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“A Sop to the Public at Large”: Contestant Herbert Stempel Exposes Contrivances in a 1950s Television Quiz Show

Television had become the nation’s largest medium for advertising by the mid-1950s, when the Revlon cosmetics corporation agreed to sponsor The $64,000 Question, the first prime-time network quiz show to offer contestants fabulous sums of money. As Revlon’s average net profit rose in the next four years from $1.2 million to $11 million, a plethora of quiz shows tried to replicate its success. At the height of their popularity, in 1958, 24 network quiz shows—relatively easy and inexpensive to produce—filled the prime-time schedule. Many took pains in their presentation to convey an aura of authenticity—contestants chosen from ordinary walks of life pondered fact-based questions inside sound-proof isolation booths that insured they received no outside assistance. To guarantee against tampering prior to airtime, bank executives and armed guards made on-air deliveries of sealed questions and answers said to be verified by authorities from respected encyclopedias or university professors. When the public learned in 1959 that a substantial number of shows had been rigged, a great many were offended; however, one survey showed that quite a few viewers didn’t care. Following the revelations, prime-time quiz shows went off the air, replaced in large part by series telefilms, many of which were Westerns. The industry successfully fended off calls for regulation, and by blaming sponsors and contracted producers, networks minimized damage and increased their control over programming decisions. In the following testimony to a Congressional subcommittee, contestant Herbert Stempel described the process through which every detail of the seemingly spontaneous battle of wits was, in fact, scripted, rehearsed, and acted for dramatic effect.


The CHAIRMAN. Were you one of the contestants in the program referred to as “Twenty-one”?

Mr. STEMPEL. I was, sir.

The CHAIRMAN. At what time?

Mr. STEMPEL. I participated from October 17, 1956, to December 5, 1956.

The CHAIRMAN. Before we show the kinescope program, Mr. Lishman, will you give an explanation as to what is anticipated from the showing of this reproduction?

Mr. LISHMAN. It is anticipated that from a showing of this reproduction, the contestant, Mr. Stempel, will indicate the questions concerning which he was furnished assistance in advance of the program. That is the fundamental purpose.

The program, “Twenty-one,” was on the air for a period of about 2 years, from the fall of 1956 to the fall of 1958. We are about to watch a kinescopic recording of one of these quiz programs, “Twenty-one.”

The game is operated on very simple principles, similar to the card game “Twenty-one.” The two contestants are each placed in a soundproof isolation booth where they cannot hear what the other contestant is saying or what is being said to him. One of the contestants in the case of this show, Mr. Stempel, is the champion. This simply means he is the last winner in the show and has yet to be defeated.

The other contestant, in this case Mr. Van Doren, is the challenger and is trying to defeat the champion and become the new champion himself.

The challenger is told in what category questions will be asked. This category can be any subject from the entire range of human knowledge. After being told the category, he is then asked how many points he desires to play for. He may play for anywhere from 1 to 11 points. The higher the number of points he selects to play for, the more difficult will be the question in the announced category.

If he answers the question correctly, he gets the number of points for which he was playing. If not, he remains at zero.

The identical procedure, using the same category, is used for the champion. . . .

In the show you are about to watch now, you will see Mr. Van Doren and Mr. Stempel play three tie games, thus raising greatly the value of the points they are playing for. This show was watched on the night of November 28, 1956, by millions of Americans who suspensefully awaited the outcome of the challenge to Mr. Herbert Stempel, who was the then champion on the “Twenty-one” show. . . .

[showing of kinescopic reproduction]

Mr. LISHMAN. Mr. Stempel, does the kinescopic showing of the television quiz show, “Twenty-one,” on November 28, 1956, which you have just seen, accurately reproduce the questions and the answers that were given to and by you at that time?

Mr. STEMPEL. It does, Mr. Lishman.

Mr. LISHMAN. Does the showing also accurately reproduce the mannerisms and the acting gestures which were used by you?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Does it reproduce the perspiration coming off your brow when you were attempting to answer what were theoretically most extremely difficult questions?

