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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. Exactly 50 years ago, a popular TV program went off the air. It was sudden, it was mysterious.

The strange disappearance of "Dotto" set off the famous quiz-show scandals. As John McDonough explains, since then, the business of television has never been the same.

JOHN McDONOUGH: In the 1950s, a long, silent struggle was going on deep inside television between the networks and the sponsors. At stake was who would control American television programming.

The tipping point may well have come at 9:00 p.m. on this Tuesday night in 1958. On that evening, viewers expecting to see the popular NBC game show "Dotto" were surprised when without any explanation, it wasn't there. Viewers of daytime television, where the show had been running daily on CBS, had had the same experience the day before.

There was nothing unusual about a sagging show leaving the air, but "Dotto's" ratings were unusually high, and its sponsor, Colgate, was presumably happy. There was something suspicious about this.

(Soundbite of music)

McDONOUGH: When reporters called the networks and Colgate's ad agency, Ted Bates, all they got were very curt no-comments. Even normally friendly inside sources went mysteriously silent. One off-the-record source told the New York Times that it wasn't healthy to talk about "Dotto."

Not healthy to talk about "Dotto?"

(Soundbite of television program "Dotto")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #5: D-O-T-T-O, "Dotto," the exciting new quiz game brought to you by Colgate Dental Cream. And here's your host for "Dotto," Jack Narz.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. JACK NARZ (Host, "Dotto"): Hi, everybody. Thank you very much…

McDONOUGH: "Dotto" contestants connected the dots of a celebrity picture by answering questions. Host Jack Narz was as surprised as anybody by its sudden cancellation. Steve Beverly is a professor of media studies at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He has studied the quiz shows and interviewed Jack Narz.

Professor STEVE BEVERLY (Media Studies, Union University): Jack was actually in line for a Broadway show, and he was going to get his tickets and he was paged to go to the telephone, and on the phone was the sponsor of "Dotto," Colgate-Palmolive, that told him on a Friday night before all of this went down before the whole country on Monday, that the show had been determined by CBS to be rigged and that it would not continue the following Monday.

McDONOUGH: Narz was told not to come to work, to keep out of sight, and to say nothing to the press. By the end of the first week, rumors were circulating that a contestant was saying the show was fixed. There was nothing new in such rumors, and even if they were true, no one was really certain something so trivial could actually be a crime.

But TV was a regulated industry. Within a week, New York District Attorney Frank Hogan was asking questions and watching recent kinescopes, especially this one from the previous May 20th.

(Soundbite of television program "Dotto")

Unidentified Man #6: Returning for the second day, Colgate Dental Cream welcomes back our new champion from New York, Ms. Marie Winn; and her challenger, from Mountain Park, Oklahoma, Mrs. Yaffe Kimball.

(Soundbite of applause)

McDONOUGH: Marie Winn had a beguiling and adorable innocence about her, an ideal ingenue. It's easy to see why the producers wanted to keep her on the program, and they might have if Ed Hilgemeier hadn't noticed her studying a page of notes that morning.

When she went on the show - it was live in those days - she left the notes behind. Hilgemeier peeked. Scribbled on the paper were the names Barry Fitzgerald and Donald Duck.

Watching the show from the wings, it would all soon make sense to him.

(Soundbite of television program "Dotto")

Mr. NARZ: Marie Winn remains our "Dotto" champion. She correctly identified Barry Fitzgerald.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. NARZ: Marie, you've won another $500. You now have a total of $940. You're still our champion…

McDONOUGH: A few minutes later, she tied another challenger by guessing…

(Soundbite of television program "Dotto")

Ms. MARIE WINN ("Dotto" Contestant): It looks to me by that thing down there that it's something like a duck. Oh, I don't know. Donald Duck's little nephew?

Mr. NARZ: Well, you are right. Now, that's right, it is Donald Duck's nephew…

(Soundbite of applause)

McDONOUGH: Winn's hesitations were effective, but this kinescope and the notebook pages would comprise the smoking gun that would bring other disgruntled contestants from other shows into the open.

Before the end of the month, the D.A.'s investigations had widened to "Twenty One" and several other big-money game shows. Within a year, television's fragile empire of quiz shows was in a shambles. Walter Cronkite.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchorman): A parade of witnesses came before a congressional committee to tell how they were given the answers to the questions in advance. The public was shocked. The industry was shaken. Big money winners who had been considered mental giants toppled from public favor. The biggest of these was…

McDONOUGH: Jack Narz took a lie-detector test and satisfied authorities that he was not in on the plot. He returned to television and a long, successful career hosting other shows. He lives today in Beverly Hills.

Marie Winn went on to a distinguished career as an expert on birds. Her latest book, "Central Park in the Dark," was published in June. She said she has not spoken publicly about the "Dotto" episode since her grand jury testimony in 1958. But the effects of the scandal reached far beyond Marie Winn or any of the other contestants.

The collapse of the quiz shows, triggered by "Dotto," would be decisive in changing the basic structure of American broadcasting. Starting with early radio, broadcasters had adopted the business model of the telephone company, essentially that of what Internet experts like to call a dumb pipe selling time but not content.

For 25 years, they watched Madison Avenue become the creative center of broadcasting while the networks merely manned the switchboards. The quiz shows were a case in point. Most were produced by ad agencies or producers working for an ad agency on behalf of a single sponsor. The higher power was always the sponsor, not the network.

Ironically, the havoc wreaked by the quiz shows, not to mention the threat of government regulation, gave broadcasters the strategic and moral authority to challenge that monopoly and become masters of their own house.

In 1955, 75 network programs were produced by a single sponsor. Ten years later, there were only 12. Whether television got any better under network control is still the $64,000 question.

For NPR News, this is John McDonough.

NORRIS: And as John mentioned, Marie Winn has not spoken recently about her role in the quiz show scandal, but she has talked with us about her latest book. We took a tour with her through Central Park for a story in July on urban wildlife at night. You can listen to that story at npr.org.

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