Twenty One (game show)

Twenty One (game show)

infobox television
show_name = Twenty One

caption = Logo of the Maury Povich version
format = Quiz Show
runtime = 60 minutes
country = USA
starring = Jack Barry (1956 version)
Monty Hall (temporary replacement; summer 1958)
Jim Lange (1982 version)
Maury Povich (2000 version)
creator = Robert Noah
network = NBC, SYN
Distributed by = NBC Univesal
first_aired =1956
last_aired =1958;
2000- |

"Twenty One" is an American game show that aired in the late 1950s. While it included the most popular contestant of the quiz show era, it achieved notoriety for being a rigged quiz show which nearly caused the demise of the entire genre in the wake of United States Senate investigations. The 1994 movie "Quiz Show" is based on these events. In time, "Twenty One" represented the longest hiatus (42 years) between a cancellation and a revived comeback of a television game show on the same network in the history of broadcasting.

Broadcast history

"Twenty One" was produced as a weekly live broadcast on NBC from September 10, 1956 to October 17, 1958. Jack Barry was the host and partnered in producing the show with Dan Enright. A pilot for a five-a-week syndicated version was shot in 1982 but the show was not picked up. NBC revived the show in January 2000 and ran episodes for several months until the show was abruptly cancelled; several unaired episodes aired on PAX TV in the summer of 2000. Reruns of the 2000 version of the show have been shown on GSN.


Two contestants, a champion and an opponent, were both placed in separate isolation booths, arranged so they could not see or hear each other. In addition, because of the way the lights were designed and positioned in the television studio, neither contestant could see the audience. With the champion's booth turned off, the host revealed the category for that round of questions and asked the challenger to pick a point value to play for, from one point, which meant a relatively easy question, to eleven points, which meant the highest difficulty. A correct answer added those points to the player's score, while an incorrect one deducted them; though scores could not go lower than zero. After the question, the challenger's booth is turned off and the champion is given the same category and choice of questions.

The object of the game was to score a total of 21 points, or to come closer to that number. After two categories were played, both booths were opened up and both players given the option to stop the game--without knowing his or her opponent's score. If either player elected to end the game, the player leading at that point would win. If the challenger reached 21 points before the champion did, the champion was given one last chance to catch up and send the game to a 21-21 tie; in this case, the newcomer's booth was left open so he or she could know what was going on.

The difference in scores determined a champion's winnings: for each point separating the contestants, the champion won $500 (so, for example, a champion who won 21-17 would win $2,000); that figure increased by $500 each time the players went to a 21-21 tie. After each win, the champion was told a little bit about his or her next opponent and given the option to walk away. If a champion was defeated, the new champion's first-game winnings were paid from the outgoing champion's total (for instance, if a champion had $7,000 going into a game, was defeated, and the player who defeated him or her won $1,500, the defeated champion's final total would be reduced to $5,500).



The initial broadcast of "Twenty One" was played honestly, with no manipulation of the game by the producers. Unfortunately, that broadcast was, in the words of producer Dan Enright, "a dismal failure"; the first two contestants succeeded only in making a mockery of the format by how little they really knew. Show sponsor Geritol, upon seeing this opening-night performance, reportedly became furious with the results, and threatened to pull their sponsorship of the show if it happened again

The end result: "Twenty One" was not merely "fixed", it was almost totally choreographed. Contestants were cast almost as if they were actors, and in fact were active and (usually) willing partners in the deception. They were given instruction as to how to dress, what to say to the host, when to say it, what questions to answer, what questions to miss, even when to mop their brows in their isolation booths (which had air conditioning that could be cut off at will, to make them sweat more).