Mr. STEMPEL. It does, sir.

The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Stempel, did that reflect the condition within the booth that made you apparently so warm?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. They have an air conditioning system in there and when I asked them to turn it on they gave some sort of excuse that it would make too much noise and refused to turn it on, thereby causing me to perspire profusely.

The CHAIRMAN. They do have air conditioning in the booths that they can turn on or off as they desire?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. But at all times they refused to turn it on, claiming it made too much noise and interfered with the reproduction of the program.

The CHAIRMAN. Being in such a closed place without any air at all, you would naturally perspire quite extensively?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Considering that they have very, very hot lights and all the Kleig lights and so forth which are used and the television cameras and so forth which have to use very strong lights. One would perspire.

Mr. LISHMAN. Now, Mr. Stempel, prior to your appearance on the show you have just seen, were you given by the producers of that show all the questions and all the answers to those questions which you were about to be asked on the show itself?

Mr. STEMPEL. I was, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Were you told which questions to answer correctly and which questions you should miss?

Mr. STEMPEL. I was, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Were you told how many points you should try for in every category?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. In the first two games that you played with Mr. Van Doren on this show, were you told in advance that you would tie with Mr. Van Doren and precisely what the score would be?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. In the first game I was told I would tie 17 to 17, and in the second game there would be a 21–21 tie.

Mr. LISHMAN. Mr. Stempel, did you rehearse the questions and answers, the length of time you should take to answer, the types of gesture you should employ while answering the question with Mr. Daniel Enright, producer of this show, prior to your appearance on the show?

Mr. STEMPEL. I did, sir. . . . I received a call from a gentleman who identified himself as Mr. Daniel Enright and said that he had to see me in his office upon a very urgent matter. I thereupon told him that my wife had gone to the theater and I was babysitting that evening. He said he had to see me desperately and he would come out. He asked me for directions how to get to my home. I instructed him as to how he would get to my home. He came out about a half hour later. I recognized him from having met him before. At that time when he entered my house he was carrying an attaché case. He walked into my home. I offered him a seat, asked him if he wanted a drink and he refused it. Without further ado, he opened up the attaché case while sitting on my couch, pulled out a bunch of square cards, such as were eventually used as category cards on “Twenty-one,” and proceeded to say the category is blank-blank, whatever it happened to be, and then would ask me questions sequentially from 1 to 11.

Mr. LISHMAN. In other words, he was giving you a rehearsal or a dry run of the format of the “Twenty-one” program?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir; he was. I managed to answer the bulk of the questions and those which I did not know, he helped me on, and supplied the answers. After having done this, he very, very bluntly sat back and said with a smile, “How would you like to win $25,000?” I said to him, I was sort of taken aback, and I said, “Who wouldn’t?”

Mr. LISHMAN. May I interrupt you there. At the time you made your application to appear as a contestant, did you believe that that show was fixed?

Mr. STEMPEL. I did not, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Had you witnessed performances of that show?

Mr. STEMPEL. I made the application to the best of my knowledge on the first performance of the show. I believe I watched the premier, as a matter of fact.

Mr. LISHMAN. You honestly believed that it represented a contest of knowledge?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Now, continue with your second meeting, at your home, with Mr. Enright.

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. I said, “Who wouldn’t?” He said something to the equivalent, “Play ball with me, kid, and you will do it,” or words to that effect. Then he explained to me that I had been selected to go on the air as a contestant that very next evening. He was rehearsing me. The questions I would take were the nine and the nine, as I remember, in a certain category. I would end up at 18 points. Whereupon I would stop the game. Then we talked for a while about things I don’t remember. Then he asked me, incidentally, where my wardrobe was, and I told him. He went and checked all my suits and selected a blue double breasted ill-fitting suit which had belonged to my deceased father-in-law, which I was intending to give to charity. Then he asked to look at my shirts. I went to the chest which I have and showed him my shirts. He said essentially that a blue shirt would be worn for television, whereupon he picked out a frayed collar blue shirt. He also instructed me to wear a wristwatch which ticked away like an alarm clock. It was a very cheap $6 wristwatch. He also instructed me that I had to get what is known, as I understand it, a marine type white-wall haircut. This was the way I had to dress up.

