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The Rigged Quiz Shows That Gave Birth to 'Jeopardy!'

March 29, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Jeopardy! creator Merv Griffin, with the game show’s original host, Art Flemming.

A 55-year-old show that commands 23 million viewers and is the top-rated game show in history. The answer is: “What is Jeopardy!?”

In 1965, the answers-first show made its debut. But if not for a group of popular—and fraudulent—quiz shows, it may never have existed in the first place.

Throughout the late 1950s, viewers were riveted by a series of scandals related to TV quiz shows. The high-stakes games were extremely popular…and extremely rigged. Once the nation realized they were rooting for contestants in televised frauds, a grand jury, a congressional investigation, and even a change in communications law followed. But though the shows were short-lived, their format lives on in Jeopardy!.

Game shows were born right around the dawn of television, but first became popular on the radio. In 1938, Information Please, a radio show that rewarded listeners for submitting questions that stumped an expert panel, debuted. Later that year TV’s first game show, Spelling Bee, appeared. The format really took off after World War II, as more households got TVs. Low-stakes shows like This Is the Missus, which had contestants participate in silly contests, and Queen For a Day, which rewarded women for sharing their sob stories, reeled in daytime viewers.

CBS television quiz and audience participation program, Missus Goes A Shopping, in 1944. (CBS via Getty Images)

But it took a Supreme Court suit to usher in big prizes for the shows. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in FCC v. American Broadcasting Co., Inc. that giveaways weren’t gambling. This decision paved the way for higher stakes in game shows. Suddenly, prime-time viewers could choose between a new rash of game shows with massive prizes.

The first popular high-stakes show, The $64,000 Question, created by CBS producer Louis Cowan and based on an older radio show, Take It or Leave It, paid the winners of a riveting general-knowledge quiz the equivalent of over $600,000 in modern dollars if they could beat out experts in their own fields. It was an immediate hit, and so were its most frequent winners. Soon another show, Twenty-One, reeled in NBC viewers by pitting two players against one another in a trivia game that involved isolation booths and headphones.

The shows were popular because of their tense gameplay and gimmicks like audience …read more


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