I don't for a minute think that Ken Jennings' stunning run on
Jeopardy! was bogus, but I was amazed that more of the press coverage didn't
mention the only other comparable quiz show champ, Charles Van Doren. Van Doren
was the guy who racked up a then-staggering $138,000 on Twenty-One in
1957, becoming a national celebrity and — as you can see — even making the
cover of Time. It later came to light that Twenty-One, like many
game shows of the day, manipulated the outcome by giving some contestants the
answers and coaching them on how and when to win and lose. The idea was to
create not just a big winner but the right kind of winner...a person for whom
America could cheer.
It all came crashing down in a scandal that, like so many
scandals, ended with a few token participants being humiliated and punished, and
most getting away with the knowledge that they shouldn't do it again, lest they
be caught. Clearly, a lot of the fixers and fibbers escaped. Clearly too, a lot
of perhaps legitimate questions about honesty on television were neatly
side-stepped. If it was wrong to make sure Charles Van Doren kept winning, was
it wrong to make sure Gorgeous George triumphed in those wrestling matches? For
supposedly spontaneous interviews on talk shows to be covertly pre-scripted? The
White House was then planting questions with reporters for presidential press
conferences, and a lot of commercials weren't exactly honest. If it was wrong
for the outcome of a game show to be controlled, were any of these other
practices deceiving the viewing public to some extent? Congress investigated
shows like Twenty-One and Dotto and others of dubious integrity
but carefully ventured nowhere near the other questions.
The interesting thing about Jennings' legitimate streak of wins
was that it showed it wasn't necessary to rig a game show to create a Charles
Van Doren. What was necessary was to remove the rule that prevented anyone from
winning big. One of the ways in which the networks dealt with the Great Game
Show Scandal was by laying down limits on how much someone could take home.
Initially, I think it was around $2000 and then over the years, it increased and
increased as necessary to make a show "work." NBC upped their limit when
Let's Make a Deal seemed to need bigger prizes for its finale. CBS upped
theirs when they decided a new show called The $10,000 Pyramid could make
them competitive in the daytime ratings, then raised it again a few times when
that show needed the ratings boost. At one point, a couple of shows had rules
that if your winnings exceeded a certain limit, everything above that amount
would go to charity.
In the eighties, the rule at CBS was that once you'd accumulated
$25,000 on a show, you could keep everything above that you won but you couldn't
return to win more on another episode. At least the intent of that regulation
was circumvented in 1984 when a gent named Michael Larsen went on Press Your
Luck and, having figured out a pattern/loophole in the show's electronic
game board, won $110,237. Interestingly, Larsen had originally intended not to
win that much in his first (and, as it turned out, only) appearance on the show.
Aware of the rule, he wanted to win $24,000 or so, then come back for another
episode and shoot the moon. But he accidentally slipped over $25,000 so he just
kept on going. Before him, a big winner on Press Your Luck had taken home
$10,000 or so.
Some at the network were upset over the win, and investigators
were actually hired to check up on Larsen and make certain he hadn't conspired
with someone on the crew of the program. It turned out Larsen was a pretty
suspicious fellow (he soon lost the money in a variety of shady deals) but he'd
won without chicanery, and the game show industry has not collapsed or been
hauled before more Senate subcommittees. It probably helped nudged the door open
to networks eventually abandoning limits on contestant winnings.
Last year, Jeopardy! lifted its rule that said a winner was
retired after five episodes...and this year, just in time for Sweeps, they had
Ken Jennings. He was everything the producers of Twenty-One had wanted
Charles Van Doren and their other big winners to be — charming, self-effacing,
bright...and the kind of guy for whom America could root. The only difference
was that they didn't have to give him the answers in order to keep him winning
show after show after show. They just had to give him the chance.