Payola, quiz scandals crossed wires in ’59

Recent probes remember past problems

Sony and BMG got their wrists slapped and a $10 million fine last week in a widening radio payola probe.

But such scandals have dogged the radio and TV biz for years, and probably never more so than at the end of 1959, when apparently no one could talk, or write, about anything else.

Congress and the FCC got caught up, as did J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men.

Many a talent — from rock ‘n’ roll legend Alan Freed and “American Bandstand” producer Dick Clark to gameshow producer Dan Enright and contestant Charles van Doren — were taken down or chastized.

TV and radio were forever changed: Quiz shows disappeared for decades; networks took more control of the creative process; ties between record companies and disc jockeys were severed or rearranged — though as the current probe by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer makes clear, payoffs, via indie promoters and others, have again become pervasive.

Variety‘s coverage of the ’50s fiasco was extensive.

At first, elements of the misconduct came in dribs and drabs: A small page-one item in Daily Variety in March 1957 noted van Doren had been unseated on NBC quiz show “Twenty One” when he was stumped by a question about the king of Belgium. “Van Doren Muffs ’21’ Pitch After 14 Weeks” — a seemingly innocuous piece.

By the following August, however, contestant Herb Stempel had admitted he pocketed $50,000 in winnings by having answers supplied to him — and then took a dive so that van Doren could win. Back when events were unfolding, Daily Variety pointed out that there was “no obvious law against fixing a quiz show” unless it could be shown the sponsor had been defrauded by a conspiracy of network or ad agency personnel and contestants. But that impossible-to-prove technicality did not keep the floodgates from opening.

On Nov. 3, Daily Variety reported on its front page, “Van Doren Sings and Tunes; Is Hearts and Flowers in D.C.”

The lead was to the point: “Charles van Doren today said he sinned and is sorry.”

A congressional subcommittee also probed a Tennessee minister named Storey Jackson, who won $20,000 on “The $64,000 Question.” He admitted that producer Shirley Bernstein (sister of Leonard) always had an advance “prep” session with him.

The scandals had repercussions — monetary as well as moral ones.

The paper reported a week later that Hoover’s G-men also would be looking into whether any of the contestants had communist ties.

Though not a direct result of the payola scandal, threats of censorship became more urgent, not just against the film biz but against radio, television, books, magazines and newspapers. The payola mess mushroomed into an indictment of the entire entertainment biz.

In the Nov. 11, 1959, issue of Daily Variety, four of eight front-page stories dealt with the scandal.

A piece headlined “Double-Pronged Probe Into Payola Slows Charge of the Loot Brigade,” described how the boys in the music biz had started to run for cover.

In November, Variety editor George Rosen penned a thoughtful front-page banner called “Broadcasters Strike Back,” in which he described how the TV biz was finally mobilizing to stem the smear on the medium.

“Unless something drastic is done, the publishers of dailies and magazines will stop at nothing to perpetuate the present quiz-rigging scandal and keep it a running story for years to come, no matter how flimsy the evidence.”

The story went on to point out that in many key cities publishers actually own local stations, but that they had failed to pull the plug on any questionable (but profitable) show.

“Just as their radio holdings saved them from red ink (in the ’30s and ’40s), today they are using TV as a hedge — against the day when they may have to look to their stations to meet publishing deficits.”

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