e-mail us


Quiz Shows


Catholic education suffered a painful blow on Jan. 20.

Sitting in the “hot seat” on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” was Brian, a young man in his 20s, who had fought his way into the spotlight by quickly noting that Franklin D. Roosevelt had served longer in the presidency than Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy and William Henry Harrison. And he was from New York’s Jesuit all-scholarship school, Regis High School. Our minds raced ahead to tomorrow’s headlines: “Jesuit Education Makes Grad Rich!”

And here comes the first question. Little Jack Horner reached into his pie and pulled out what? Brian’s answer: blackbirds. Stunned silence. The audience is dying to shout, “Stuck in his thumb/ and pulled out a plum.” But it was all over. Sorry. Next contestant: Marty. It’s his wife’s birthday. Complete this sentence: “All’s fair in love and ______.”

Until the TV quiz show scandals of 1955-’56, it seemed that these programs were one of the elevating forces in American cultural life. In their panel show format -- like “What’s My Line?” -- still running in late-night replays -- and radio’s “Information Please,” we could watch or listen to witty celebrities trade pleasantries and chuckle over their quips and goofs and feel good about ourselves if we were occasionally almost as clever as they were.

In “The $64,000 Question” and “Twenty- One,” darker forces were at work -- big money, at least by ’50s standards -- but there was also a moral lesson to be learned: Study hard and read a lot, like Charles VanDoren, son of the famous Columbia professor Mark VanDoren, and you might also strike it rich. Or, all that “useless” stuff you had to memorize to get a liberal arts degree was not really “useless” after all.

I can prove it from experience. In my senior year at Fordham I was a member of Fordham’s “College Quiz Bowl” team. When the buzzer sounded, I was able to name the members of the Adams family. Today a contestant would rattle off the characters in the TV comedy series based on Charles Addams’ cartoon monsters.

The other Adams family consists of: John Adams, second president of the United States; John Quincy Adams, also president, his son; his son, Charles Francis Adams, ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War; Henry Adams, his son, author of Mont St. Michel and Chartres; and his brother, Brooks Adams, a literary critic. I also had to sing the next two lines of the song that began, “I had a dream, dear. You had one, too.”

Thanks to the other guys, who knew more than I did, we beat Syracuse. We were awarded watches, and the dean took us to dinner at Luchow’s, an old German restaurant on the Lower East Side that doesn’t exist any more.

Then suddenly the quiz shows came to symbolize something ugly about us all.

The shows had been rigged, producers fed Van Doren the answers and kept him winning for 15 weeks because viewers liked him and thought they could identify with him. As a Columbia instructor he made $4,000 a year. As a contestant he could make $100,000 in a few months.

His exposure, writes David Halberstam in The Fifties, was a traumatic moment for the country. “Starting with World War II ... America had been on the right side: Its politicians and generals did not lie, and the Americans had trusted what was written in their newspapers and, later, broadcast over the airwaves.” John Steinbeck wrote an angry article, “Have We Gone Soft?” “If I wanted to destroy a nation I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick. ... On all levels, American society is rigged,” he wrote.

Now “Twenty-One” is back, plus “Millionaire,” and one aptly named “Greed.” Their revival might tell us something about ourselves or it might not.

Ben Stein, who has his own show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” on the Comedy Network, said on the “Lehrer News Hour” that these shows are simply replicating what’s happening on the stock market: “America doesn’t want to wait years or a generation to get rich anymore. They see everybody else getting rich overnight.”

Of course the belief in instant, unearned riches has always been the dark side of the American Dream. Charles Foster (“Citizen”) Kane was ruined by inherited wealth. State governments feed that dream with lotteries and promised tax cuts. On a TV quiz show a combination of luck and a headful of trivia can earn a million in 20 minutes.

Several critics have observed that the very easy questions, especially when “Millionaire’s” are all multiple choice and you have three chances to get help, represent the general TV-induced dumbing down of America, more evidence that the school system has flopped. The old “Twenty-One” made you name two people who rode with Paul Revere and the man who lent him his horse. The new one asks whether Jerry Seinfeld lived in the Bronx, Brooklyn or Manhattan.

On “Millionaire” you can get up to thousands of dollars knowing a sombrero is a hat, Chock Full o’ Nuts is a coffee, Jupiter is the biggest planet, Faulkner was from Mississippi, immigrants came to Ellis Island, and J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI.

But the easy questions are deceptive. Each list of 15 has one or two so out of category that the generally educated competitor who is not a media junkie is bound to stumble. Like Luke Skywalker’s hometown or the star whose part was edited out of “The Big Chill.” So many questions have to do with movie and TV trivia that they imply the very act of watching everything on television will make you both smart and rich at the same time.

The other interesting criticism of “Millionaire” is the looks of the contestants: They are overwhelmingly young white men. The producers say they want to do something about this; but, given the rules, it’s hard to see what they can do. Would-be contestants -- about 240,000 a day -- call an 800 number in the evening, answer rapid-fire questions and submit to a lottery. The system is wide open, but it favors people who are well educated, assertive and quick. Two of these are personality traits independent of intelligence. Today many more women than men go to college and get better grades, but they’re not fighting to sit in the “hot seat.” Will the quiz shows try “affirmative action,” easier, “culturally adapted” questions for minorities, and actively recruit women?

Many of the rules, it seems, are geared to make the shows more “accessible,” to keep us watching without feeling inferior. To allow for our shrunken attention span, the tape is edited (an 18-second pause over a question is cut to 4), and the pace is quick enough to run through five contestants in one night. This also means that the new instant rich come and go so quickly that their basic 15 minutes of fame fades fast. No one hangs around for weeks inviting a nation of dreamers to read themselves into his story, to share emotionally his rise and fall.

But are you ready for the Quiz? The questions test both secular and religious literacy. I will send one crisp dollar bill to the first person to mail NCR the correct answers to these three questions. If multiple correct answers arrive in the same mail, lot will choose the winner. The dollar is enough to pay for the post card and the stamp, but not enough to corrupt the contestant. Of course the winner’s name will be published. If we can’t appeal to greed, we can at least tempt pride:

1. In what film does this memorable line appear? “Harry Faversham, what the devil are you doing here?”
(A) “Casablanca”
(B) “Drums Along the Mohawk”
(C) “Four Feathers”
(D) “Gunga Din”

2. Ernest Renan, Francois Mauriac, and Shusako Endo all wrote lives of:
(A) St. Francis
(B) Jesus Christ
(C) Joan of Arc
(D) Thomas More

3. Which Christian writer expressed the following profound thought? “The rich of this world will vanish like smoke, and their past joys will no longer be remembered.”
(A) Thomas Aquinas
(B) Thomas à Becket
(C) Thomas à Kempis
(D) Thomas Merton

Send your final answers!

Entries must be postmarked by Feb. 15. Address them to Schroth Quiz, c/o The National Catholic Reporter, 115 E. Armour Boulevard, Kansas City, Mo. 64111.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is NCR’s media critic.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000