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Moral Ambiguity, Meritocracy, and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994)

Robert Redford’s acclaimed film Quiz Show (1994) screens at the Walker Art Center on October 26, 2016 as part of the Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary retrospective. In September of 1994—two months after cable and network television stations devoted two uninterrupted hours to coverage of law enforcement’s slow-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco and […]

Quiz Show (1994) Directed by Robert Redford Shown: Ralph Fiennes Robert Redford’s Quiz Show 1994 Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Ralph Fiennes in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994). Photo courtesy Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

Robert Redford’s acclaimed film Quiz Show (1994) screens at the Walker Art Center on October 26, 2016 as part of the Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary retrospective.

In September of 1994—two months after cable and network television stations devoted two uninterrupted hours to coverage of law enforcement’s slow-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson in a white Ford Bronco and two years after MTV debuted The Real World, a reality show promising to capture when cohabiting strangers “stop being polite”—Buena Vista Pictures released Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s origin story for the ascent of sensationalized reality television. Informed by Redford’s own experiences in the entertainment industry, the film offers the rigging of 1950s televised trivia shows as a prime example of “the eternal struggle between ethics and capitalism.”

The film was set in the waning days of the first Golden Age of Television when TV game shows were ubiquitous in the United States—and so were their controversies. In 1954, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that game shows didn’t constitute gambling, but when the show Dotto (CBS) surfaced as rigged in 1958 PBS reported, “more and more former quiz show contestants came forward to reveal how they had been coached.” Through controls like coaching programs could predict (read: determine) winnings and stay within production budgets.

Following scandals around the quiz shows $64,000 Question and Twenty One in particular, the FCC attempted to amend its licensing policies, marking an inflection point in television regulation. Rather than issuing the licenses pro forma, the FCC adopted a harder line, announcing, “There is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license.”1

As network television grew in popularity, its function in society was shifting. Scholar Peter Lunt laments, “The role of television as a public service provider is under threat as the social, market and technological contours of the mediascape change.”2 In this vein, we should analyze the structure of television, too. The service was established—and continues to operate—in a top-down manner, similar to most corporate, capitalist enterprises. When we realize there is little individual “choice” to begin with, then whom do we blame when things go south? How do individuals reconcile the “false consciousness” and the “sincere fictions” disseminated through media and internalized in their daily lived experiences?

Appropriately, then, television stars as the central character in Quiz Show. Interested in the topic of “winning,” Quiz Show completes Redford’s unofficial trilogy dedicated to unpacking the rather uniquely American obsession with ascensions to status and power (Downhill Racer and The Candidate precede Quiz Show in the trilogy). To explain his rationale for focusing on an event that occurred decades prior to 1994, Redford remarks, “I see the quiz-show scandals as really the first in a series of downward steps to the loss of our innocence. When it hit, the country was numbed by the shock, but it was erased quickly because no one, including Congress, or the networks, wanted to deal with it or hear about it. But the shocks kept coming: Jack Kennedy’s death, Bobby’s death, Martin Luther King. Then Watergate, then BCCI, Iran-Contra, S. & L. And now O.J. I think people may look at this film and say, ‘Well, as a scandal, big deal.’ But in a historical context, it’s very much a big deal. This was the beginning of our letting things go. And what did we do about it? Kind of nothing, as long as we kept being entertained.”3

On the larger theme of “winning at all cost,” Redford explains:

You’re given slogans like “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Well, I found out that was a lie; in this country, everything mattered, whether you won or not. And so, I wanted to make a trilogy and pick three areas of our society that were dominant—sports, politics and business—and tell a story about the pyrrhic victory of winning.4

According to critics, Quiz Show acts as a “forced parable of lost innocence” as well as a “meditation on some of the dark, sleazy realities just beneath the glitz and glitter of postwar American culture.”5 Yet, why did Robert Redford, of all Hollywood notables, feel compelled to tell this story, to underscore the dangers posed by the cultural myth of American meritocracy? Even Richard Goodwin, author of the book the film is partly based off, attempts to undermine the cheats at the top and expose their dirty dealings through his congressional work—but to what end? After all, who is actually on trial? In this instance, does television fill our need for a scapegoat?  

Twenty One
star Charles Van Doren was chosen to participate on the show because of his prestigious and wealthy lineage. He purportedly had a “fatal Achilles’ heel—his intellectual vanity, the sense that he [wasn’t] quite measuring up to his illustrious antecedents,” which complicated his eagerness to go through with the lying and cheating. No one believed his claim that he was doing a public service by “promoting education” to the millions of home viewers.

The Washington Post’s Desson Howe argues the Van Doren that Redford portrays is a “sympathetic Hollywood spin on the real counterpart.” In some respects, Van Doren serves as a symbol, and consequently his treatment as a character is more limited by binaries. Redford relies on his own creative license to attempt to fill in the grey area between the black and white categories that audiences are more trained to see and expect from moralistic Hollywood.

Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One

Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One. Public domain photo via Wikipedia.

