The 1950's was the Golden Age of television's game and quiz shows. In 1957, 5 of the top 10 programs on television were quiz shows and the $64,000 Question was "the biggest jackpot program in TV history." (1) However, much of the historical interpretation of the quiz and games shows has been negative. Eric Barnouw quotes President Eisenhower's comment in 1959 that the quiz show scandals were a "terrible thing to do to the American people." (2) The Advertising Age web page on the history of television in the 1950's states: "Immensely popular daytime radio show "Queen For A Day" shifts to TV in January . Between radio and TV, the show had a run of nearly 20 years, although widely criticized as an exploitation of human misery, wrapped in commercial plugs. At the peak of popularity, NBC increased the show's length from 30 minutes to 45 minutes to gain time to sell at the premium as rate of $4,000 per minute." (3) However, I believe that the impact of game shows has been more positive than negative on the mass audience. Support for my belief does not come from statistics or surveys. Indeed, it has been a persistent problem in the history of television to quantify the impact of specific shows on specific audiences. (4) In this paper, I will use the evidence from my family's experiece to document the impact of two game shows, It Could Be You and Queen For A Day.
Queen For A Day was emceed by Jack Bailey, originally from Hampton, Iowa.
Bailey acted in stock carnivals and tent shows before ending up at the 1933
World's Fair in Chicago as a barker. He moved to San Diego to try out radio and
struggled for many years in that profession. In 1945 he got the job to host the
radio version of Queen For A Day. He then went with the show when it went
on television. He began every show with, " Do YOU want to
be...QUEEN...FOR...A...DAY?" (5) TV Guide called Bailey television's "No. 1
mesmerizer of middle-aged females and most relentless dispenser of free washing
machines." (6) The game went like this; Bailey interviewed four women on each
show, whoever was in the worst shape-assessed by the audience 'applause meter'
was crowned Queen For A Day. Bailey said about the winners, "It's not what they
want, its why they want it that counts with us." Queen For A Day was
considered a "sob show" of the 1950's. "Sure 'Queen' was vulgar and sleazy and
filled with bathos and bad taste," wrote producer Howard Blake in an article for
Fact magazine. "That was why it was so successful. It was exactly
what the general public wanted....We got what we were after. Five thousand Queens
got what they were after. And the TV audience cried their eyes out, morbidly
delighted to find there were people worse off than they were, and so they got
what they were after." (7) The show was the 'Cinderella fantasy,' and its
beneficiaries were always women. The women who was chosen over the other
hopefuls, by the level of audience applause, was selected Queen. She was draped
in a sable-trimmed red velvet robe and a jeweled crown (see photo below of my
Queen mom (!!) from the 1961 show). And more; she got whatever she had
It Could Be
You was on NBC from 1956-1961. It was a Truth or Consequences and
This Is Your Life offshoot from Ralph Edwards in which unsuspecting
members of the studio audience were reunited with friends or relatives. Bill
Leyden was the host. In 1956, my mom watched It Could Be You and decided
to write a letter to the show asking them to help fulfill her reunion request. My
uncle Rory had immigrated over from Northern Ireland to Canada and the eventually
to the States. He was in America for about a year when he sent for his wife. She
left their five children with my grandmother and came over to be with Rory. Of
course, almost immediately, she became pregnant again! They did not want my
grandmother to worry, so they never told her about the new baby. In the meantime,
Rory had sent on $1,000 to my grandmother, Maize, for a deposit on booking
the kids fare by boat to America. Since my mother knew this was happening, she
felt that the boat trip was too long and arduous for the children to make. She
herself had spent 72 days on a boat coming from Bremerhaven, Germany to Brooklyn
in 1948 and was as sick as a pig the whole way ( My father had been stationed in
Germany during the Reoccupation as he was with Patton's troops there.) So, she
wrote her letter that Monday night to It Could Be You and asked if they
could pay the difference to have the children fly over rather than take a boat.
The show rang her the following Monday night and said they would do it. She said
she was estatic! The following week she gets a call from the show again and they
told her they've decide not to go along with the original plan. They were
planning a big Christmas special and they thought that my grandmother would not
be able to have the children organized in time to make the Christmas show. They
explained that because there were so many children, that they would all need
passports and inoculations and there wouldn't be enough time to do it all. My
mother said that she felt certain that Maize would have all that sorted out long
ago, as she was extremely organized. The show rang Ireland and found out that,
yes, indeed, she did have all the shots and passports organized. The show said it
was a "go." It Could Happen To You flew not only the children over, but my
grandmother as well. They also refunded the $1,000 to my uncle later on after
the show. They arranged for Maize and the children to be put up at the Ambassador
Hotel in Los Angeles for the night before the show. After my grandmother and the
kids went to bed, someone from the show went into the room, put up a Christmas
tree and put stacks of presents under the tree for them. My grandmother got up in
the middle of the night to use the bathroom and on her way back to the bedroom
saw all the gifts and thought she had gone into the wrong hotel room, so she got
scared and went back into the bathroom, where she spent the rest of the night!