Charles Van Doren

Charles Van Doren, a college professor, was introduced as a contestant on "Twenty One" on November 28, 1956, as a challenger to the dominant, if somewhat unpopular with viewers, champion Herbert Stempel. Van Doren and Stempel ultimately played to a series of four 21-21 tie games, with audience interest building with each passing week and each new game, until finally the clean-cut, "All American Boy" challenger was able to outlast his bookish, quasi-intellectual opponent, who at one point after the game was referred to backstage as a "freak with a sponge memory". The turning point came on a question directed to Stempel: "What film won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1955?" Stempel legitimately knew the answer to that question ("Marty", one of Stempel's favorite movies), but had been specifically ordered by the producers to miss it. As Stempel later recalled, there was a moment in the booth when his conscience and sense of fair play warred with his sense of obligation; he almost answered it correctly, something that would have thrown the scripted outcome of the game into total disarray. In the event, however, he finally gave the incorrect answer ("On the Waterfront") he had been ordered to give, which opened the door for Van Doren to win the game and begin one of the longest and most storied runs of any champion in the history of television game shows.

Van Doren's popularity took off as a result of his success on "Twenty One", earning him a place on the cover of "Time" magazine and even a regular feature spot on NBC's "Today" show; at one point, the program even surpassed CBS' "I Love Lucy" in the ratings. He was finally unseated as champion on March 11, 1957, by a woman named Vivienne Nearing, after winning a total of $129,000.

Stempel, meanwhile, still somewhat upset over the fact he was ordered to "take a dive," attempted to blow the whistle on what exactly was going on behind the scenes at "Twenty One", even going so far as to have a federal investigator look into the show. Nothing much came of these investigations until August 15, 1958, when a relatively minor CBS game show, "Dotto", was abruptly canceled after a notebook containing the answers to every question on that show turned up in the possession of its champion. Suddenly, Stempel's allegations began to make a lot more sense. Still, the public at large didn't seem to want to believe it was true until Van Doren, under oath before a House hearing, confessed to being given the answers to all of his questions before each show.

"Twenty One" was canceled without warning after its broadcast of October 17, 1958. A nighttime version of "Concentration" took over its time slot the following week. The scandal forced producers Barry and Enright into virtual exile. Barry would not host another national TV show for more than a decade, and Enright was forced to move to Canada to continue his production career.


The scandal also caused the Federal Communications Commission to mandate the sale of Barry-Enright's radio station in Hollywood, Florida, WGMA. The station was purchased by its general manager, C. Edward Little, who promptly affiliated the station with the Mutual Broadcasting System. After serving for a time as the head of Mutual's affiliates association, Little became the president of Mutual from 1972 to 1979. During this time Little created the Mutual Black Network, the first U.S. broadcast network catering exclusively to African-Americans. Little also created the Mutual Spanish Network and the Mutual Southwest Network. Under Little's administration, Mutual became the first commercial broadcasting entity to use satellite technology for program delivery. During his tenure as head of Mutual, Little hired Larry King to host an all-night phone-in talk show Little had created. King was a one-time announcer for Little at WGMA. King, who had previously hosted a similar morning show on Miami radio station WIOD, went on to national fame on both radio and television, winning a coveted Peabody Award along the way. King, therefore, indirectly owes a portion of his success to the game show scandal.

Barry finally returned to game-show hosting in the early 1970s and became a success again as a producer-host with "The Joker's Wild", which ran on CBS from 1972 to 1975 and in syndication from 1977 to 1986. (Barry hosted both versions until his death in 1984.) Enright would work as "Joker"'s executive producer in the final year of its CBS run, and the two revived their partnership full-time in 1976, reviving Tic Tac Dough which also ran until 1986.

1982 Unsold Pilot

With Barry and Enright's "Bullseye" on the way out, the pair was looking for another game to put into the five-a-week syndication market. They decided to try '21' again, and filmed a pilot on April 24, 1982, but was unable to sell it into syndication. "Bullseye" host Jim Lange hosted the show. Contestants played up to five rounds, choosing a point value from 1 to 9, with the option to stop the game after the second and fourth rounds. The questions were frequently short-answer in format; however, nine-point questions had two answers (similar to center-square questions on "Tic Tac Dough").

The winner of the game would win $1,000 cash (plus $1,000 more for every tie game), multiplied by the difference between the players' two scores; if the newcomer won, this amount was deducted from the outgoing champion's bank.

