Don’t say you didn’t see this one coming.
The Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether producers for a Fox trivia-game show called Our Little Genius fed answers to young contestants. The parents of one contestant withdrew their child from the show and notified the agency after learning that producers had instructed him to memorize specific pieces of arcane musical nomenclature.
The show’s executive producer, Mark Burnett — whose impressive resume of reality hits includes Survivor, The Apprentice and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? — has acknowledged there was “an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants” and vowed to reshoot the affected episodes, pushing back the series’ premiere date. (Burnett did not immediately return a message from DailyFinance.)
If the allegations are true, it would be a violation of the Communications Act of 1934, which makes it illegal to rig a “contest of intellectual knowledge or intellectual skill” that purports to be genuine. It would also be a near-inevitable consequence of the way televised fiction and nonfiction have melted into each other over the last few years.
The Fine Line Between Enhancing Reality and Cheating
In 2010 — 18 years after the advent of The Real World on MTV, 10 years after CBS first aired Survivor and eight years after American Idol became the biggest thing on TV– no one who’s paying attention is surprised when creators of so-called reality TV are accused of embellishing, improving upon or flat-out 86ing the truth in the service of a better story. Such accusations are almost as old as the genre itself. Indeed, the practice is so generally recognized that reality-show employees have agitated to be credited as writers in acknowledgment of the way they invent narratives where none exist.
Whether such reality-enhancement is controversial depends largely on the context. No one seems to mind much when the makers of fluffy faux-documentaries like The Simple Life and The Hills admit to fabricating scenarios, staging reenactments and even scripting exchanges. (I once met a producer of one such show who cheerfully described his job to me as ushering the star’s actual real-life friends out of the frame to keep them from standing alongside her phony but telegenic on-camera “friends.”)
But when the show in question is a competition with a prize of real value at stake, it’s a different matter. Just think of the outcries each time American Idol is accused of rigging its vote or otherwise stacking the deck in favor of a more-marketable contestant. (Last year’s conspiracy theory had Fox shoving aside sexually ambiguous glam-rocker Adam Lambert in favor of the more all-American Kris Allen.)
Idol viewers might be outraged to think that the fix was in, but that doesn’t mean it would be illegal. Section 509 of the Communications Act, which governs “contests of knowledge, skill or chance,” specifically covers only contests of “intellectual knowledge, intellectual skill, or chance,” not singing competitions — or, for that matter, cooking, dancing, hair-dressing or weight-loss competitions. In other words, its scope is more or less limited to traditional game shows, including trivia shows, not to elimination-style reality shows, which are essentially hybrids.
But with the ever-increasing popularity of those hybrids — programs whose appeal reside at least as much in their narratives of interpersonal drama as in the competition segments — it’s to be expected that producers of old-school game shows would try to emulate the techniques used to heighten that drama. Unfortunately for them, some of those techniques, such as choosing the winners in advance, are legally out of bounds.
The truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s not always as much fun to watch.