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Commentary : HOW WE GOT FROM SMARTS TO 'WHEEL OF FORTUNE'

October 16, 1994|BILL KEVENEY | THE HARTFORD COURANT

How different were the quiz shows of "Quiz Show" days from today's televised games?

About as different as naming the opera Puccini never completed vs. naming something you buy at the hardware store (based on 100 people surveyed).

But the generational gap goes far beyond "Turandot" vs. turpentine. Compared to today's game shows, the 1950s genre featured in the Robert Redford-directed movie differed in question content, show style and even time period--literally, a matter of night and day.

Some game-show changes had to do with the shocking scandal that erupted around "Twenty-One," the program featured in "Quiz Show," and other games in the late 1950s. Others resulted from the evolution of popular culture, as television itself took hold of the public, steering it away from reading and other intellectual pursuits.

Cheating caused the scandal, but producers believed they had to overhaul the entire format if they were to have any hope of cleansing the taint. Quiz shows would never repeat their prime-time popularity of the 1950s ("The $64,000 Question" was the top-rated show of 1955), but they were too cheap and too profitable to be abandoned, said Matt McAllister, assistant professor of communication studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

The changes were more than cosmetic. They included moving away from the classical studies featured on the intellectual quiz shows, the super-intelligent contestants and the prime-time schedule, which featured an amazing 13 quiz shows in 1956.

"They put it in a ghetto area, the daytime, and feminized it" for the larger female audience, at least according to the stereotypes of the day, McAllister said. "Instead of shows about intellectualism, we now had shows about shopping."

According to some experts, the password became dumber. Brain stumpers about the arts and world history were replaced by guesses about the price of a box of Tide and who "blanked" whom. ("Jeopardy!," a challenging show that runs in the evening in many markets, is a throwback, they say.)

"The questions are a bit easier to grasp" now, says Thomas A. DeLong, author of "Quiz Craze" (Praeger Publishers, 1991, $22.95), which traces the history of quiz shows from radio to today.

DeLong concedes that most '50s viewers did not know which wines were served at a 1939 state dinner at Buckingham Palace--just one part of an answer on "The $64,000 Question"--but that there was a Great Books canon shared by much of the audience.

"I don't think people have the basic, broad common knowledge that they had 50 years ago ... because people don't study the classics, geography and other basic subjects," says DeLong. However, "there's a lot more to learn today."

Shows evolved to reflect the common-sense and technical knowledge that is valued today.

The concentration on shopping, which spawned shows like "The Price Is Right" and "Supermarket Sweep," also achieved a larger goal, giving viewers a not-so-subtle nudge to buy the refrigerators and mink coats displayed by Carol Merrill.

"They moved away from the educational to a consumerist" focus, say Olaf Hoerschelmann, who has done extensive research on game shows at Indiana University. "They were trying to repress the connections with the scandal."

As television established itself, the new medium's need to appeal to intellectuals for acceptance also diminished, he said. It developed its own form and no longer had to copy the more cerebral ways of books and magazines.

The shows eventually abandoned their highly educated super-contestants, who had become stars in the 1950s, for TV and movie celebrities and, finally, for regular people, DeLong says. For one thing, the pool of genius contestants was only so big.

"The primary appeal of those shows were the contestants. They were different from us, above us in intelligence," McAllister says. "The appeal of the game show today is the game, not the people. On 'Wheel of Fortune' there are contestants who are dumber than us."

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