He told me also that I was to report to his office at 1:30 the following afternoon, which I did.

Mr. LISHMAN. Mr. Stempel, may I interrupt? While all this procedure was going on with Mr. Enright advising you as to your wardrobe, haircut, wristwatch and so on, what were you doing? What were your emotions as this was going on?

Mr. STEMPEL. I had been a poor boy all my life, and I was sort of overjoyed, and I took it for granted this was the way things were run on these programs. At first I had not realized when I first applied but then I was sort of taken aback. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say, Mr. Lishman.

Mr. LISHMAN. Did you tell Mr. Enright you would not do it?

Mr. STEMPEL. No, sir. I told him I would do it.

Mr. LISHMAN. You told him you would?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Then how did this meeting conclude?

Mr. STEMPEL. It concluded when my wife walked in. I introduced Mr. Enright. My wife remarked, after his having left, that he was a “pretty sharp dresser.” I told her exactly what the setup was in this particular thing. I was happy that I would have a chance to make a little bit of money. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. Now, Mr. Stempel, at this meeting with Mr. Enright prior to the showing on the 17th, did Mr. Enright again give you the categories and answers to questions which would be asked you in the evening?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. In fact, this was more specific in that I was told to write this down on a piece of paper.

Mr. LISHMAN. Were you told to write it down on a piece of paper?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes. He also told me at this time exactly how the questions were to be answered. In other words, I was to write down something like “Take 5 seconds pause, stutter, say nine points.” In other words, everything was explicit. He showed me how to bite my lip to show extreme tension. How to mop my brow. He told me specifically not to smear my brow, but rather to pat for optimum effect, as that created a more tense atmosphere. He told me how to breathe heavily into the microphone and sigh, such as this [witness sighs]. He taught me how to stutter and say in a very plaintive voice, “I will take nine, nine points.” He also told me never to call Mr. Barry, Jack, but be very diffident, and call him Mr. Barry. That is the only way I was ever supposed to address him on television, whereas all the other contestants addressed him as Jack. As a matter of fact, I might say, apropos of this whole thing, that this was the hardest part of the show. Remembering the questions was quite easy, but the actual stage directions were the most difficult thing because everything had to be done exactly. Woe betide you if you did not do it as had been planned by Mr. Enright. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. How many weeks were you on this program?

Mr. STEMPEL. Eight weeks, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Did Mr. Enright furnish you with assistance with respect to the questions that were asked you on each of these eight times?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. Every single time we would have a meeting on Tuesday afternoon at approximately 1:30.

Mr. LISHMAN. What day did the program appear?

Mr. STEMPEL. At that time Wednesday evening at 10:30 p.m.

Mr. LISHMAN. Your meetings with Mr. Enright were on the preceding Tuesday?

Mr. STEMPEL. On Tuesday, sir, to get the instructions and then on Wednesday to make a sort of dress rehearsal to make sure that everything was done correctly. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. [O]n any occasion was there something unusual which happened that you could now remember?

Mr. STEMPEL. After about the sixth week or so, I decided that I was getting tired of wearing the same old suit. I put on a new single-breasted suit and a new watch and allowed my hair to grow a different way. Whereupon Mr. Enright, it was either the seventh or eighth week, made some remark about “You are not paying attention to your lessons, you are not cooperating,” or words to that effect. In other words, I was not playing the game. There was one time when my wife came down dressed in a Persian lamb coat and she was very bruskly hustled out of the theater because she was not supposed to be seen. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. Was it explained to you that the producers were trying to build up in the public mind a certain image projection?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes. I was supposed to be a penniless ex-GI, sort of working my way through college. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. Mr. Stempel, in the instructions you were receiving from Mr. Enright, were you told that ties in the game were important in order to build up, let us say, tension and more attentive public interest in the program?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. Also that Mr. Enright explained to me that he received approximately $10,000 a week—in fact, I think the figure quoted was $10,000 a week—from Pharmaceuticals, Inc., as prize money, and that he had to arrange the games in such a way as to not go over the budget, because any moneys which were expended over $10,000 weekly came out of his pocket, and if he could keep the budget down, he made a little gravy, to use the phrase.

