Oren Harris had led a life of dedication and integrity that led him into public service. The one-time El Dorado lawyer would find that integrity tested as a member of Congress. In 1959, Harris and his congressional committee became the epicenter of one of the most explosive scandals in American broadcast history – the quiz show scandal.
Born in 1903 in Hempstead County to a family of farmers, Harris learned the importance of hard work and education. He graduated from high school in Prescott, then attended college at what is now Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. He earned tuition money picking peaches and playing baseball for various local teams. After graduating from law school in 1930, he started a law firm in El Dorado. His sharp mind and honesty earned him election as prosecuting attorney in 1936. In 1940, he was elected to Congress.
By the mid-1950s, television had Americans riveted to their screens. The $64,000 Question was a huge hit when it premiered on CBS in 1955. The $64,000 top prize would be worth more than $603,000 in 2019 dollars. Grand prize winners, all instant celebrities, were toured around the nation by the network. In April 1956, CBS debuted The $64,000 Challenge, bringing in celebrities as well as top contestants from The $64,000 Question. Contestants could play for even higher prize amounts. Not about to be outdone, NBC developed its own rival quiz show, Twenty One, in 1956.
Producers for all three game shows eventually decided that to keep viewer interest, they would pick the winners beforehand, cheating unsuspecting contestants. Producers and advertisers took bribes. Eventually, the word got out that the game shows were fixed. At first, contestants and networks denied it, even to grand juries. As the scandal erupted, all three immensely popular programs were off the air by fall 1958.
Congress would now investigate. Hearings would come before the Committee on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Harris. Dozens of witnesses were quizzed for days as they came forward with evidence. One of the most notorious, Charles Van Doren, admitted that he had received the answers on Twenty One, which resulted in a valuable contract to regularly appear on NBC’s Today. Van Doren, after previously denying the fix, testified before Harris that his wins were scripted.
Van Doren’s emotional confession left the panel unimpressed. Harris dismissively responded, “God bless you,” while New York Rep. Steven Derounian flatly stated that he should not be rewarded for telling the truth. Van Doren quit his teaching job and was fired from NBC. Fraud suits were filed against the networks, and threats of perjury charges flew.
For all the drama Harris presided over in 1959, no one outside the packed hearing room would see them. House Speaker Sam Rayburn decided not to allow cameras to televise the hearings, declaring that the cameras were beneath the dignity of Congress.
“Millions of Americans have been tricked, deceived, and duped by what was nothing more than a sordid commercial scheme,” concluded Harris. He urged Congress to enact new rules stating the rigging of any contest or quiz show, thus defrauding the public, would result in up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. The new laws were passed in 1960, and the primetime quiz show disappeared for decades.
Harris would continue to serve in Congress until 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him federal judge. The 1994 movie Quiz Show was based on the scandal. And the game show would be forever changed because of the hearings.