Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The First Step Off the Pedestal

I must confess I didn't know he was still alive, but Charles Van Doren is finally talking.

"It" is his career-ending involvement in the great quiz show scandal of 1959, which reduced him from a glamorous Time magazine cover boy and "Today" show regular to tabloid humiliation as one of the most reviled men in America.

Now 82, Van Doren is telling pretty much all, in an article scheduled for publication in next week's New Yorker.

This was a little before my time, but as someone who worked in TV, it has always been of interest, and I have seen the PBS special mentioned in the article as well as other stories about it. The effect of the scandal on people's opinion of television is hard to describe. It was the first major blow to the medium's integrity, and it hurt the game show genre in particular for a long time.

I also grew up in the time just after it, when there was still some trust in the television industry in general, if not in game shows. In today's world of obviously slanted "news" shows and programs that are essentially hour-long advertisements ("World's Best Hotels"), It can be hard to remember when there were only a few channels, and the people on them were regarded as truly important figures, not just teleprompter readers or ratings draws. When Edward R. Murrow (McCarthyism) or Walter Cronkite (Vietnam) could sway the nation and make history.

Today's television is better in many ways; there are more good programs and channels than ever before (though you have to look harder for them), and the technology is constantly improving. But that 1959 scandal started a decline in status that hasn't really stopped. Such a decline was probably inevitable as the medium grew, but to those of us who were the first to grow up with television as a major part of our lives, it's like watching a beloved relative age.

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