Mr. LISHMAN. Mr. Stempel, did you sign any agreement respecting your winnings on this program?

Mr. STEMPEL. I did, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Do you remember what that agreement contained?

Mr. STEMPEL. I remember it just about verbatim, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. About what time did you sign such an agreement?

Mr. STEMPEL. About the fifth week of my winnings, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Do you remember what was contained in that agreement?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. This was a paper that was thrust upon me which was allegedly initiated on my part which just about verbatim said the following. This was addressed to Mr. Enright and said as follows:

“DEAR SIR: In order to protect my winnings, I hereby agree to the following settlement. On sums between $40,000 and $60,000, I will take $40,000. On sums between $60,000 and $80,000, I will take $50,000. On sums between $80,000 and $100,000, I will take $60,000.” I believe in sums over $100,000 I will take $60,000 also, with the proviso that you make good to me all sums up to $40,000.

This was supposed to have been signed by me. It was put very bluntly to me that if I did not sign, I would suddenly find myself a loser. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. Let us fix the date when you were told you would lose.

Mr. STEMPEL. This would be on the 4th of December 1956. This was the day before. The usual Tuesday meeting. I arrived at Mr. Enright’s office, and suddenly on the couch in his office found an enormous pile of records which he very, very bluntly told me were mementos from the program of all the programs I had been on. In other words, all recordings of all the programs. After his assistants had left, I was told very bluntly, as he walked over to the blackboard, that I had done very well for the show, reached a certain plateau, and he drew a chalk mark, sort of going up the blackboard and then leveled it off, but said, “Now we find we are sort of at a plateau. We have to find a new champion. That is why you are going to have to go.” Then he outlined the program for the evening, telling me I would miss on a question pertaining to what picture won the Academy Award in 1955, and the answer was “Marty,” a picture I had seen three times, and I was also in the last question told to miss the last part of a three-part question dealing with the topic I had discussed in American history course 2 days before.

Mr. LISHMAN. Was there a reason advanced to you as to why you should miss these apparently simple and easy questions?

Mr. STEMPEL. This was supposed to be the twist of the “Twenty-one” program. In other words, the omniscient genius was supposed to know all the hard answers, but miss on the easy ones, because the public would figure one of two things. Either in his very, very erudite studies he had either glossed over this and missed it, or it was intended as a sop to the public at large to make them say, “See, I knew the answer to this and the great genius, so and so, didn’t.” That is about the effect of it.

Mr. LISHMAN. Were you told to whom to lose?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.


Mr. STEMPEL. Charles Van Doren, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. Did you lose as you were scheduled to lose?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes sir. I lost by the score of 18 to 10 in the fifth game of our series when we played. It was two games after the kinescope that we saw.

Mr. LISHMAN. How much did you receive in total as your winnings?

Mr. STEMPEL. $49,500, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. This was more than the agreement called for?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. He told me he was giving me a bonus, as he put it, because of my great histrionics.

Mr. LISHMAN. During the time you were on the program did there come a time when you received an advance?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. There was a time. I don’t remember the exact date. When I could have conceivably, according to the rules of the game, lost every single penny which I had, and Mr. Enright advanced me $18,500.

Mr. LISHMAN. How much?

Mr. STEMPEL. $18,500. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. These checks were given to you as advances before you had gone off the show?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. You could have lost all the money under the rules of the game?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir; conceivably it was very possible for me to have been involved in these numerous ties and lose every cent.

