On November 2, 1959, the handsome and accomplished Charles Van Doren, who had made a fortune on the television quiz show Twenty-One, shocked the nation when he admitted before a House committee that he had participated in rigging the widely viewed quiz show. “I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception.” With his words to a congressional committee, the house of cards built by the producers and sponsors of popular televised quiz shows tumbled at last. But Van Doren wasn’t the only one with a secret to tell the committee. The next day, child star Patty Duke appeared before the committee in a confidential session to reveal her own involvement in the scandal.
The television quiz show craze started with the debut of $64,000 Question in 1955. On this show, contestants answered increasingly difficult trivia questions about their chosen subject. The prize money increased along with the difficulty of the questions. The final question dangled a prize of $64,000, more than three times the cost of many homes in 1950s America, and almost $617,000 in today’s dollars. Large cash prizes were novel to viewers, and they tuned in with fervor, drawn by the sense of drama made possible with the props and dressing of a television stage set. The popularity of $64,000 Question quickly spawned competition, including the shows Twenty-One and Dotto. After a couple of years’ market saturation, quiz shows struggled to maintain viewer interest, and constructing an ever more compelling show became paramount. Unknown to viewers, however, was that producers boosted ratings by ensuring particularly popular contestants came out on top, feeding them answers in advance or telling their opponents to throw the game.
In 1958, revelations that Dotto was rigged enveloped all quiz shows in suspicion. Networks canceled many quiz shows as their popularity plummeted. A New York grand jury considered whether these shows had violated federal communications law. Many witnesses denied the claims, and after nine months, only a single producer faced indictment. And then the judge decided to permanently seal the more than 12,000-page report prepared by the grand jury.
With no closure offered by the grand jury, the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee held hearings to continue the investigation. The incidents fell under the committee’s jurisdiction of “investigating and making recommendations concerning the statutes administered by Federal agents and their enforcement pertaining to advertising, unfair competition, and broadcasting.” On October 6, 1959, in the imposing Cannon Caucus Room, Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee Chairman Oren Harris opened hearings of the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee, which had jurisdiction over both the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, responsible for ensuring broadcasters served the public interest. “It is one thing to arouse and hold the attention of the viewing public by programs which are openly and avowedly pure fiction,” Harris began. “It is quite another thing, however, when the airwaves, belonging to the people, whose free use has been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, are used deceitfully to exploit for private profit the interest of the viewing public.”
As part of Harris’s investigations, Patty Duke, a child star who had acted in a soap opera and a few advertisements, appeared before the subcommittee. Duke had appeared on the $64,000 Challenge (an offshoot of the $64,000 Question) show when she was just 11 years old, and won $32,000. But behind the scenes, she was coached. An assistant producer instructed her on what to study and quizzed her in advance. Right before going on-air, producers asked Duke specific questions, and if she faltered, provided her with the answers outright.
When Duke appeared before the subcommittee in November 1959, she was performing on Broadway during her star-making run of The Miracle Worker. Duke, now 12 years old, appeared before the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee in executive session, a closed-door meeting held by the committee if witness testimony could potentially “unjustly injure his reputation or the reputation of other individuals.” When the subcommittee asked Duke if the assistant producer told her she was getting answers to questions that would later appear on the show, she said, “Not exactly. She sort of hinted around. She said you better study these things because they might be on the show. We are not sure. But they always were.” She wrapped up her testimony by saying, “I told the truth. I told everything I know.”
Duke testified the same day as her manager, John Ross, whose executive session testimony was released by the committee that day. She was photographed exiting the Old House Office Building garage with Ross later that day. Although it came out in the press that Duke had also testified, her brief remarks remained closed for 50 years per the rules of the House for executive session material. Duke suffered no professional fallout for her involvement, and she went on to a decades-long career in the entertainment industry.
Public reaction to the quiz show scandal was moral outrage, especially after the involvement of a child like Patty Duke came to light in the press. Duke “was led into it by older persons interested in the lofty purpose of raising the audience rating of a program in order to increase the sale of lipsticks,” sneered a Washington Post columnist. “What they did to Patty Duke—quite apart from the fraud they perpetrated on the public—amounted, in the real sense of the phrase, to a corruption of innocence.”
Throughout 1960, the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee continued its investigation into deceptive media practices, ultimately unearthing the payola scandal involving radio disc jockeys receiving kickbacks from labels for promoting certain musicians. The committee’s investigation into quiz shows and payola resulted in the passage of a 1960 amendment of the Communications Act of 1934 making it illegal to fix the outcome of a television program and requiring the disclosure of payola.
Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, 86th Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; Investigation of Television Quiz Shows, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, House, 86th Cong., 1st sess. (6–12 October, 2–6 November 1959); Kent Anderson, Television Fraud: The History and Implications of the Quiz Show Scandals (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978); Patty Duke and Kenneth Turan, Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke (New York: Bantam Books, 1987); Richard S. Tedlow, “Intellect on Television: The Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s,” American Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 4 (Autumn 1976); New York Times, 5 November 1959; Washington Post, 5 November 1959, 6 November 1959; “TV Quiz Shows,” CQ Almanac 1959, Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1960; “Congress Tightens Broadcasting Regulations,” CQ Almanac 1960, Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1960; “The Quiz Show Scandal,” American Experience, http://www.shoppbs.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/quizshow/index.html.Follow @USHouseHistory
The Constitution says nothing about congressional investigations and oversight, but the authority to conduct investigations is implied since Congress possesses “all legislative powers.” The Supreme Court determined that the framers intended for Congress to seek out information when crafting or reviewing legislation.More >