The winner was then given the opportunity to face a bonus game; like other B&E game shows, it was based largely on chance. The object of the game was to get closer to 21 points than the 'computer' (who played according to Las Vegas 21 rules). The contestant would decide whether to take a number or give it to the computer, then stopped a number generator. This continued until either side busted, or the computer had to stay. Beating the computer won $2,000 and a prize package.

Contestants could stay on the show until defeated or they voluntarily left the game. This version never made it to air.


A second attempt actually made it to air when NBC, in the wake of the success of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", revived the tainted quiz show on January 9, 2000. The new version was produced by Phil Gurin and Fred Silverman. The rules of this version, hosted by Maury Povich, were somewhat different from those of the 1950s version: Incorrect answers were no longer deducted from a player's score, but instead earned a strike; three strikes, and that player automatically lost (losing challengers, however, would receive $1,000). As well, all questions were of a multiple-choice variety, making it easier for the player. A 1-6 point question would consist of three choices. A 7-10 point question would consist of four choices (on a 10-point question, choice D would usually be "None of the above"). An 11 point question would have the player answer two of the five possible answers. Finally, once per game, a player could call for a "Second Chance", and have a friend or family member brought on for help. If a player used their "Second Chance" and got the question wrong, they earned two strikes.

Payoffs on this version were originally based on this structure :

At that point, the fifth victory would be worth $100,000, sixth worth $200,000 and so on as long as the contestant continued to win.

The second payoff structure, instituted in February 2000:

After the seventh win, the eighth game would be played for $25,000, and so on until the champ was defeated. These amounts accumulated, so winning seven games would be worth at least $2,675,000. When the rules changed, the returning champion had won one game and $100,000 in his appearance on the final show under the old prize structure; instead of being "grandfathered" under the old prize structure, he played and won his second game for $250,000 (the next amount after $100,000), and played but lost his third game for $500,000 (episode re-aired on GSN January 27, 2008).

Unlike the previous version, if the game ended in a tie, no new game was played. Instead, the contestants would be asked one question, and the first contestant to ring-in got to answer. If right, he or she won the game and would go on to play "Perfect 21" (for more info, see below). If wrong, the opponent got a chance to answer, and if correct, he or she moved on, but if incorrect, a new tie-breaker question would be played.

A mistake occurred during one of the early episodes. It was entirely possible for both players to lose the game due to the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule (for example, in a situation where both players already had two strikes, Player 1 could strike out and be eliminated from the game. Player 2, unaware that his opponent had already lost, could then also strike out, leaving no winner for that game.) It was in this situation during one episode that host Maury Povich made a critical mistake. After the first player had struck out, Povich informed the second player that his opponent had lost and that all he had to do now was answer a single question to win the game. Player 2 promptly requested and successfully answered a 1-point question (the easiest question possible), accompanied by the applause of the audience and a clear expression of chagrin and horror on Povich's face as he realized the mistake he had made. Immediately after a commercial break, a much more composed Povich acknowledged his mistake in revealing to Player 2 that his opponent had already lost, but explained that the only effect had been essentially to give a "gift" to Player 2, since his opponent had already lost the game and was not affected by the mistake. The mistake was simply humorous to the audience.

During the first six episodes, the audience chose the winner's next opponent. The audience would be presented with two potential challengers to face the current champion, and the audience would vote for a challenger using keypads. The person who received the higher vote played against the champion; the other person would be one of the two potential challengers to be voted on for the next game. Although in the first episode, three potential challengers to face the champion. After the sixth episode, the process was changed to a random selection. At the beginning of the show, six potential challengers would be introduced, and challengers would be selected randomly from that group for each new game. People who had not been selected by the end of the show were not guaranteed to return on the following show, although some people did appear on the show multiple times before being selected to play.

Perfect 21

The revival also featured a new bonus round, "Perfect 21." The champion was given a category, and asked up to six true/false questions in that category, worth 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 points; each point was worth $10,000, for a total of $210,000. After giving a correct answer, a player could stop and take any money won, as an incorrect answer ended the game and cost the player any money won in the bonus round (main game winnings were never at stake).