Mr. LISHMAN. The only way in which these people could be sure of this thing was to fix it so you would come up with at least enough to cover this advance?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. Were any inducements given to you to lose to Mr. Van Doren?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir. I was told that I would get a chance to appear on the “Steve Allen Show.” I was told that I was going to get a job in the Barry & Enright organization as some sort of research consultant for $250 a week, and other benefits to follow which were not specifically named. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. During the time that you were appearing on the program, did you have occasion to tell other persons in advance what your score would be on a particular evening?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir.

Mr. LISHMAN. And what your answers would be to certain questions?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes. sir. As I remember, I told quite a few people. . . .

Mr. LISHMAN. Did you also tell Mr. Alfred Davis?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir; I did. He was a public relations man.

Mr. LISHMAN. How many times did you tell Mr. Davis in advance?

Mr. STEMPEL. Several times.

Mr. LISHMAN. Do you recall the specific instances when you told Mr. Davis?

Mr. STEMPEL. The main time I remember telling him was the night I was about to lose. I was very, very upset about it. In fact, I offered to refund Mr. Enright some of his money to let me play the game honestly, because it had become a college fight. In other words, one school versus another, and they had played it up as such.

Mr. LISHMAN. Did Mr. Enright refuse to let you play an honest game?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, he did. He told me for the good of the show that I had to go. . . .

The CHAIRMAN. In the course of being supplied with this information, did you talk with anyone else besides Mr. Enright?

Mr. STEMPEL. Only with Mr. Freedman to say “Hello,” and so forth. He would usually issue me the continuity card for the week.

The CHAIRMAN. Issue the what?

Mr. STEMPEL. This is the repartee.

In other words, the conversations which you saw when I went off the air and made this final parting speech. This is a typewritten thing which is prepared by their writers, or this conversation you have with Mr. Barry when you come on the air. This banter, this conversation, which is written by a writer who thinks up these nice things to say which would appeal to the general mass of the public. . . .

Mr. ROGERS of Texas. Mr. Stempel, we know of course from your testimony when you decided to “kiss”; when did you decide to tell?

Mr. STEMPEL. I decided to tell immediately after having left the program. In fact, I was contacted by David Gehman of the New York Post in February of 1957, and I revealed to him the whole story from beginning to end. The Post, however, was afraid to print this because they were afraid it might involve them in libel suits. . . .

Mr. ROGERS of Texas. You said you were very much upset when you got into this school contest or old school contest at the last with Van Doren. There was not anything to make you answer that question wrong, was there?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes, sir; there was.

Mr. ROGERS of Texas. What was that?

Mr. STEMPEL. That was the following: This particular agreement I had signed with them by which, even if I went over the $100,000, he would only be forced to pay me $60,000, in this way I was getting $50,000, so the $10,000 spread. Furthermore, with a future promise of jobs, et cetera, which he offered to me, I recalculated on the tax basis that my earnings would eventually total more than if I had “double-crossed” them and gone ahead.

Once I had double-crossed them, let us say, there was one of two recourses: Either to quit the program next week or to play with the other party being arranged against you and face the consequences.

Mr. ROGERS of Texas. Both of you were dancing to the tune of the greenback, were you not?

Mr. STEMPEL. Yes. This again, of course, will bring up one final question.

If I felt so badly about this, why did I not give the money back? I could not see returning it to Daniel Enright.

Mr. ROGERS of Texas. I cannot hear you.

Mr. STEMPEL. I said I could not see returning this to Daniel Enright who, too, was involved in this particular fraud.

Mr. ROGERS of Texas. You mean you felt you had earned it by doing all this work?


Actually, may I say I was not a quiz contestant in this program, in my opinion. I was an actor, as you proably have noticed by watching the kinescope. . . .

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Investigation of Television Quiz Shows, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., October 6–10, 12, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960).

See Also:"A Make-Believe World": Contestants Testify to Deceptive Quiz Show Practices
"Every Effort Was Made to Control the Shows": A Television Producer Details and Defends Deceptive Quiz Show Practices
"The Truth Is the Only Thing with Which a Man Can Live": Quiz Show Contestant Charles Van Doren Publicly Confesses to Deceiving His Television Audience