The next day was the show. Someone had convinced my uncle to go to the show since
he was not a real TV watcher. The host, Bill Leyden, asked if there were any
Irish people in the audience. Of course, tons of people raised their hands. Then
he asked, "Is there anyone from Ireland in the audience?" My uncle was too
embarrassed to raise his hand, so he didn't. Then he asked, "Is there anyone from
Northern Ireland in the audience?" My uncle still would not raise his hand. Then
Leyden asked, "Is there anyone from Portadown here?", of course, by this time he
was practically standing on my uncle, so he had to raise his hand! They finally
got Rory and Gertie down on the stage and then brought out the children. Then
they brought out my granny. Then, they brought out the new baby, Donal, that my
granny nor the kids knew about. They had sent a limousine to pick up Mrs.
O'Sullivan who was minding the baby for them while they attended the show. So,
there you have the reunion. The show sent my uncle almost $10,000 worth of
merchandise beside paying for the plane tickets and accommodations at the hotel.
It was a dream come true for their family and it was all made possible because of
The next brush with celebrity (!) came in 1961. My mother had just returned to California after having been living in Texas for several years. As a military family, you can trace the birth places of family members by where each military base is located! Anyway, my father had recently died of cancer very shortly after retiring from the Army. He was 41. My mother came back to California as this was where her immediate family was from and she had 6 small children to raise. After the shock of his death wore off, she realized that she was more fond of Texas than California. While she was in Los Angeles, my uncle Tom suggested that she and a friend go to Queen For A Day at the Pantages (pictured at left in LA's Diamond District). She and her friend went down to try and get into the show. You had to go across the street from the Pantages to actually get the tickets and then return to Pantages and stand in line. When they got to the ticket window, the girl told them that the show was 'sold out.' She also told them that sometimes the ushers kept extra tickets in case the audience chairs weren't completely filled. My mom and her friend flew across the street and asked the usher if he had any extra tickets. "Only two," he said. My mom took them and the other three people who had come looking for tickets, were left out on the street, so to speak! My mom told me the procedure that took place. Once you got in line, someone came around and gave you a card and you wrote down your 'wish'. Then they did sort of a impromptu interview with you. They selected about 20 women and narrowed it down to 5. Then each of the five women would tell their story in front of the studio audience and according to the applause of the audience, you were selected to be Queen For a Day. My mom's wish was that she could get enough money to return to Texas. After she told her 'sob' story, the audience went wild and the applause meter shot off the board. She was the saddest case (sort of sad, isn't it?)! In Fabe's book, TV Game Shows, she writes about the legalities of winning Queen for a Day: "Every potential Queen had to sign a release stipulating that if she was found to have faked her miseries, she would collect nothing. It happened more than once... Finally, the show had a (tacit) catch: if a contestants wishes were not merchandise related, she did not stand a chance of being selected as a contestant. After all, the show derived no manufacturer's freebies from tending to a woman's medical or legal problems." (8) Though my mother's main wish was to get cash to get back to Texas, the show awarded her a bicycle for each one of the children, a new refrigerator, new washer and dryer, bedroom set, dishes, couch, etc. Of course, these were the manufacturer "freebies" that Fabe was talking about. Companies such as the pioneering Spiegel Co. used television to promote its new marketing strategy of catalog sales (in picture at right, Jack Bailey holds one of the Spiegel catalogs) : "It was a brand new communication medium that gave Spiegel its greatest advertising success. In the early fifties, the sales department convinced several radio and television producers of guest and quiz shows that the contestants might be much happier to choose their own gifts than to receive a years supply of dry-meal dog food or a one-way trip to the Okeefenokee Swamp. Shows like 'Queen for a Day,' 'This is Your Life,' and 'Truth or Consequences' were soon giving Spiegel a plug by offering their guests a chance to pick prizes from the catalog." (9) The strategy was a success. The merchandise cost the show nothing, but made them look like really generous people, and in a way, they were.
In the both of the stories related in this paper, real people were affected by the generosity of these shows. It didn't matter to the people involved that the shows were only interested in ratings, it mattered to them that some of their hardship was eased because of these shows. It is similar to Hal March on the $64,000 Question in 1957, when he said to contestant Marilyn, "aren't we getting wealthy so quickly?" (10) Yes, they were. It would take people years to accumulate the money they made ( or where given) in that 30 minutes on TV. In my uncle's case, it would have taken many, many years of being in debt to afford to bring his children across to America. This was what America was about. The ability to succeed, the promise of the good life. Television helped make those dreams come true for the 'average' American. Welton Jones has made a similar argument in his review of the Hollywood film Quiz Show, "a marvel of inspired construction but ultimately without much meaning." Jones was a contestant selected for Name That Tune in 1958 but never got on the show because he and his partner "weren't considered team players". This was just before the Twenty-One scandal broke. "Most of the audience knows that the magician doesn't really saw the woman in half. But not everybody knows it. The very young, the inexperienced, the slow of wit, the out-of-touch...there usually is some kind of naivete present. What happened with the 'quiz show scandals' was that a larger portion of the audience was naive. That's all. People wanted to believe in Charles Van Doren. They wanted to believe that he could be simultaneously cute, smart, well-connected but humble, and willing to perform for them." Jones wrote in 1994 that "I never had watched television quiz shows very much. When I did, I remember feeling that the contestants sure had to work for their prizes. But why not? Even the studio audience was in on the charade. They willingly applauded when the sign told them to. And even the producers of Quiz Show have bent and adjusted the historical facts a bit. Why? To make a better story, of course. Some innocence was lost in 1958, sure. But more important, the nature of innocence was slightly redefined." (11) It didn't hurt that the networks were making megaprofits from the advertisements on the show. It was a winning situation for all those involved. It also provide for fond memories years later!
