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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

The Strange Case Of Quiz Show Rigging & Cheating In Britain and America

(Picture Credit - Listverse)

By the mid fifties, television in the United States had become all the rage and soon after, Jack Barry introduced The $64,000 Question to American screens in 1956. It marked the end of an era for American television that had previously been littered with popular sitcoms or comedy shows such as I Love Lucy or The Jack Benny Show. With these high price pots, the idea of cheating became pretty commonplace. To put that into context, $64,000 in 1956 is worth nearly $1.7m in 2020's money.

The American quiz show Twenty-One, originally commissioned by NBC, would prove to have a notorious reputation for being a scandalous show. On Twenty-One, two contestants were split into isolation booths to answer general knowledge questions to amass up to 21 points. The winner of the show would receive $500 per point within a margin of victory - for example, a score of 21-15 would net the winning contestant $3000 - a winning margin of six.

Over the course of the late fifties Twenty-One's reputation would only grow, with a massive battle between long-time and hated contestant Herbert Stempel and newcomer Charles Van Doren. They would achieve no less than four 21-21 draws, which drew in a massive audience share for the American network and result in a growing interest in Twenty-One. The show in turned out to be scripted and rigged, when the culmination of Stempel vs. Van Doren ended with the clean-cut All-American hero newcomer Van Doren defeating the unpopular Stempel thanks to a question on the 1955 Academy Awards. The question was "What motion picture won the Academy Award [for Best Motion Picture] for 1955?". Stempel knew the answer was Marty, as it had been one of his favourite films, but for the matter of the storyline and good vs. evil angle (a storyline that would essentially become the basis of face vs. heel bouts in televised wrestling shows), the producers ordered Stempel to answer with the winner from 1954. The toppling of Stempel would send Van Doren on one of the longest winning runs in American quiz show history, winning a total of $129,000, with the run ending at the hands of Vivienne Wax Nearing on March 11th 1957.

News broke of such scandals, especially following several Supreme Court cases. To the prim and proper British however, such malpractice would never occur on the other side of the Atlantic, that was until 1958. ITV had commissioned its own version of NBC quiz show Twenty-One, with the hope of capturing some of the hype that had been experienced in America. It's safe to say that it didn't work, when the show was pulled pretty much as soon as it started when contestant Stanley Armstrong claimed he'd been given "definite leads" to answers that turned out to be in the form of a prior reading list from other successful contestants.

This cheating resulted in the Independent Television Authority placing a cap on the amount that could be won on British quiz shows, limited at £1,000 from 1960 until 1981, when the limit was raised to £6,000. This one problem on ITV would send British quiz shows down the pecking order, having been lumped with a reputation of being cheap projects that focused more on entertainment value than actual gameplay or prizes. The most notoriously cheap of these quiz shows was the much-loved and satirised Bullseye, hosted by the late, great Jim Bowen from 1981 to 1995. The below first-ever episode, dating from 28th September 1981 characterises this cheap and cheerful attitude, with questions on subjects from spelling to art having monetary values from £10 to £50. Even then, the most joked about piece of the show, Bully's Prize Board featured lower-end prizes such as pen-and-pencil set and radio alarm, but did feature some higher ticket items such as a colour television and vacuum cleaner. As such, with the game of chance introduced with amateurs throwing darts, the odds of such big items being won wasn't exactly high, so this was most likely excused by the regulator.

The limit on earnings on quiz shows was lifted in 1993 by the Independent Television Commission, which then paved the way for more British ports of American shows, including the highly-popular Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in the late nineties. This would see the most famous instance of quiz show trickery and cheating of them all, which has been documented and dramatised in the brand-new ITV drama Quiz, as well as evidence from the court trial where Major Charles Ingram and his accomplices were found guilty. The below video from the official Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? channel, complete with narration from Chris Tarrant, explains it well:

As a practice, it requires an insane amount of nerve and skill to cheat a quiz show, but it's intriguing to find out about such instances occurring throughout history. Whilst they're sometimes difficult to find, it's an endless rabbit hole when you do start reading about them. The drama Quiz from ITV has brought around a renewed interest in quiz show cheating and the associated smoke and mirrors, and it proves once again that people never learn from history.


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