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Stranger in a Strange Land: Virginia Stem Owens

Belgium for $1000 Please, Alex

Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Virginia Stem Owens, a writer who lives in Texas. Among her many books is Assault on Eden: A Memoir of Communal Life in the Early '70s (Baker).

It was my brother who got me hooked. While I was visiting him in New Mexico one summer, he insisted on having a hit every evening before dinner.

As happens with so many newbies to the world of addiction, I joined him just to be sociable. Now I too regularly find myself taking that preprandial hit.

My brother has moved on to the heavier and headier addiction of New York Times crossword puzzles while I at least have stopped at the more recreational drug of Jeopardy!

I am not alone in my addiction. Jeopardy! is the second-most-watched game show in America. Wheel of Fortune is first, perhaps thanks to the seemingly ageless and voiceless Vanna White. Jeopardy! must rely on the mild Canadian manners of Alex Trebek.

Quiz shows had been a popular diversion on radio in the 1940s. Then they were branded a form of gambling because they awarded prizes to winners. Thus, they were banned from the air waves. But the FCC lifted this ban in the mid-1950s, and the networks were off to the quiz-show races. CBS came out on top with The $64,000 Question, for over a year the most popular show on TV. My family watched it breathlessly every week as the cash prize doubled following each right answer. The show upgraded to The $64,000 Challenge, pitting two contestants against one another in a fancier set. The competitors were enclosed in separate glass booths (supposedly soundproof) and fitted out with headphones and a microphone. With this heightened element of competition, ratings skyrocketed.

Then Charles Revson, the head of Revlon, the show's sponsor, decided to put his finger in the pie. He demanded to personally pick the contestants, eliminating the homely or boring applicants. He manipulated the questions' categories to fit his favorite contestants' areas of expertise. Ultimately, the skullduggery extended to ...

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