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Quiz Show Conspiracies

In the 1950s, the new medium of television was fast becoming a staple in U.S. households, and quiz shows, with their low production costs and high-stakes drama, were enjoying immense popularity. Contestants on quiz shows played until they lost; some competed for months and won tens of thousands of dollars. The quiz show concept of rewarding intelligence with instant wealth appealed to the U.S. public and inspired many to seek an invitation to play.

In May 1958, Edward Hilgemeier was in the studio audience of the quiz show "Dotto" when he was approached by a "Dotto" producer. The producer asked if Hilgemeier would like to compete on the show. Hilgemeier, an aspiring actor, accepted the offer. On May 20, he went to the "Dotto" set as a standby contestant.

Marie Winn, a student at Columbia University, was the defending champion of "Dotto." A charming, animated native of Czechoslovakia, the twenty-one-year-old Winn had won "Dotto" on two consecutive nights. As Hilgemeier waited for his possible turn against Winn, he got the impression that studio personnel were unduly familiar with the woman.

Winn's first challenger that day was Yeffe Kimball Slatin. Hilgemeier watched as Winn defeated Slatin with ease; Winn seemed to have every answer at hand. After the contest between Winn and Slatin, Hilgemeier returned to the contestants' dressing room, where he discovered a notebook belonging to Winn that appeared to contain answers to "Dotto" questions. Hilgemeier notified Slatin, and the two returned to the dressing room, where one of them tore the apparent answer sheet out of Winn's notebook.

That night, after speaking to Slatin's lawyer, Hilgemeier and Slatin went to the "Dotto" offices, where they spoke with the show's producers. The "Dotto" producers promised compensation to both Hilgemeier and Slatin. Slatin agreed to stay quiet about the affair for a nominal sum of money from "Dotto," but Hilgemeier, fearing for his reputation, refused. Hilgemeier took his information to Manhattan district attorney Frank Hogan and assistant district attorney Joseph Stone.

Initially, the Manhattan district attorney's office was skeptical of Hilgemeier's complaint. The rigging of quiz shows was, after all, not illegal. Shortly into the investigation, however, it became apparent to Hogan and Stone that a widespread conspiracy was in place to hide the truth from the public—and conspiracy to commit FRAUD wasillegal.

The Manhattan district attorney's office convened GRAND JURY hearings, and a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives held congressional hearings on the quiz shows' practices. Many producers and contestants lied to the grand jury and the congressional subcommittee about their role in quiz show trickery. On October 14, 1959, their elaborate web of deceit began to unravel when Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University professor, admitted to the subcommittee his involvement in a rigged quiz show, "Twenty-One." (This incident was the basis of Robert Redford's 1995 film Quiz Show.)

Quiz show producers and contestants eventually admitted their subterfuge to authorities. What emerged were stories of how favored quiz show contestants were coached to agonize and sweat over answers they already knew. On August 30, 1960, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that made giving or receiving assistance on a quiz show a federal crime. The bill was signed into law by President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER two weeks later. Now, under 47 U.S.C.A. § 509, it is a federal crime to rig quiz shows with the intent to deceive the listening or viewing public. Under 18 U.S.C.A. § 371, a conspiracy to engage in prohibited practices regarding radio and television quiz shows is also a federal crime.

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