Don Enright, son of Twenty-One co-creator Dan Enright, believes Redford editorialized, too:

Quiz Show, the movie, is rigged. Fixed. Just like its television counterpart.

And for precisely the same reason. Played straight, the story would be much more dramatically complicated and much less morally convenient. The real truth is that Redford has sacrificed truth—not to say decency—to make his show a more dramatic, more compelling and, ultimately, more successful product for mass entertainment. Precisely the same offense for which they once, quite properly, condemned Dan Enright.

We cling to the cliché that Americans love rooting for the underdog. On Twenty One’s archetypal underdog, Herb Stempel, Professor Richard Tedlow asserts, “Like a good American, he fought hard, taking advantage of every rule… Like a good American, he won without crowing. And, like a good American, he kept on winning.”6 It is hard not to empathize with a character who “feel[s] like a racehorse whose gate won’t open.” We recognize the sentiment and repeat the mantra. If only there were more opportunity; if only we worked harder; if only we got the recognition we deserved. As Rolling Stone’s film critic Peter Travers puts it, “Redford sees the battle between Van Doren and Stempel as a microcosm of American class warfare: It’s race vs. race, pretty vs. ugly, have vs. have-not.”7

Arguably, the American public revels in watching elites fall from grace even more than seeing the common man rise up. Brinson notes, “The sheer enjoyment Americans found in watching the quiz shows was matched by their sheer disgust at learning of the deception.” Watching the original Twenty One episode you get an uneasy feeling that Van Doren and Stempel are puppets putting on a show. You get a similar feeling watching reality TV shows of today. With likable and unlikable personalities, “TV is still playing the game of reinforcing stereotypes and fudging facts in the name of entertainment.”

Quiz Show illustrates that if anyone is to be put in the monetized limelight, a descendent to the white, patriarchal status quo remains preferential. The real “game show” in America—the fallacy of the American dream—plays out in a similar way. In his congressional testimony, Van Doren admits, “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.”8

Has this story changed in recent years? Think Ethan Couch, think Brock Turner—two white, young, wealthy males whose heinous actions—drunk driving and rape—were barely sanctioned. Couch’s offense even brought a new term into the American lexicon: affluenza, which, in part, then minimizes the real damage such a “disease” actually hath wrought. Although both cases were met with wide media coverage, few actual consequences were delivered, which served to cement the treatment for their ilk. Why are we effectively saving a falling Icarus? Conor Friedsdorf of the Atlantic writes about this issue, noting, “When elites break the rules they aren’t punished like regular people. They’re bailed out of trouble, or spared criminal prosecution for their lawlessness.” Why does this happen and what will it take for it to stop?

Redford spoke about his intent in regards to Quiz Show, claiming, “I want an audience to be fascinated by the process of finding an answer, or finding out there isn’t one.”9 He relies on nuance and perception. In claiming this purpose, Redford also projects the idea of filmmaking as exploration. He himself does not have all the answers.

After viewing his work, we can admit there might never be tidy answers to these big questions. Rather, we must sit with the ambiguity. We can also admit that the FCC and other governing bodies may never enforce ethics as they should—not when money and corporate interests are involved.

However, it may be too painful to admit that America has been lying to itself this whole time, that the answers to the questions we ask are far too nuanced to comprehend in the predetermined parameters. Just look at how quick we are to give out lavish commendations to wrongdoers for simply finally telling the truth. Van Doren only faced consequences where it regarded his public persona and subsequent influence. His punishment: to live his privileged life knowing he was once caught for his criminal and immoral behavior. Except, as he admits during his aforementioned testimony, he had plenty of others to aid his ascent—yet no one was there when he fell. The elite, powerful moneymakers continue on unscathed and pawns like Van Doren take the heat.

We must critically examine how the undercurrent of meritocracy runs deep in this country and be ready to navigate the ambiguity that follows. Regardless of whom you deem most at fault, Janet Maslin of the New York Times summarizes it best: “Confronted by that Chrysler as a symbol of false values and misplaced optimism, the audience faces the most salient aspect of the American dream: that we had to wake up.”

1 Brinson, Susan, “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,June 2003.
2 Lunt, Peter, Television, Public Participation, and Public Service: From Value Consensus to the Politics of Identity,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 625, (Sept. 2009), pp. 128–138.
3 Rubenstein, Hal, “Robert Redford,” Interview Magazine, September 1994.
4 Ibid.
5 Sumner, Gregory D. “Review,” The American Historical Review. Vol. 100, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 1206–1207
6 Tedlow, Richard S., “Intellect on Television: The Quiz Show Scandals of the 1950s,” American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 483–495.
7 Travers, Peter, “Quiz Show,” Rolling Stone. September 14, 1994.
8 Brinson, Susan, “Epilogue to the Quiz Show Scandal: A Study of the FCC and Corporate Favoritism”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2003.
9 Rubenstein, Hal, “Robert Redford,” Interview Magazine, September 1994.

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