Take the money and run: the prescient fictions of Quiz Show at 25

In 1994, the Oscar-nominated film Quiz Show (directed by screen legend Robert Redford) dramatised the case of the Twenty-One quiz show scandal of 1958 – in which an investigation found that producers, colluding with their corporate sponsors, had been supplying correct answers to the show’s participants to boost ratings. This triggered a series of revelations, across the TV industry, which caused Congress to specifically ban the fixing of game shows – and changed prime-time television forever.

Quiz Show was acclaimed by critics but mostly ignored by audiences, and has been somewhat sidelined in cinema history. On the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, I’ll explore whether the concept of a rigged game show, so remarkable at the time of the film’s setting in the 1950s, actually foreshadowed an even more insidious kind of media manipulation.

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As Lauren O’Neill writes in a recent article for Vice, game shows have proved to be one of TV’s most enduring formats because they’re cheap and adaptable – every country in the developed world produces their own. In 1950s America, TV game shows were omnipresent – churned out quickly, and widely watched by an economically aspirational nation, eager to see everyday people winning big cash prizes. 

But on a deeper level, game shows reflected a sincere respect for intellect and tenacity in the face of pressure. If The Lone Ranger depicted an idealised American hero of the past, shows like The $64,000 Question and The Price is Right showed the glamorised heroes of the present day: educated, ambitious, and calm under pressure. In 1956, quiz-based shows represented the top 5 programs on air in the USA. Indeed, in Quiz Show, we see hordes of city workers racing home to catch the latest episode of their favorites; at dinner parties, it’s all people could talk about.

But the very first episode of NBC’s new hit-in-the making, Twenty-One, turned out to be a snooze, with the contenders woefully ill-informed, and the tension totally absent. Geritol, Twenty-One’s sponsors, insisted that the producers give the format a kick in the pants. The result? They threw away the rulebook and faked the whole thing, giving the contestants pre-prepared answers to control the competition and give their audience, as Owen Gleiberman writes, “a familiar face to root for”.

Notably, contestant Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro in Quiz Show) was asked to flub an easy question in his final show to cede his position to a new challenger – the handsome, clean-cut and college-educated Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show), who was also playing along. Stempel, hurt by his treatment from the producers, revealed the truth – and the case was taken before a grand jury. 

Ratings plummeted – Twenty-One was quickly cancelled by NBC to shore up the network’s reputation, amid a wave of similar scandals across the industry. Van Doren resigned his position at Columbia University, and Stempel was humiliated in court, then forgotten. 

Similarly, upon release, Quiz Show failed to recoup its budget, won few awards and was quickly swept aside. Did the film under-perform because people felt they already knew the facts of the Twenty-One case? Or was it just a case of bad timing? Notably, the film was released in mid-September, following a long summer of blockbusters like Forrest Gump, Speed and True Lies.

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On a first viewing, Quiz Show appears to rely on the presumption that we share the movie’s outrage at a corporate-funded media product bending the truth for the sake of ratings. In 2019, it’s fair to say that we’ve seen much worse. But seen from a modern perspective, it’s clear that Redford’s film is far more interested in the ways in which real people are remodelled and moulded for the purposes of ‘reality’ entertainment than in the actual mechanics of the show being rigged. Actually, Quiz Show seems to foreshadow a very recent shift in how TV depicts real people.

There’s a direct line between Charles van Doren, built up by the producers of Twenty-One into an almost superhuman character, and modern shows like The Bachelor, of which contestant Megan Parris claimed that producers regularly feed lines to their contenders – who, again, are real people – and bully them into saying things for the camera. That’s to say nothing of the ways in which real conversations are edited, de-contextualised and re-assembled to tell a better story, with clear-cut heroes and villains. 

Though it seems quaint, Quiz Show understands that TV is about convenient fictions, and easily digestible archetypes, rather than the truth. We see how Charles and Herb’s TV personas are shaped from their very first appearances. While Herb insists on calling Twenty-One’s host Mr Barry, Charles is encouraged to call him Jack “as often as possible”, creating an artificial dichotomy between the two contenders. Meanwhile, the show’s contenders turn off the air-conditioning unit in Herb’s booth during a live broadcast to make him sweat under pressure. It’s not a real contest – it’s drama. In selling the lie to a sceptical Charles, Twenty-One’s producers sarcastically ask him whether he believes that Gregory Peck really parachuted behind enemy lines in his war movies. It’s not cheating, they argue: it’s acting.

The perfect casting of Turturro and Fiennes as Herb and Charles vividly exemplifies the divide between the two men, paralleling the way the men’s personalities were exaggerated and caricatured by the show’s producers. In a quick-cut montage, editor Stu Linder shows us the two men answering the same questions one after another, the better to emphasise that Charles – after much coaching by producers – is simply more watchable than Herb. Racism also plays an ugly part. Paul Attanasio’s screenplay makes it clear that pretty much everyone involved in the show is happy to see a hard-working, outspoken Jew pitted against, then defeated by, a compliant, photogenic white guy.

Roger Ebert, in his glowing review of the film, wrote: “One executive says, in justifying the fix, “It isn’t like we’re hardened criminals here – we’re in show business.” His moral justification was higher ratings. Today on TV, so many sins are justified in the name of ratings that any other standard hardly exists. Then, such reasoning was new.” Ebert recognises that the actions of the show’s producers represent the thin end of the wedge, which have led us to where we are today.

Much like the executives at NBC and Geritol, today’s generation of contestants understand the value of presenting a persona. Shows like Big Brother and RuPaul’s Drag Race are regularly manipulated by contestants and producers to seize our attention and promote a ‘narrative’. There’s no pretence of a sense of fairness – because what does fairness have to do with TV? Quiz shows are still reliable ratings winners, but in prime-time they have been largely supplanted by competitive reality TV, which allows us to see real people in heightened scenarios. Twenty-One is the ancestor of shows like The Bachelor – we still want to see real people performing under pressure, but only reality TV can provide the drama and two-dimensional characters that we crave.

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Quiz Show remains a remarkable portrait of a time and place, with vivid characters and confident storytelling. But it’s important, too, because it reminds us that, within living memory, there was a time when it was surprising to learn that TV is a medium with authors – just as much as books, movies and theatre. 

Shows like Twenty-One were a skilful facsimile of reality, in which producers could impose and manipulate a narrative. The contestants may have been real, but everything else was an elaborate dog and pony show, including the characters which they played. Quiz Show plays very differently in an age when this has become a universal truth. Reality shows are fake, the news is often fake, influencers on Instagram live fake lives, often pushing products that don’t work. For a modern-day audience, it can be hard to put ourselves in the shoes of an audience to whom this was strange and new.

Although the media landscape in which the film takes place no longer exists, we can still recognise a glimmer of television’s future – a warning, perhaps – which has since come to pass.

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