REALITY KING: Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "Apprentice")… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)
Allegations that Fox's shelved game show "Our Little Genius" might have been rigged has prompted an inquiry by the Federal Communications Commission into possible violations of federal rules that govern quiz shows.
Revelations of the FCC probe follows the News Corp.-owned network's decision last month to yank the highly promoted program from its schedule only a week before it was supposed to premiere. Fox took the unusual step after reality-show titan Mark Burnett, who was producing the program, informed the network that there was a problem with how the young contestants had been coached for the competition.
The TV program was designed to showcase precocious children, ages 6 to 12, as they answered increasingly difficult questions in a bid to win thousands of dollars for their families. Fox said no decision yet has been reached on whether it will eventually air the show.
An FCC spokesman declined Friday to comment on possible outcomes of the agency's investigation, saying only that the case was pending.
Burnett could not be reached for comment. Fox officials said they had not been contacted by the FCC nor had they been provided a copy of the complaint, which triggered the agency's investigation. In late December, the father of a young math whiz who was a potential contestant on "Our Little Genius" reported to the FCC peculiarities about how Mark Burnett Productions had shaped the contest.
The father's complaint raises questions about the legitimacy of the breathless-and-bright-light game show competitions that populate the prime-time television landscape. The allegations contained in the complaint recall the quiz show scandals of the 1950s when TV executives fixed the outcomes of "Twenty One" and "The $64,000 Question." The show's high stakes, stage lights and increasingly tough questions heightened the drama -- and the ratings.
"The temptation to make reality work better by tinkering with it is eternal," said television historian Tim Brooks. "It is a big part of the whole reality-show genre. These shows are carefully cast, the producers guide people during the competition, and there is plenty of editing. Look at wrestling: About 15 years ago, Vince McMahon came clean and said, 'Yes, wrestling is scripted.' "
The problem, Brooks said, is that most viewers don't realize the extent of the manipulation. "People are more cynical now than they were in the '50s, but people assume that if a contest happens in real time, then it is a fair competition," he said.
Last month, Fox said that none of the children who participated in "Our Little Genius" were given answers to questions. Providing answers would have been a clear violation of the federal rules adopted in the wake of the 1950s quiz show scandals.
According to the father's complaint, which the FCC released Friday, actual answers apparently were not provided to "Our Little Genius" contestants. But the document detailed how show producers went to lengths to guarantee the children were intimately familiar with the subject matter that would be covered during the show.
Parents also were allowed to help select questions.
"They asked us to evaluate topics and questions to be used for their show, and they removed several topics that I found objectionable," wrote the father who filed the FCC complaint. The identities of the man and his child were withheld to protect their privacy.
The father said his child, who had been considered for the show but eventually was dismissed, initially was going to be quizzed on his knowledge of calculus. But a month into the process, the complaint said, show producers decided the boy instead would be an expert in music theory.
In early December, according to the complaint, an employee of Mark Burnett Productions identified only as "Dave" called the family to provide an in-depth review of the subject.
"Dave emphasized that it was important to be able to list four types of modulation techniques," the parent wrote in his complaint to the FCC. "Dave said that [the boy] needed to know the Italian names for the three piano pedals." In addition, the parent said the employee named Dave "placed specific emphasis on knowing the time signature of the polka."
It was not clear what action the FCC could take even if it finds wrong-doing because the episodes produced by Burnett have not aired.
And while the FCC has enforcement power over Fox because it holds FCC licenses for its stations, it does not police independent producers such as Burnett, said Daniel L. Brenner, a Washington attorney who used to work at the FCC.
"In this instance, the broadcaster would not have any liability because it determined on its own that the show was not fit to air," Brenner said. "So it would be a complete legal wash-out. But more broadly, this case raises questions about the nature of television shows in 2010. 'Survivor,' 'Amazing Race,' these things are not documentaries, and the public probably realizes they are not exactly as they appear."