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Series / The $64,000 Question

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On April 21, 1940, the CBS radio network premiered a quiz show called Take It or Leave It. Like most radio quizzes of the era, the premise was simple: answer the first question correctly, and you won $1. You could "take it" and stop, or answer another question to double the money, losing what you earned if you answered incorrectly. A contestant could keep going until they reached the seventh and final question, which awarded the grand prize of $64. The show became ingrained in the pop culture of the time; the notion of the "$64 question" was a popular metaphor for an important question or decision, and even the Studio Audience's warning about what would happen if you answered wrong ("You'll be SORRY!") was notable enough to be referenced in a few Looney Tunes shorts, namely the game-show inspired The Ducksters. It moved to NBC in 1947 and was renamed The $64 Question in 1950; the show ended in 1952.

With television picking up steam by the mid-1950s, and the FCC ruling that television game shows were not gambling, Louis G. Cowan decided that it was about time to resurrect the classic in a big way: on June 7, 1955, CBS television viewers witnessed the premiere of The $64,000 Question. The game was simple: pick a category - bonus points if it was a category in which one wouldn't expect the contestant to be knowledgeable at first glance, such as a U.S. Marine captain who was an expert cook, or an opera-loving shoe salesman - and answer questions from it to win money. The first was worth $64, and as always, the next question was worth double the previous amount (the next tier after $512 was an even $1,000 rather than $1,024, so the next amounts after that were $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000, and finally, $64,000). The contestant could stop at any time, but lost everything or dropped to a safepoint if they answered wrong. Beginning at the $4,000 level, each contestant was only asked one question per week. Further, the contestant was also placed in an isolation booth beginning at $8,000, and later questions had multiple parts.

Saying that Question was an instantaneous success is an understatement. It surpassed fellow CBS series I Love Lucy to become the #1 show of the 1955–56 television season, and its popularity was so absolute that cinemas and restaurants were practically empty on Tuesday nights because just about everyone was watching. Those who managed to win the $64,000 prize became instant celebrities (including several children, namely an 11-year-old stock market expert and a 12-year-old champion speller), and the recurring "Jazz" category even spawned a co-branded jazz compilation album. Cowan, owing to the success, was also promoted to president of CBS-TV. There was even a spin-off the following Spring, The $64,000 Challenge, which aired on Sunday nights and featured top winners from the main show competing against each other for more money.

However, The $64,000 Question would fall as quickly as it rose, for multiple reasons. The success of Question spawned other big-money quiz shows that mimicked its serialized, week-by-week drama, including Dotto, Tic-Tac-Dough, and perhaps its most notable rival, Twenty-One. In mid-1958, a scandal emerged when it was revealed that Dotto had been rigging matches in an effort to drive viewership. Following a Summer hiatus, The $64,000 Challenge was cancelled and Question moved to its Sunday-night timeslot in September 1958. In response to the significant decline in viewership that the scandals brought, Question was cancelled just two months later in November.

Although it did not resort to outright Kayfabe like Dotto and Twenty-One, it was revealed during investigations that Question was the subject of manipulation by executives of the program's main sponsor, Revlon, including its CEO Charles Revson (who had initially disliked the show, until he saw the massive profits it generated for his company). Taking advantage of its use of returning players, Revson insisted on stacking the decks in favor of contestants he felt would get the show good ratings, and giving the "duds" a hard time.note 

The scandals were a Genre-Killer for the "big-money" game shows of the era: five-figure prizes were generally avoided until the arrival of The $10,000 Pyramid in 1973. It also killed the "single-sponsor" model that had been common in radio and television, with the networks demanding more creative control and ownership of their programming (which in the case of game shows, would help ensure fairness). Question received a syndicated revival in 1976, The $128,000 Question, which lasted two seasons (the first produced in New York, the second in Canada). On this series, winning $64,000 entered you into a tournament at the end of the season where the winner got another $64,000.

In the late-1990s, ABC producer Michael Davies (who had worked on Debt and Win Ben Stein's Money) was considering producing a revival of Question, as part of an effort to reinvigorate the declining genre. However, he threw the idea aside when he caught wind of a new show that was about to take Britain by storm: Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

This series contains examples of:

  • Consolation Prize: Getting the $1,000, $2,000, or $4,000 questions wrong awarded the player $512. At the $4,000 milestone, the consolation prize was changed to a Cadillac.
    • On the 1970s revival, missing between $64-$4,000 won $1; $8,000 or $16,000 won a Buick Skylark; while missing $32,000 or $64,000 gave the player $16,000. Season 2 players missing the $32,000 question won $8,000 and a Buick Electra, while missing the $64,000 question won $24,000 and the Electra.
  • Game Show Appearance: It was subject to a few during its heyday:
    • The Season 6 premiere of The Colgate Comedy Hour, hosted by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and aired September 18, 1955, opened with "The $64,000,000 Question". Martin plays host Hal April and Lewis plays returning champion Morty M. M. Morton. Morty is forced by the host to go for the $32,000,000 question and somehow manages to answer the ridiculously obscure multi-part question, allowing him to go for the $64,000,000 question (again, not by choice), where he must be submerged in a tank of water while the host reads the very long-winded question.
    • The episode of The Phil Silvers Show aired September 25, 1956 sees Sgt. Bilko trying to cheat on the show, a rather Hilarious in Hindsight moment by the time of the quiz show scandals.
    • In the teaser for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "The Crooked Road", aired October 26, 1958 (exactly two weeks before the by-then scandal-ridden game show was cancelled on November 9), Hitchcock is placed in the Sound Proof Booth and told to identify "what the following person just ate, drank, or drove." Hitchcock pauses, then says "Ah yes...the answer is..." and the shot fades out to commercial.
  • Game Show Host:
    • Hal March hosted the original TV run; Sonny Fox and then Ralph Story hosted the Challenge spin-off. Mike Darrow hosted the first season of the 1970s revival, with Alex Trebek replacing him on the second. Greg Gumbelnote  hosted the unsold 2000 attempt.
    • The CBS radio show was hosted by Bob Hawk (1940-1941) and Phil Baker (1941-1947). The NBC run was hosted by Garry Moore (1947-1949), Eddie Cantor (1949-1950), Jack Paar (from June 11, 1950 to March 1951, and from December 1951 to cancellation on June 1, 1952) and Baker again (March-December 1951).
  • Hidden Depths: Contestants were chosen if they were knowledgeable in a category that, given the contestant's profession or station in life, would surprise viewers.
  • Malaproper: Sonny Fox lost his job as host of Challenge because of his unfortunate habit of bungling words, calling answers correct that weren't, and even inadvertently giving away the answers on camera. He was replaced by Ralph Story after only a few weeks.
  • Product Placement: As was customary at the time, the program was heavily sponsored, in this case by the Revlon cosmetics company. The show's overall success paid off for Revlon, whose staff meticulously adjusted how it promoted its products during it to ensure maximum effectiveness. However, their involvement in Question also led to its most notable instances of Executive Meddling...
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Rev. Charles E. "Stoney" Jackson, a Tennessee preacher who had won $16,000 on Question answering questions about was "the world's great lovers," was invited back to participate on Challenge and won $4,000 answering a question that producer Shirley Bernstein (Leonard's sister) had given him the answer to before the show. He hadn't realized the show was rigged until the question came up during the game, and afterward refused to accept his winnings. He even went to the print media with the intention of blowing the whistle on the show, but this was before the Herb Stempel incident on 21 and no one took Jackson seriously.
  • Spin-Off: The $64,000 Challenge, where past contestants who won at least $8,000 (and later celebrities at the insistence of Revlon's CEO Charles Revson) faced off in a competitive version of the game to win even more money, with no cap! Notably, it premiered only about 10 months after its parent. Only a game show this popular could get a spin-off that quickly.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: Several.
    • The United Kingdom had two: The 64,000 Question from 1955-58 hosted by Jerry Desmond, with a top prize of 64,000 sixpence, or £1,600 (doubled shortly into the run to 64,000 shillings, or £3,200); and The $64,000 Question, which ran from 1990-93 with host Bob Monkhouse and a top prize of £6,400 (i.e., nowhere near $64,000; to be fair, the IBA limited the amount game shows could give away to £6,000 and special permission had to be granted to get the missing £400). There was also a version of Challenge hosted by Robin Bailey which ran briefly in 1957.
    • Australia debuted Coles £3,000 Question (sponsored by Coles Supermarkets) in 1960, which became Coles $6,000 Question on February 14, 1966 - the day the country switched from Pounds to Dollars. Coles dropped its sponsorship in July 1971, and the show was renamed The $7,000 Question; it also ended later that year.
    • Another notable version, not only for its longevity, was the Polish one. Known as Wielka gra (literally The Great Gametrivia ), it survived a staggering 44 years, running from 1962 to 2006. It was, arguably, the Nintendo Hard rendition of the original series, featuring notoriously specific categoriesexamples  that were picked by the contestants far in advance of the actual taping and had a LOT of research put in making the questions.
  • Unexpectedly Obscure Answer: These kinds of questions were used in an attempt to force losses from contestants Revson didn't like, going so far as to swap out the questions that had been secured in a bank vault prior to the show. There was an IBM sorting machine on-set to imply that the question envelopes were chosen randomly, but all the envelopes in it were actually the same.
    • This idea backfired spectacularly when a contestant named Joyce Brothers was meddled into having boxing be her category. She subverted their expectations by aggressively studying the subject, and became the second person to win the $64,000. This included correctly answering a surprise question about refereeing that was supposed to have cost her the game, due to Charles Revson disliking her despite the high ratings she attracted. Brothers even got a one-off stint for CBS as a color commentator for a boxing match, but she soon became better-known for her involvement in a different specialist subject: psychology.
  • Who Wants to Be "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?": It's clear that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? can be viewed as a Spiritual Successor to Question in more ways than one - money ladder with checkpoints, thousands of dollars on the line, a glitzy set, and suspense. Millionaire may have codified the modern version of a big-money quiz show, but it has a lot to owe to Question. Michael Davies, an ABC producer, originally wanted to produce a revival of Question before learning about the impending premiere of Millionaire — awestruck over the intricacy and detail of its presentation. He went as far as asking multiple colleagues in Britain to send him VCR recordings of the premiere so he could see what all the hype was about.
    • Answer eleven questions and you get $64,000... Sound familiar?
    • In April 2000, CBS piloted a revival from Dick Clark Productions to cash in on the success of Millionaire with a top prize of $1,028,000, but it was scrapped. The pilot has been seen by a select few outside the network (such as this review), and is generally considered terrible. CBS ultimately ordered a Dick Clark-hosted U.S. version of Winning Lines — a series from the creators of Millionaire — instead.