‘Quiz Show’ 25th Anniversary: When a Fake Game Show Was Real News

Quiz Show came out 25 years ago today. If it had been any other year, Quiz Show  would have won all the Oscars. In 1994 it came out before The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction, yet it was still Forrest Gump that swept the awards.

Top L-R: John Turturo, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow. Bottom: Robert Redford | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1994 I had never heard of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s and I’d bet a lot of people today haven’t either. When I saw it, I was angry at the villainization of Charles Van Doren for something as trivial as a game show. Now, I find it quaint to look back at a time where the truth has consequences.

The quiz show scandal

Twenty-One was a game show when television was new in the ‘50s. Viewers assumed the contestants were answering real questions because they had no reason to think otherwise. But it was all fake. The producers gave the contestants the answers to put on a good show.

Herbie Stempel (John Turturo) had a good run but the producers decided his time had passed. They made him give a wrong answer and made way for Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) under the same arrangement. Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) investigates Twenty-One for the Congressoinal Committee on Legislative Oversight and the film is based on his book.

Ralph Fiennes (far left) and Robert Redforrd (far right) | Steve Allen/Liaison

When he proves, with Stempel’s help, that Twenty-One was rigged, they had government hearings. Van Doren lost everything and for what? He acted on a television show that people believed was real? What law did he break? No one said a game show had to be a real game.

That was the perspective of a savvy budding film critic who was very media literate at age 16. An America in 1959 who’d only had TV a few years felt betrayed. And 25 years after Quiz Show, “fake news” would be common in the media.

They would have gotten away with it too

Quiz Show is a mystery. It’s All the President’s Men only all that’s at stake is a few game show contestants. It’s not national security, but it is their lives. Goodwin went after the network executives, not politicians. And this is history. Game shows couldn’t lie after this. 

He also had to go through all the Twenty-One contestants. Stempel was an open book, and he stuck with Van Doren while he was the reigning champion, but Goodwin had to rule out all the past contestants too. He found one, James Snodgrass (Douglas McGrath) who mailed himself some evidence registered mail. 

But it was Stempel bringing up charges that brought this all down. No one was going to get wind of it unless someone blabbed. If they hadn’t burned Stempel, he would’ve towed the company line. That’s what always brings conspiracies down. It only takes one burned bridge and then secrecy is off the table. Maybe it’s reassuring to think that someone involved will inevitably grow so bitter, if not grow a conscience, that they’ll tell the truth. 

Poor Charles Van Doren

Quiz Show is very sympathetic to Charles Van Doren. Maybe that’s just Fiennes’ performance, but I suspect screenwriter Paul Attanasio and director Robert Redford were on his side. Van Doren’s role in Twenty-One began innocently enough, but it escalated. In his first interview, Van Doren finds it dishonest when the producers (David Paymer and Hank Azaria) suggest asking him questions he already knew the answers to. He was a Columbia Professor, so he knew a lot. 

Robert Redford on the set of Quiz Show | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

When he’s on the air, Van Doren realizes that they have fed the host (Christopher McDonald) questions he knew the answer to. Van Doren appears conflicted in that moment, but once he gives the answer, he implicitly endorsed it. Then he gets seduced by the money. 

When the hearings begin, the worst for Van Doren is betraying his father Mark (Paul Scofield). Mark doesn’t even think much of TV but grows to support his son and so involved he can’t stand the pressure. Then he has to tell his professor father he got the answers. A father’s disappointment is the most heartbreaking consequence.

The most powerful people faced no consequences 

The producers of Twenty-One testified that it was their idea to give the contestants the answers and that NBC executives had no knowledge of it. They were good company patsies and took the fall, but only for a while. They were back with new game shows years later. Van Doren lost his teaching job at Columbia, and Stempel never got the showbiz success to which he felt, perhaps justly, he was entitled.  

Quiz Show premiere
L to R: David Paymer, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, Robert Redford and Christopher McDonald | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Van Doren did become the editor of Encyclopedia Brittanica until he retired in 1982. That seems like a pretty solid job. I’m sure he’d rather have had the choice to remain in his family profession. Van Doren finally wrote about the quiz show scandal from his point of view for The New Yorker in 2008. It reads similarly to how the movie plays, with a little more detail on the multiple appearances it took to unseat Stempel. The movie consolidated that to one appearance. 

I was happy to read near the end of Van Doren’s article that he did, in fact, teach again and he seemed happy with his life once Twenty-One was all behind him. He died earlier this year. 

Looking back on ‘Quiz Show’

Quiz Show was a great movie in 1994 about the dawn of television. It was already a different world 35 years later. It is a vastly different world today than 1994. That was the first year Friends was on the air. Now Friends is an asset to streaming services. Nobody watches live TV anymore. Thanks to DVR and VOD we don’t have to. 

In 1994, the only reality TV show was MTV’s The Real World. Now reality TV is taking airtime from scripted shows, and I hate to break it to you, the reality shows are scripted too. Reality stars like Honey Boo Boo, the Kardashians and Real Housewives are way more famous than Charles Van Doren, but I imagine he’s glad he got out before that happened to him.