Sunday, September 14, 2014

Riddle Me This

Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes): I've stood on the shoulders of life, and I've never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I've flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easy.

I guess I am something of an amateur historian. I minored in history in college, but it has mostly been a recreational interest for me. When a topic from the past intrigues me, it's like an addiction. I have no choice but to read whatever I can on the topic until all my questions have been answered.

The quiz show scandals of the late 1950s came along well before my birth so I had no memory of them. In fact, I hadn't read much about them before I saw "Quiz Show," which premiered on this date in 1994.

After I saw the movie, I felt compelled to read everything I could about the subject — and I found that Robert Redford had directed a movie that was almost entirely faithful to the actual story.

On the surface, the premise may seem preposterously elementary to folks in the 21st century, but things really were different in the '50s. TV was going through what were probably the inevitable growing pains of a developing medium — but it was also a morality tale that is relevant to any age.

"Any so–called material thing that you want is merely a symbol," Mark Twain wrote. "You want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment."

Was that why Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) went along with the folks at Twenty One? Because he was greedy? Maybe. But I think there was more to it than that. Sure, he received a lot of money along with the answers, but you have to remember that he came from a patrician family of high achievers. His father and uncle both won Pulitzer Prizes. His mother was a noted novelist. The Van Dorens were so intellectual, they played Shakespeare trivia at a family gathering, according to the movie — and few, if any, of them appear to have owned a television set before Charles' success on Twenty One.

I have heard conflicting accounts on Charles' television ownership and exposure to the television programming of the day. On the one hand, I have heard that he didn't own a television before he went on Twenty One, which suggests a certain amount of naivete about TV. On the other, I have heard that he approached another quiz show about being a contestant before he was approached by Twenty One. Considering the level of the general public's ownership of TVs, exposure to TV programming was not nearly as extensive in the 1950s as it is today. It required owning a device that was still priced far beyond the budget limitations of many American households.

Folks who didn't have TVs in those days went someplace public, like a bar, or stood on sidewalks outside department stores and watched the TVs in the display windows when some kind of event was taking place. The Van Dorens don't strike me as being the sort to do that, particularly not for something as mundane as a quiz show. Charles could have learned about the quiz shows by reading articles in journals — he was known to have considerable curiosity about a variety of subjects — but it seems more likely to me that, if he did apply to another game show, he had to have gained much of his knowledge through personal ownership of the emerging technology of television.

Was Charles Van Doren motivated by money? Mr. Bernstein in "Citizen Kane" may have been speaking about Charles long before the quiz show scandals when he said, "It's no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money."

After conducting my own research into this story, I don't think it was money that he wanted — although he enjoyed what affluence brought him. I became convinced that Van Doren's motivation was not money but to distinguish himself in a way that no one else in his family ever had.

If I am right, he succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

In a way, I'm inclined to say that Charles Van Doren recognized the wave of the future. Prior to the quiz show scandals, people were rewarded on television for their knowledge. Every family has that one person who knows a lot of generally useless information, right? Such people thrived in the TV quiz show environment.

After the scandals, quiz shows became game shows, in which you needed a certain amount of knowledge, but you needed a gracious helping of luck, too. That promoted the idea that you could succeed even if you weren't particularly smart. It's the same mindset that compels people to buy lottery tickets or place bets on longshots at the race track. On any given day ...

Van Doren wasn't the first one to get the answers ahead of time. The guy he replaced, Herb Stempel (played by John Turturro), got the answers until the execs at NBC decided his time had run its course — and the person he replaced probably got the answers, too. I honestly don't know how far back it went. Ostensibly, the motivation was to give the viewers the entertainment they desired (at one point, a network exec protested, "We're in show business") — but there was clearly a profit motive. As long as the winner was popular with the viewers, everyone was happy. But when the champ lost his/her appeal and ratings started to go down, it was time to find a new champ. That was what happened to Stempel; he rode the gravy train until it came to a stop, then he blew the whistle when the network didn't give him a show of his own.

I've never really reached a conclusion on the movie's take on Stempel — in the movie, he felt he had been ridiculed by having to take a dive on a question about his favorite movie, and he blamed anti–semitism for the bum's rush he felt he had been given by the execs at NBC.

"Don't do this to me," he pleaded with Dan Enright (David Paymer), "it's humiliating."

"For seventy grand, Herb, you can afford to be humiliated," Enright replied.

Van Doren was popular, and ratings soared. No one really wanted to hear Stempel's story — until investigator Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) started poking around.

And it kind of served as the starting point for a general erosion of standards, the fruits of which we see around us today.

Image Management: Van Doren was really an early practitioner of public spin. More than half a century after the quiz show scandals, he is remembered as the guy who cheated — but, mostly, he is remembered as the guy who was on the TV show that cheated.

Blaming Others: Van Doren received applause at the House committee hearings in which he testified that he had "flown too high on borrowed wings." Things had come to him too easily, he said.

The audience saved its most enthusiastic applause, though, for the one member of the committee who did not fawn over Van Doren and said he saw no reason to commend Van Doren for telling the truth.

I doubt that such a scene would be duplicated today.

"Quiz Show" received four Oscar nominations — including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Paul Scofield) — but won none.