"Twenty-One" was NBC's attempt to imitate CBS's big money quiz show "The $64,000 Question." Hosted by Jack Barry, and sponsored by Geritol, it premiered September 12, 1956.
Two contestants would each stand in individual isolation booths, with only one able to hear the host at a time (designated by an "On the Air" light in front of them). The host would give each contestant a category, and the contestant would pick a difficulty level for the question, from a low of 1 to a high of 11. If the contestant answered correctly, they would earn the same number of points as the difficulty level. The other contestant would then be asked a question in the same category; if they happened to pick the same difficulty level as the other contestant, they would be answering the same question.
The object was to score 21 points. The contestants were never informed of their opponent's point total. After two questions had been asked of each contestant, either one could decide to stop if they thought they had more points than their opponent. The game would also be automatically stopped if, for example, the first contestant had 21 points and the second contestant, with 14 points, opted to go for a 6-point question.
The loser's point total was subtracted from the winner's, and the result was multiplied by $500 to determine the winner's winnings. If the loser was a returning champion, they would have that amount deducted from their total.
However, if the two contestants had tied, they would play another game, this time worth $1,000 a point. That amount would double in each successive game until someone won.
As it turned out, the game was fairly dull, so to create more viewer interest, the producers, including Dan Enright, gave certain contestants the questions and answers in advance in order to create more big money tie games and ensure that popular contestants would end up winning, and instructed other contestants to intentionally lose. One of the most popular contestants, Charles Van Doren, not only won $129,000 between November 1956 and March 11, 1957, he ended up on the cover of Time and was hired by NBC as a reporter for the "Today" show. However, the biggest money winner was a woman named Elfrida Von Nardoff, who ended up with $220,500 in 1958, and apparently didn't participate in the rigging.
Although "Twenty-One" wasn't the first game show discovered to have been rigged (that honor went to a show called "Dotto"), it had both a former contestant with good evidence (Herb Stempel, who had mailed registered letters containing future questions and answers to himself) and another former contestant who was still very much in the public eye (Van Doren). Its last episode aired on October 16, 1958.
The whole mess was dramatized in the film "Quiz Show" in 1994, and it no doubt stuck in the mind of someone at NBC, because when ABC had spectacular success in the summer of 1999 with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," NBC realized they owned the rights to the "Twenty-One" format, and history repeated itself.
The new version premiered January 9, 2000, with host Maury Povich. Although the isolation booths and the basic object of scoring 21 points remained the same, just about everything else was different. A vote of the audience now determined who, from the contestant pool, would face the returning champion. The questions were now in multiple choice format (from three to five choices, depending on the difficulty level). Contestants would lose automatically if they answered three questions wrong. They also had the option of a "Second Chance," a direct steal of "Millionaire's" Phone-a-Friend, except in this case, the friend would be in the studio, brought out from backstage. Finally, there would be a sudden death tiebreaker if the game ended in a tie.
This time, instead of playing for money for each point, there were award levels for each win; the first game won earned $25,000 for the champion, then the second game earned $50,000 more for a total of $75,000, and so on until winning the seventh game earned an additional $1 million. The awards started over at $25,000 for the eighth game (big whoop).
In addition to those dollar amounts, there was also a bonus round called "Perfect 21," consisting of six true or false questions, worth one point, two points, and so on up to six points. Each point was worth $10,000, for a possible total of $210,000. An incorrect answer would cause the contestant to lose their winnings from the round, but they could stop at any time.
Needless to say, the NBC Standards and Practices department was watching the proceedings like a hawk and not letting anyone from Geritol in the building, so it wasn't rigged, and the producers ran into the same problems with boredom that the original producers had in the 1950s before the rigging started. The complicated rules didn't help, either. The new "Twenty-One" failed to match "Millionaire" or even the original "Twenty-One" as a nationwide phenomenon, and it quietly left the air before the summer of 2000.