2. Eric Barnouw,
Tube of Plenty , p. 247.
of TV Advertising" Advertising Age Special Report.
4. The impact of
any kind of television content is difficult to prove. Consider the following
statement from the current study of television and vilence at UCLA: "The
accumulated scientific evidence is compelling, but the complex relationship
between violence on television and violence in the real world must not be
oversimplified. Many of the nuances, qualifications and complexities of the
research have, out of necessity, been omitted from the foregoing discussion.
Scientific evidence strongly suggests that there is a link between violence on
television and that in the real world. The degree and nature of that link is not
so clear. More of the possible effects are known than the probable effects. It is
known that television does not have simple, direct stimulus-response effects on
its audiences. It is further known that the way television affects people is
influenced by many other factors, including: habits, interests, attitudes and
prior knowledge; how individuals and our institutions use television; and the
socio-cultural environment in which the communication occurs. As television has a
different impact on different types of cultures, the same television program has
different effects on different people. When the impact of television is discussed
or when television is blamed for having caused something to happen, it should
never be suggested that television alone is a sufficient cause. Anything as
complex as human behavior is not shaped by a single factor. Each behavior is
caused by a large set of factors. In different individuals, the same behavior
might well be caused by different factors. Given these difficulties, the precise
influences of television are very hard to determine." This paragraph is quoted
from the "Television Violence
Monitoring Project: Historical Background" UCLA Center for Communication
Policy, Oct. 10, 1995. See also Lowery and DeFleur, Milestones in Mass
Communication Research : Media Effects (1995).
5. Quote from Maxene Fabe, TV Game Shows (1979). See Shokus Video for a clip of Bailey's famous cry.
6. Quote from Maxene
Fabe, TV Game Shows (1979).
7. Quote from Maxene Fabe,
TV Game Shows (1979).
8. Quote from Maxene Fabe, TV
Game Shows (1979).
9. Quoted from the Spiegel web page "1950"
10. $64,000 Question, 1957, Video Yesteryear tape
Welton Jones, "Quiz Show Fuss Was No Scandal..." See also the critique of the
film Quiz Show by Robert P. Lawrence and how it is not historically accurate.
Barnouw, Eric. Tube of Plenty : the Evolution of American
Television. 2nd rev. ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 1990. 607 p.
: ill. ; 21 cm. Includes bibliographical references. Subjects: Television
broadcasting -- United States -- History. HE8700.8 .B37 1990
Norm. The TV Game Shows. New York : Pyramid Communications, 1975.
272 p. : ill. ; 18 cm. Subjects: Game shows. PN1992.8.Q5 B6
William. Fifties Television : the Industry and its Critics.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Series: Illinois Studies in
Communications. PN1992.3.U5 B64 1990
Fabe, Maxene. TV Game
Shows. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1979. 332 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.
Series: A Dolphin book. Subjects: Game Shows. PN1992.8.Q5 F27
of TV Advertising" Advertising Age Special Report.
Jones, Welton. "Quiz Show Fuss Was No Scandal, It Was a Lesson in Reality,"
San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 11, 1994, E-10.
Robert P. "When Right Was Wrong," San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept.
11, 1994, E-1.
Lowery, Shearon A. and Melvin L. DeFleur. Milestones
in Mass Communication Research : Media Effects, 3rd ed. White Plains,
N.Y. : Longman Publishers, 1995. 415 p. : ill. ; 24 cm. HM258 .L68 1995
"1950" Spiegel, Dec. 30, 1996.
$64,000 Question, 1957, videotape from
Monitoring Project: Historical Background" UCLA Center for Communication
Policy, Oct. 10, 1995 <>
Wostbrock, Fred, Steve Ryan, David
Schwartz. The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows.
2nd Edition, New York: Facts on File, 1995. ISBN: 0816030936
2. The photo of my mother being crowned Queen for a Day in 1961 is from the personal collection of my mother.
3. The photo of the Pantages Theater is from the Downtown Virtual Tour of LA
4. The small photo of Jack Bailey hosting Queen For A Day and holding a Spiegel catalog is from the Spiegel 1950 web page.
5. The photo of the characters of Charles Van Doren, Barry, and Herb Stempel from the Hollywood film Quiz Show is from Hannover Online
6. Color advertisement that made women "feel like a queen in your kitchen surrounded by Frigidaire appliances" from Life magazine, 1959