Uncovering the secret – TV game shows and society in the 1950’s and 1960’s

 Throughout the years television and it’s respective programs and content have had many incarnations and styles. When we look back at some of the earlier TV content from the 1950’s and 1960’s we can make out certain aesthetic and stylistic differences that might come across as out of place or strange for today’s viewers. For the purposes of this paper we are going to have a look at I’ve got a secret, a television quiz show that ran from 1952 up until 1967. Our goal is to take a look and analyse not only the contents and structure of the show, but also any remarkable changes or events in the television ‘world’ itself, to see if we are able to place it into a certain historical or national context typical for that day and age. Thus we would be able give the program it’s specific place in America’s television history. To be able to get a clearer view of the subject we are firstly going to quickly explain what the show is about before we can uncover the ways it has fascinated so many people.

On to the show

‘I’ve got a secret’ was an American game-show first aired in 1952. It featured Garry Moore as the host and a panel of four celebrities that were set on guessing the ‘secret’ that various contestants on the show had brought with them. These contestants ranged from ‘ordinary’ people to other celebrities, the first ever episode for example featured renowned actor Boris Karloff revealing his fear of mice. The show was based on other radio and TV shows like What’s my line? and Secret, secret, who’s got the secret?. The panel had a limited amount of time or questions to ask the contestants questions on which they could answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The host would generally give a hint at the beginning of the questionnaire to not make it too abstract, for example: ‘Mr. Johnson has seen something’. Contestants could win small money prices if their secret wasn’t guessed or if the panel took too much time. Contestants also won complimentary products supplied by the show sponsors, usually a brand of cigarettes. The show was not an immediate success but managed to run up until 1967, gaining an immense popularity as the years went on.[1] The question that remains here is what made the show so popular? We are going to take a look at audience reception and cultural significance next.


Popularity, criticism and scandal

The show was ultimately being broadcast during a time in which some big changes took place in the US TV business. More and more radio giants took to the glowing living room screen, AT&T was developing coaxial cross-country land lines which would make sure networks could be received throughout the entire country and new stations popped out of the ground in a heartbeat. By the time it was the mid-’50s TV had evolved into the number one entertainment medium in the American public’s living room. [2] Game shows got very popular during this time. Often they were being broadcast by night to offer a full night of entertainment for the whole family. The questionnaires were popular due to the fact people loved to participate from their own living room and try to figure out the answers themselves. The live aspect of the game-shows were inviting and thanks to the growing number of television sets in America, they gained more and more popularity.[3] With popularity came criticism however. Public intellectuals who had their hopes set on television to replace the commercially ‘tainted’ radio as a supplier of high drama felt somewhat betrayed by the highly commercialized game shows and quizzes. They criticized the shows for their reliance on sponsors and were angry to see their live drama performances being replaced by programs that went hand in hand with capitalism and advertising[4]. More on that later. This criticism ultimately led to the television quiz show scandal of 1957 in which I’ve got a secret was not really effected but other shows, specifically Twenty-One were being accused. By 1958 the American public became increasingly suspicious of certain game shows and were accusing producers and networks of conspiring together. The idea was that one contestant was given all of the answers in advance so the quizzes would generally get more exciting for the viewers. According to Venanzi and Halberstam, many Americans felt betrayed by the quizzes because, especially the big money ones, thrived on the ‘American dream’, which had it’s heyday during this period. The idea that one answer to one question could open up so many gates of opportunity was riveting and seeing it as a hoax came to many as a slap in the face.[5] I’ve got a secret got off mostly scathe-free from these events however, since it mostly relied on the contestants having intriguing material and instead having the panel trying to come up with answers, it was an exciting premise on it’s own merits.



“Winston, the cigarette that changed America’s view on filter smoking. Tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Winston cigarettes were one of the biggest sponsors on I’ve got a secret and it seems peculiar today that a single TV show was so heavily supported by consumer markets. Let alone one for cigarettes, which all by itself seems even stranger for today’s standards. However on the American market in that era cigarettes were big business and it was made to look important and elegant, as Shields et al have found in their study: “Everyone had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, it was part of the culture and it was supposed to be glamorous.”[6] It is also interesting to note that some of the advertisements like the one for Winston on I’ve got a secret was simultaneously plugging drive-in theatres, which were also huge in that time. On a slightly other note, the advertising in a show itself was typical for American TV during that era and marketers were anxious to hope to receive a spot on a show. It was only until later that the US decided to use the British standard of advertising that was being used by the BBC well in advance. That standard consisted of marketers buying blocks between shows to display their product, rather than sponsoring a show all together.[7] This is evidently the same system we still use as of today.


In the end

In conclusion we can certainly see a similar style and aesthetic in between game shows in the ’50s and ’60s. Fun and entertainment for the whole family laid the foundations on which the game shows thrived and technological changes and advancements brought it into every American living room. Cigarettes and drive-in theatres were all the craze and in the heart of every viewer there laid that American dream of winning the big one. We can certainly say that I’ve got a secret has a solid place amongst a select few of truly iconic and popular TV gems of the ’50s and ’60s, meanwhile making TV history and being right in between the biggest aesthetic changes of the era.


[1]    Moran, A.  I’ve got a secret. [2012] museum.tv, 18-05-’12

[2]                           Hilmes, M. Only Connect. A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States. Florence: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2002. 161-166

[3]    Venanzi, K. An examination of television quiz show scandals of the 1950’s. [1997] universityhonors.umd.edu, 18-05-’12

[4]                            Hilmes, M. Only Connect. A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States. Florence: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2002. 192

[5]    Halberstam, D. The Fifties. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. 643

[6]    Shields et al. Hollywood on Tobacco. Berkeley: ANR Foundation, 1999. 379

[7]                           Hilmes, 192


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