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The 'scandal' that wasn't: No frenzy for luckless winner

Odds are you have never heard of Michael Larson, which may be as good a way as any to grasp how acutely the media and in particular its coverage of television have changed in the last 20 years.

March 12, 2003

Long before Richard Hatch parlayed "Survivor" into a regular gig on "Entertainment Tonight" or Evan Marriott went from being "Joe Millionaire" to sitting beside Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," Larson pulled off a truly audacious stunt -- outwitting and outplaying the CBS game show "Press Your Luck" to the then-astounding tune of $110,237.

That event, which took place in 1984, is chronicled in "Big Bucks: The 'Press Your Luck' Scandal," the first documentary to air on the Game Show Network. Yet the truly amazing aspect of this otherwise entertaining program, which premieres Sunday, is that the title is somewhat misleading, since there was really no "scandal" in the communal sense.

An unemployed ice-cream-truck driver from Ohio, Larson identified and memorized a recurring pattern in the game board on "Press Your Luck," the 1980s CBS daytime show that featured a trio of contestants answering questions for the chance to spin and win "big bucks." Watching the program obsessively, he recognized that two of the 18 flashing screens never turned up a "Whammy" -- costing a player all of his money -- and remarkably timed his spins to hit 40 consecutive payoffs, amassing a prize total that more than tripled the previous record.

Realizing what had happened, CBS officials huddled to debate whether they had to pay Larson before conceding he had done nothing illegal in beating them at their own game.

Bob Boden, who worked for CBS then and is currently senior vice president of programming at the Game Show Network, called Larson's deed "the best story never told." Never told, by the way, despite the fact CBS went ahead (over the objections of those embarrassed by what had happened) and broadcast Larson's appearance, breaking it into two episodes.

So here's the wild part: No one got fired. The show wasn't canceled. CBS' phones didn't ring off the hook. Indeed, though millions of people presumably watched, the feat went virtually unreported, with Larson himself quickly slipping into obscurity.

Talk about being in the right place at the wrong time. Because based on the attention showered on ordinary folk who accomplish far less, it's hard to imagine a similar incident today going unheralded. Had Larson surfaced in 2003, he would have almost certainly enjoyed 15, maybe even 16 minutes of fame.

"He would have been 'Michael Millionaire,' " Boden said. "He'd be on the cover of People magazine.... The media frenzy that surrounds everything on television would have swallowed this up and made it front-page news everywhere."

Instead, the final act of Larson's life was a sad one. He squandered his winnings in a few years, became involved in shady securities dealings and was being investigated by the FBI when he died of cancer in 1999, at age 50.

Erik Nelson, who executive produced the "Press Your Luck" special, said that Larson's anonymity underscores "the seismic shift that American culture has gone through in the 18 years since the show," calling Larson's tale "the lost Jonathan Demme movie -- a great 'Melvin and Howard,' American rogue story."

By contrast, today's thirst for titillation is such it's become almost a prerequisite for contestants on so-called reality shows to harbor some shocking secret, to the point where cynics are beginning to wonder if Fox builds them into its promotional budget. Just consider Rocket Science Laboratories, which cast a couple with a child and a woman who was already married on Fox's "Temptation Island" and "Married by America," respectively -- in each case violating the rules -- plus a featured player in bondage films on "Joe Millionaire."

Now seriously, can someone who makes a show watched by 40 million people, as the "Joe Millionaire" finale was, truly be that consistently incompetent? And at a minimum, shouldn't the company name be revoked, to the extent they've taken the adage "This isn't Rocket Science" to ridiculous extremes?

These near-daily revelations become fodder for a press that dutifully laps up most things "reality" and all things scandalous, especially on days lacking Michael Jackson news. The result is a steady drip of concocted scandals and steady flow of contestants directly from the jungle or altar to the talk circuit.Larson has commanded something of a cult following, with Boden saying that his episodes, unseen since their initial broadcast, have been "traded for years in the game-show underground" -- a group, based on that description, which would probably do their families a favor by staying underground.

"For people like me, this was huge," said Boden, an admitted game show nut. "He did what nobody else could imagine."

There are lessons here too about the risk of cutting corners, given that CBS knew of the board's flaw and ignored it. Whatever "Press Your Luck" saved by not adopting a more complicated pattern (as CBS subsequently did), "it was far less than what he ended up winning," said Michael Brockman, who oversaw the network's daytime lineup at the time.

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