Guglielmo Marconi, in 1896, figured out how to send Morse’s telegraphic code through the air, over great distances, without wires.
Microphones, also invented in the late 19th century by a series of audio pioneers, were added to the radio signal, and by the 1930s commercial radio had become an established medium. Popular programs included The Lone Ranger, Amos ’n’ Andy, and the National Barn Dance.
After supper, American families now sat around large wooden boxes warmed by the orange glow of vacuum tubes to hear concerts, dramas, comedies, mysteries, westerns, news, and quiz shows. Your New Favorite Writer remembers it, Dear Reader. When I was a boy, in the Fifties, “old-time radio” was still going strong.
But the seeds of its destruction had been sown. Somebody—a group of somebodies, actually—figured out how to transmit motion pictures using radio waves.
At the end of World War II in 1945, almost nobody owned a television set. By 1955—only ten years later—almost nobody did not own a television set.
Continuity is a recurring theme in human affairs. The first automobiles resembled horse-drawn buggies or carriages, with a combustion engine taking the place of the horse.
Likewise, the first TV sets were built like radios: lovely mahogany furniture filled with vacuum tubes, with the addition of a luminous picture tube, the front surface of which served as a screen. That one extra tube brought moving pictures of the world to us in glorious black-and-white.
Continuity of design ruled content as well. The early television shows were often just radio programs with pictures added.
Cowboys and Indians
The Lone Ranger and his “faithful Indian companion” Tonto galloped across our living room three nights a week on ABC Radio. When TV came along, they became movie stars, their cinematic exploits piped into our homes once a week on Saturday mornings.
George W. Trendle produced both the radio and television series, but other personnel changed. On radio, Brace Beemer played the Lone Ranger and John Todd played Tonto. But Beemer was only marginally photogenic, so Clayton Moore was hired to wear a mask and ride the great horse Silver, while authentic Native American Jay Silverheels took over the Tonto role. He looked the part.
Gunsmoke was another western that began on radio and switched to TV. Manly-voiced radio actor William Conrad played U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon. But Conrad was inescapably rotund, so he was replaced in the TV series by tall, lanky James Arness.
What’s a Question Worth?
The radio quiz show show Take It or Leave It premiered in 1940 and rapidly became popular. Wikipedia describes its format perfectly: “Contestants selected from the audience were asked questions. After answering a question correctly, the contestant had the choice to ‘take’ the prize for that question or ‘leave it’ in favor of a chance at the next question. The first question was worth $1, and the value doubled for each successive question, up to the seventh and final question worth $64.”
Because of the show’s popularity, “That’s the sixty-four dollar question” became a widely-used catchphrase applied to any especially difficult conundrum.
When something you have created becomes a household word, use it. Take It or Leave It changed its title in 1950 to The $64 Question. The program went off the air two years later.
But in 1955, CBS revived The $64 Question as a television show, hosted by actor Hal March. The producers added three zeroes and called it The $64,000 Question. It was the first big-money game show. For that kind of dough, they made the questions hard.
For TV, they added visual gimmicks to the program. When a contestant chose the category to compete in, a lovely young lady pushed the start button on an IBM card sorter—at that time the most decorative aspect of computer technology. The machine whirred and shuffled. The lovely assistant scooped up a deck of IBM cards from the end of the sorter and delivered the deck to Hal March.
It seemed that an all-knowing machine, the computer, had spun out a graduated series of questions on the spur of the moment. A modern marvel!
There was another gimmick: Once a contestant reached the $8,000 level, he or she was sequestered in an “isolation booth,” able to hear only the quizmaster. It was show biz, folks.
The show spawned imitators: The $64,000 Challenge, Twenty-One, The Big Surprise, Dotto, and Tic-Tac-Dough—all quiz shows with tough questions and high stakes. We TV watchers could not get enough of shows like that. They made instant heroes of brainy people nobody had heard of before. People like eleven-year-old science wizard Rob Strom; polymath Teddy Nadler, a St. Louis stock clerk who made $264,000 answering questions across a broad range of categories; and everybody’s favorite, psychologist Joyce Brothers, a demure young blonde with an uncanny knowledge of boxing. All us regular folks out in TV-land were deeply impressed.
What’s an Answer Worth?
Then, in August 1958, CBS cancelled Dotto without explanation. A federal probe revealed a contestant had been given answers in advance. The G-men expanded their inquiries and found hanky-panky going on in several shows. The bloom was off the rose for big-money game shows. They all went off the air that fall and did not return until forty years later (Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, 1998).
Soon after, in 1959, the U.S. Congress launched grim hearings exposing “payola.” The Congressmen were shocked, shocked!, to learn that record companies were paying radio disc jockeys to plug their records, manufacturing smash hits by the simple expedient of playing them more often than other records. This actually might have been legal had the source of funding been disclosed; but it was not.
The quiz show scandals, followed soon by the payola scandals, were a one-two punch to the solar plexis and jaw of Middle America. Perhaps not since the Black Sox scandal of 1919 has the American public been so let down. (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”)
It was hard to know exactly how we’d been cheated. The quiz shows, after all, were entertainment. Seeing all these smart people answer tough questions was engrossing and entertaining, even it it was rigged. After all, for years we’d been watching professional wrestling, which everybody knew was rigged. We liked it anyway.
Likewise, the smash hits produced by the payola system were great songs. We still play them on the oldies stations today. Did anybody really care how they made their way onto the air?
Still, there was something unsettling about unseen people manipulating contests we had no reason to think were not on the square. Our stubborn innocence was under attack.
I’m not sure it has ever recovered.
A Ray of Hope
Fortunately for all of us, Jack Benny remained steadfastly on the air, first on radio, then TV.
Be sure to tune in next week.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)