The news that the FCC received a complaint and is looking into whether there was something amiss on the set of the proposed Fox game show Our Little Genius may not exactly be a smoking gun. The FCC is obligated to follow up on all complaints.
But it does not help a program already damaged by the whiff of a Quiz Show-esque scandal.
“The problem here is there’s smoke. And they haven’t been able to effectively put out the smoke,” says Alan Gerson, a lawyer and former standards and practices executive at NBC.
Gerson is now president of Sullivan Compliance Company, which monitors dozens of game shows including Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. He was not a consultant on Our Little Genius, but he has worked on other Fox game shows.
Fox pulled Our Little Genius in January, less than a week before it was scheduled to debut. Executive producer Mark Burnett and the network jointly announced that the show would not air because of questions about whether one of the child contestants was given help on topics or questions during pre-production.
Laws governing game shows are explicit. The Communications Act of 1934 made it illegal for anyone to willfully deceive the audience by providing contestants with any assistance on a show that is a “contest of intellectual knowledge or intellectual skill.”
The law grew out of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s.
In his January statement, Burnett characterized the concerns as “issue(s) with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production.”
“As a result,” he went on, “I am not comfortable delivering the episodes without re-shooting them. I believe my series must always be beyond reproach, so I have requested that Fox not air these episodes.”
Gerson’s company inserts itself into all aspects of a show’s production including monitoring contestant briefings, picking question material and making sure the questions are truly random. They also secure contestant affidavits to ensure that participants are aware that if anybody on the show’s production helps them in any way, that person is violating the law.
“We let them know that this is a crime and that they could go to jail,” says Gerson. “So unless you want to marry the guy with the most cigarettes, you want to tell me if someone approaches you.”
Fox will not comment on the prospects for Our Little Genius.
But, says Gerson, he would not be surprised if the “issues,” whatever they are and whether or not there was clear intent to manipulate the show’s outcome, ultimately killed the program.
“It’s turned out to be not only a public relations issue and a financial issue,” he says. “It may in the end damage what could have been a very valuable franchise. At the very least they have produced eight hours of primetime programming that they can’t use. That’s a $10 million bill for somebody.”