying point values. The first person to reach 21 points and not be tied won the game. The winner received $500 per point of the margin of victory.

When the show premiered it was played honestly. However, the first two contestants were terrible and the sponsor threatened to pull out if the show continued to be embarrassing. This led producers to fix the show. They provided contestants with answers and when to answer incorrectly to maintain the illusion of an honest game.

On November 28, 1956, Charles Van Doren appeared on the show as a challenger to champion Herbert Stempel. Stempel, had dominated the show, but was unpopular with viewers. Van Doren and Stempel played to four tie games , before Van Doren won the fifth. In the deciding game, Stempel faltered, and Van Doren won with 18 points.

Van Doren went on to win more than $143,000, worth more than $1 million today. During the run, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine and the show ranked higher than “I Love Lucy” in the ratings. Following his appearance, NBC hired him to appear on the “Today” show. He lost on March 11, 2957 to Vivienne Wax Nearing, whose husband had lost to Van Doren during his streak.

Stempel was angry about being forced to lose, and he asked a federal investigator to look into the show. Not much came of his request. More than a year later, a CBS quiz show was canceled after a notebook was found containing the questions and answers for the show. Another former “Twenty One” contestant provided evidence in the form of registered letters he mailed to himself containing all of the questions he was coached on.

During a congressional hearing, Van Doren admitted to being fed the answers. The show was canceled on October 17, 1958.

Quiz shows essentially disappeared from the airwaves. Game shows, featuring puzzles and word games, became more common. Many game shows had strict prize limits.

Herb Stempel went on to work for the City of New York for 20 years. Van Doren went on to become editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He didn’t speak publicly about the scandal until he wrote an article for the New Yorker magazine in 1998.

The scandal was dramatized in the 1994 film “Quiz Show” starring Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Turturro as Stempel.

Our question: Who directed the film “Quiz Show”?

Today is Independence Day in Lithuania and Johnny Appleseed Day in the United States.

It’s National Preschoolers’ Day and World Plumbing Day.

It’s the birthday of bandleader Lawrence Welk, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and journalist Sam Donaldson.

This week in 1988, the top song in the U.S. was “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.

The No. 1 movie was “Good Morning, Vietnam,” while the novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or our website.

Also, if you’re enjoying the show, please consider supporting it through Patreon.com

Please rate the show on iTunes by clicking here.












Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.