ALL IN THE GAME
Stempel Should Get a Fresh Shot
Herb Stempel, where are you?
For one thing, he's still listed in the metropolitan New York telephone book. For another, if Herb is still in good health, he deserves a recompense which has been 42 years in coming. If NBC were to do the right thing with its planned revival of Twenty-One, Stempel should be the first contestant.
Stempel is a genuine quiz show legend. For those who had not entered the world when Herb turned television upside down in 1957, Stempel was the contestant who arguably was the major whisteblower who brought down the whole house of cards for the quiz show era and almost caused the entire face of network television to change.
Make no mistake, Herb Stempel---at first---was a willing accomplice to Dan Enright's fixing of Twenty-One. Both Kent Anderson's Television Fraud and Joseph Stone's Prime Time and Misdemeanors detail the story of the Monday sessions where Enright would coach Stempel on the questions and answers of the upcoming evening's game. Yet, both books and assorted other research, including Congressional testimony and later-in-life revelations from both Enright and Stempel, paint a picture of unkept promises from Enright for future employment as a game show panelist and of potential cash payments. Further, Stempel was told he would have to rebate a percentage of his on-air announced winnings to the Barry and Enright company.
Anderson and Stone portray an emotionally-fragile Stempel being toyed with, all for the pleasure of the sponsors and a network battling CBS for supremacy in the prime time ratings race. The cruelest fate of all is when Stempel was told to take a dive on a question (the 1955 Oscar winner for Best Picture) he knew well. For all intents, once Stempel was off Twenty-One, Dan Enright was through with him. To his credit, the late Enright admitted and expressed regret for his treatment of Stempel in the 1992 American Experience documentary on the scandals, a broadcast I still annually show my media students when we study ethics.
Herb Stempel, on the other hand, was not the buffoon he was portrayed as in Robert Redford's film, Quiz Show in 1994. A learned and intelligent man, Stempel was a bit eccentric. Yet, he could be entertaining. My major professor at the University of Georgia, the late Bill Martin, served a number of the subpoenas for attorney Stone during the New York federal grand jury investigation into the quiz scandals. Martin spent several sessions deposing Stempel and found him to be engaging and filled with a sense of humor. Yet, Martin said he was convinced until the day of his death, Stempel would always be angry over his treatment by Enright and NBC.
If Stempel is physically up to the challenge, why should NBC even entertain the thought of giving Herb another try? One, a selfish reason; two, an ethical one; and three, an act of faith with the viewers. First, imagine the enormous promotion and newspaper ink the network would receive with such a move. Every major television writer in the country would pounce all over the story and virtually guarantee a huge premiere audience. Second, even though G.E.'s NBC of today is not RCA's NBC of the 1950s, NBC is NBC to the public. The network, to this day, is still regarded as the one which turned its head and virtually stuck it in the sand during the scandals while CBS' Frank Stanton took the high road and publicly acknowledged his network's failings, which virtually saved network television as a commercial entity. To give Stempel another chance is to finally, after 42 years, make a public apology and amends for a major mistake and, in short, abusing a human being for the sake of a pre-determined game show. Third, for Stempel to play the game again and openly acknowledge the errors of the past, would send a message to the viewers this time Twenty-One will be an honest game. Such an act would go a long, long way to erase subtle question marks which will remain in the minds of viewers with long memories. NBC and Garth Ancier cannot expect to p.r. answer their way out of a ton of reporter's queries on this one, anyway. The proof is going to be on the air.
When Stempel tried to tell his story of the show's inside orchestrations, Barry and Enright publicly depicted him as a sour grapes loser and produced a tape recording and affidavit of Herb denying his charges of improprieties, all of which further investigation proved Stempel was pressured to do by Enright. NBC's own investigation at the time went about as far as some of Janet Reno's have probed into campaign finance irregularities. New York newspapers, which in the era lived much more in fear of libel suits than today, delayed publishing Stempel's story for two years.
Barry and Enright, both of whom have passed on, did succeed in the 1970s in reviving another of their originals with a sordid past, Tic Tac Dough. Fortunately, ours is a forgiving society and the two were allowed to prosper in the game show renaissance of the '70s and '80s as a new generation left behind the black eye of the 1950s.
I've never talked to Herb Stempel, though I've researched him and read much about him. I have placed a call to his New York home. I'd love to talk to him because he was such a pivotal figure in the original quiz era and, in my opinion, displayed an inordinate amount of courage in the midst of an onslaught of counterattack which affected his emotional health and could have, for a less tenacious man, threatened his family life and his future livelihood.
After years of exile, Barry and Enright were allowed to come back to television and viewers accepted their work. It's time for Herbert Stempel to have the same opportunity. NBC should, without a test or without qualification, afford Stempel----if he is in the physical health to do so---the chance to be the first competitor on the new Twenty-One. What would be heartening would be for a major television network to do something merely because it's the right thing to do.
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