With the second payout structure, a player could theoretically win $4,145,000 by winning all seven games and winning the "Perfect 21" round each time (in fact, no player won the full $210,000 in the Perfect 21 round, which would have required risking $150,000 for the chance to win the final $60,000).

Big winners

Under the first payoff schedule, Rahim Oberholtzer was the biggest winner, collecting $1,120,000 (at the time, the all-time game show winnings record) over four victories, three of which were due to the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule. David Legler won $1,765,000 over six wins with the new version. Tim Helms won $150,000 in one game of Perfect 21, the only person to answer five questions correctly. David was the top winner of American game shows until Kevin Olmstead won a $2,180,000 jackpot on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2001, followed later by the record-setting effort of Ken Jennings, who won over $2.52 million on "Jeopardy!," later eclipsed by Brad Rutter, with a total earnings of $3,255,102.

Foreign versions

In the United Kingdom, there was a version hosted by Chris Howland on ITV during the 1950s, produced by Granada Television. As stated below (see the external link), this version was also pulled off due to quiz show scandals. It was notable for giving away bigger cash prizes than would have been allowed on British TV between the imposition of a prize limit by the Independent Television Authority (itself a direct response to the alleged corruption of the game show genre) and the lifting of the prize limit by the Independent Television Commission in the 1990s.

In 1968, the Nine Network in Australia aired their own version, called "Big Nine". The show was hosted by Athol Guy.

A German version originally aired on the public broadcaster ARD from 1958-1969, called "Hätten Sie's gewusst?". It was hosted by Hans (Heinz) Maegerlein. This may be the longest-running version of "Twenty One" anywhere in the world. Later, a version on RTL aired during the summers from 2000 to 2002, hosted by Hans Meiser. This version, called "Einundzwanzig" (literally, "Twenty One"), had a format similar to the 2000 version in the USA.

From September 2004 to May 2005, a French-language version aired on the TVA network based in Quebec and available across Canada. It is called "Vingt-et-un", the French translation of "twenty-one." The program was 30 minutes long, and each game consisted of three rounds of questions, as opposed to five on the recent NBC version. The questions were still worth from one to 11 points, but all point values consisted of four choices. The prize money builds: $250, $500, $1,500, $3,500, $5,500, $12,500, and $20,000 more for a seventh win, all in Canadian dollars. Perfect 21 was played for up to $2,100. The host was Guy Mongrain, a popular Quebec television personality. The top winner on the Canadian version is Simon Dufour-Turbis, with $49,700 in seven victories, while Pierre Diotte came close with $48,700 in his seven victories. Olivier Lamoureux won $47,200 in ten victories, the most on the Canadian version.

The Brazilian TV channel SBT airs a local version of the show called "Vinte e Um", which premiered in 2007. The show airs weekly on Sundays. Silvio Santos is the host of the show. Although the music and set are virtually identical to those used on the US version in 2000, the game format is somewhat different. Instead of the contestant choosing a point value for each question, the contestant instead spins a small roulette wheel in the booth to randomly determine the point value of the question, which contains point values from three to six (more than likely, if the contestant spun a point value that would potentially put them over 21, they would have to spin again until it hit a point value that put them at less than or equal to 21). Each question has four possible answers. The winner of the main game wins R$20,000. The player can win up to R$100,000 more in the bonus round, but the main game winnings are also at risk. The loser gets a R$100 consolation prize.


According to Maury Povich on the first 2000 episode under the new prize structure, the headphones played sounds of laughter and applause so contestants could not tell whether or not their opponent had answered their question correctly.

ee also

*Quiz Show - a 1994 movie about the "Twenty One" scandal.

External links

* [ Episode guide & winners list from the 2000 NBC version]
* [ UK Gameshows Page: "Twenty One"] (about the UK version, which was also pulled after fixing allegations)
* [ Official website for "Vinte e um" (Brazilian version)]
* [ Fan site for "Einundzwanzig" (German version)]
* [ "Vingt-et-un"] (in French)
* [ "Twenty One" website from Vintage TV & Movies]

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