The Boomer Era Had Its Scandals

It’s hard to see any media these days without running into some sort of corruption and scandal. Yet we tend to forget that this is nothing new; the boomer era had its share of political, corporate and personal scandals as well. Two of the most famous involve the entertainment industry: the Quiz Show Scandal and the Payola Scandal.

The Quiz Show Scandal
As TV caught on in a big way after the War and more households had TV sets, programming the prime time of daily broadcasting became an increasingly competitive landscape for burgeoning networks. Always on the lookout for more viewers, TV producers took a cue from radio broadcasting when they adopted quiz show formats that gave contestants the chance to win money. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), unclear that contestants vying for prize money over national airwaves in the relatively new medium of TV network broadcasting weren’t violating gambling laws, brought a case against ABC that reached the Supreme Court. The Court ultimately ruled against the FCC in 1954, stating that game and quiz shows were not a form of gambling. This opened the door for TV producers.

On June 7, 1955, CBS premiered The $64,000 Question, and it was an immediate hit with viewers. The top prize of $64,000 — a princely sum in the 1950s — was more prize money than any TV or radio show had ever offered. Based on the show’s success, spin-offs cropped up, including Tic Tac Dough, Dotto, The Big Surprise and Twenty One.

A scandal began brewing in the mid-50s: many of the quiz shows were rigged, as it was revealed that contestants were coached, or in some cases, given answers in order to create relatable characters and heroes that viewers could follow week to week. This raised the probability of unfair competition for contestants, and fraud in terms of what was presented to viewers.

In 1956, as the scandal evolved mainly around three shows, The $64,000 Question, Dotto and Twenty One, a contestant on Twenty One named Eric Stempel had reached winnings of $69,500 when it was decided by producers that he should lose to a challenger named Charles Van Doren. The script called for a succession of three programs in which the two contestants would be locked in a tie, creating the drama needed to gain viewer attention. Ultimately, Stempel was coached to give the wrong answer so that Van Doren could be crowned the new champion. Stempel was unhappy with the arrangement, especially since he new the correct answer to his final question, so he went public with his story. Others followed suit.

By 1958 most people believed the shows did not present fair competition between contestants, yet viewership remained strong. In October of 1958, despite the networks denying any knowledge of the alleged show fixing, all of the shows which were under suspicion were abruptly cancelled.

One year later the House Committee on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Representative Oren Harris, opened hearings on the scandal. Former contestants were called before the Congressional Committee, among them Patty Duke. As a young actress she had competed on The $64,000 Challenge, a spin-off of The $64,000 Question. She testified that she was indeed coached to give certain answers. Other former contestants, including Xavier Cugat, told the Committee similar stories. Cugat testified that he felt he was giving a performance. In November of 1959 Charles Van Doren was called before the Committee. He had thus far denied the allegations, but under oath, testified that he was coached to produce a pre-ordained outcome to the shows.

In 1960 the Congress voted to amend the Communications Act of 1934; in effect, fixing the outcome of game shows became a federal offense. As a result, with game and quiz shows under a microscope by Congress and the public, most were pulled from the air. The networks were forced to change standards and practices on remaining shows, limiting either contestants’ winnings or number of appearances. It would be the 1970s before a new set of game and quiz shows would debut in prime time.

Payola in the Music Business
Fresh on the heels of the Quiz Show Scandal was the Payola Scandal. These revelations brought to light the practice of paying radio DJs and TV producers to play certain songs, thus influencing record purchases. Many people noted that the practice in one form or another was as old as the industry itself, and was not technically illegal. Some historians say the only reason the scandal reached the proportions it did was that the established music industry was being challenged by the new sound of rock and roll. In the 1940s, a good portion of record industry profits came from placement in jukeboxes. By the 1950s, rock and roll music publishers threatened this valuable source of income using the same payola practices that the industry had employed to get their records into the same jukeboxes. Radio airplay of the increasingly popular rock and roll records magnified the trepidation of the existing music publishers. As a result, the old guard did everything they could to discredit rock and roll, calling it degenerate and morally unsound for young people, and attempted to link the practices of payola — that they themselves had been using for years — directly with rock and roll music.

In November of 1959 a House of Representatives subcommittee — led by the same Representative Oren Harris who had resided over the Quiz Show hearings — began an investigation into commercial bribery in the broadcast music industry. The American Authors and Composers Guild sent the committee a letter stating that the practice was rampant, accusing the Federal Trade Commission of knowing about it, but failing to act on it. In response, the National Disc Jockeys Council wired a telegram to the committee denying the Guild’s charges.

By February of 1960 public hearings began as the committee called on radio DJs to testify. President Eisenhower weighed in on February 11, 1960, stating the brewing scandal was an issue of public morality. The FCC responded by proposing a new law making it a criminal act to pay for play.

Alan Freed and Dick Clark were both called before the committee. Opposition among Congressional members suggested men like Freed and Clark had too much influence on young people. Freed, a popular radio DJ and rock show producer who had been credited with coining the term, “rock and roll,” eventually pleaded guilty to charges he accepted payments, and was fined $300 and a given six-month suspended sentence. Dick Clark was a record company executive and rising TV producer. He denied any knowledge of such payments, but as a gesture that he was “clean,” divested himself of any interest in his record businesses to concentrate on his TV career. He sold his participation in more than 30 companies to keep his reputation intact. The committee saw this as proof that Clark was, in the words of Representative Harris, “a fine young man.” Clark was not prosecuted.

The hearings resulted in radio DJs being removed from making airplay choices, that being relegated to station music directors. The FCC instituted a $10,000 fine for incidences of payola. However, playing a song for payment would not violate the rules if it was announced as a paid sponsorship.

Boomers were caught up right in the middle of these scandals, though most of us were too young to comprehend the scope of what was swirling around us. Do you have any memories of boomer-era scandals, boomers?