It Isn't Always About the Money: Quiz Show Prizes


In a world where $80 cable bills and monthly cellphone charges in excess of $100 are not uncommon, where the cost of producing a penny exceeds the coin's face value by a significant percentage, where the price of filling the gas tank can sometimes exceed what many of us paid for our first car, it can be refreshing to hear Old Time Radio Quiz Shows where the prize is often ten dollars or less.
Obviously ten bucks had a lot more "meaning" in the 1940s and 50s than it does in the 21st century, but there is a definite feeling that the radio quiz shows were more about fun and entertainment than about giving away or winning large sums of money. There were exceptions; on the wildly popular Queen For a Day the contestants were often competing for some serious help from the sponsors, as well as a suite of rather glamorous prizes in the form of housewares, appliances, and beauty supplies and treatments. It Pays To Be Married also gave some rather significant prizes in the form of merchandise, as well as a not insignificant $250 cash prize. The merchandise was usually "product placement", celebrity guests like Phil Harris and Alice Faye were probably well supplied with kitchen appliances, but it is delightful to hear other wives squeal with delight when they learn that a coffee percolator is among their prizes!
On "Stump the Panel" format Quiz Shows listeners would send in their questions for the panel to answer, winning a small prize if their question was chosen, and a larger prize if the celebrity panel blew the answer. On Information Please the value of the prizes increased with sponsor turnover; beginning as a sustained program questions were awarded $2 if they were used and $5 if the panel wasn't able to come up the correct answer, the prizes bumped up to $5 and $10 along with a set of encyclopedias under Canada Dry's sponsorship, then to $10 and $25 with Lucky Strikes. Prizes topped out after American Tobacco was "fired" as a sponsor because of untruthful advertising, new sponsor Heinz made the top prize $57 in relation to their famous spicy sauce.
Entertainment was definitely a higher priority than prizes on Ralph Edwards' Truth or Consequences. Again the show was supposedly based on questions sent in by listeners for a potential $10 prize, but the real fun of the show happened when the in-studio contestant could come up with a correct answer, and had to face the Consequences. The ever wilder stunts they were required to attempt were labeled by Life magazine as "the closest thing to insanity on the radio today."
One of the funniest quiz shows was Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life. As well known as Groucho was for his cutting put downs, he seemed to be unhappy if his contestants walked away empty handed, and would sometimes throw in a "give away question". Groucho is given credit for questions like "What color is the White House?" and "Who was buried in Grant's Tomb?" entering popular usage. He did hae the tables turned when a contestant got the Grant's Tomb question "wrong"; the contestant pointed out that Grant's Tomb is an above-ground mausoleum, so no one was "buried" in it!
Quiz Show prize money became rather notorious on television. A notable exception was What's My Line?, which paid $5 for each wrong answer from the panel for a maximum payout of $50, this was to insure the game was played strictly for fun. During the 50's there was scandal and accusations of manipulations of the results of popular TV game shows, among them The $64,000 Question. Sponsors allegedly either provided answers to popular contestants, or saw to it that increasingly difficult questions were given to less popular players (Dr. Joyce Brothers was supposed to be eliminated in this fashion, but she befuddled the producers by continually giving the correct answer). For all the scandal on TV, The $64,000 Question was inspired by the very fun radio quiz show, Take It Or LeaveIt, which topped out with a sixty four dollar question.

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