Since they were first broadcast on television in the 1950s, game shows have been popular in the United States and around the globe. There's even a television network — the Game Show Network — dedicated to airing nothing but game shows. The big prizes, drama, contestant charisma and high stakes all work together to draw audiences.
But sometimes, in the quest to win money, increase drama or boost viewership, individuals and even producers and production companies, go too far. Here, we take a look at some of the stories that made headlines, changed lives and stirred public interest: some of the biggest scandals in game show history.
By: Constance Parten
Posted: 29 Nov., 2010
Perhaps the biggest game show scandal of all time, the Twenty-One scandal culminated in congressional hearings, a statement from President Dwight D. Eisenhower that it was "a terrible thing to do to the American people," and ultimately led to the creation of Jeopardy by Merv Griffin.
When Charles Van Doren first appeared on Twenty-One in 1956, he had agreed to a deal where the show's producer would feed him answers. The scheme was intended to bolster ratings of the struggling quiz show, but the contestant he ultimately beat, Herb Stempel, had also been coached by the producer. When he lost, he squealed. It wasn't until nearly two years later that Stempel's story picked up traction when other contestants came forward with similar stories.
Congress ultimately passed a law prohibiting the fixing of quiz shows or any other form of contest. But because the scheme was not illegal at the time it was committed, no one went to prison. The only charges pressed in the case were obstruction of justice and perjury.
In February 2010, the Federal Communications Commission opened an inquiry into Fox game show Our Little Genius looking at whether producers gave potential contestants the answers to some questions before taping began.
According to The New York Times, in December of 2009 the parent of a child who was recruited for the quiz show sent a letter to the commission alleging that a few days before a planned taping, a member of the program’s production staff reviewed with the contestant and his parents a list of potential topics and gave specific answers to at least four questions that the child either did not know or about which he was unsure.
The show was withdrawn from the Fox schedule six days before its premiere. The case remains under investigation.
Britain's Major Charles Ingram was found guilty in April, 2003, of cheating his way to the £1 million top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, along with his wife, Diana, and friend Tecwen Whittock.
Tapes submitted as evidence during the trial show that someone in the studio audience coughed on several occasions, acknowledging when Ingram would state the correct answer. The show's floor manager noticed the coughing during taping and found the loudest coughing to be coming from Ingram's friend, Tecwen Whittock.
Did a series of well-timed coughs lead to Ingram's win? In spite of the guilty verdict, the Ingrams and Whittock maintain their innocence.
In September, 2010, Charles Ingram again made headlines when he cut off three of his toes with his lawnmower after slipping on a rotten apple.
When former Las Vegas weatherman Terry Kniess won the "Showcase Showdown" on The Price is Right in September 2008, he became the only person in the game show's four-decade history to put a perfect bid on the product that got him on stage, and then to also win the grand prize with a perfect bid.
If you've watched the show, you know that means he won both showcases, and to do such a thing involves some decent in-your-head mathematical calculations plus some pretty serious product price knowledge. When he won, show producers and even host Drew Carey thought something was amiss.
Carey told Chris Jones of Esquire Magazine: "Everybody thought someone had cheated. We'd just fired Roger Dobkowitz, and all the fan groups were upset about it. I thought, F#*$, they just f#*$ing f#*$ed us over. Somebody f#*$ed us over."
The show was held from air until some investigating could be done. No evidence of cheating or tampering was found, but when the show did finally to air, Carey took some flack for his lack of enthusiasm over the winning bid.
On May 19, 1984, out-of-work ice cream truck driver Michael Larson hit the big time on CBS game show Press Your Luck, winning $110,237 in cash and prizes and setting a record for the most money won by a contestant in a single appearance on a daytime game show.
It turns out Larson had memorized the patterns used on the game board through careful study of the way the lights moved. News reports said show producers noticed that Larson often celebrated immediately after his spins instead of when the win was actually revealed a fraction of a second later.
Thinking he had somehow cheated, CBS initially refused to pay Larson, but the producers couldn't find a way to disqualify him and he ultimately received his payout. Larson invested most of his winnings in a real estate deal that turned out to be a ponzi scheme and lost the investment entirely. Larson was diagnosed with throat cancer in the early 1990s. He died Feb. 16, 1999.
In April, 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court threw out a case brought by Michael and Michele Hardin against the game show Deal or No Deal who claiming the game violated the state's anti-gambling laws.
According to CasinoGamblingWeb.com, the couple sought to recover money they had spent on text messages sent to the show for a chance to win the game. Their lawyer claimed they were entitled to get their money back — 99 cents per text — because, "gambling contracts are void."
Lawyers for NBC argued the text game was not a lottery, but a promotional tool. The court found that state law, "offers no avenue of recovery to plaintiffs." When the lawsuit was filed, the show temporarily stopped the at-home portion of their show.
Disclosure: CNBC is owned by NBC Universal.
Kerry Dee Ketchem became the biggest single-game winner on the game show Super Password when he appeared between Jan. 8 and Jan. 13, 1988. But Ketchem didn't exactly appear as himself. Instead, the fugitive — wanted in three states at the time — used the alias Patrick Quinn thinking it would be enough to keep anyone from recognizing him. But when he appeared at the game show office to claim his $58,600 prize, he was instead arrested by Secret Service agents.
After his arrest for collecting $100,000 on a life insurance policy by falsely claiming his wife had been killed, Ketchem filed suit against Mark Goodson Productions, seeking the winnings plus $1 million in damages. The suit was dismissed.
In 2005, after serving sentences for insurance fraud, forgery and illegally obtaining a motor vehicle, Ketchem was arrested again. This time, the charge was stealing headlights from his Seymour, Indiana, employer and selling them on e-Bay for more than $45,000, according to Indiana State Police records.
In July, 2010, a federal jury awarded nearly $270 million in damages to Celador, the creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, agreeing with the company's claimthat it didn't get its fair share of profits.
Celador accused Disney of using creative accounting to hide profits. During the trial, attorneys showed that "Millionaire" pulled in $515 million in revenue from licensee fees through 2002, plus $70 million in merchandise sales.
The show also made almost $1.8 billion in advertising, according to research from Kantar Media. Meanwhile, Disney's accounting for that time showed the show ran a $73 million deficit.
Celador sought $395 million in damages plus $10 million for revenue generated through the sale of "Millionaire" games and merchandise. Disney planned to challenge the award.
When Brandi Cochran became pregnant in 2007, she claims she didn't tell anyone because she was afraid of getting fired from The Price is Right where she worked as a prize model, according to a TMZ report. Cochran reportedly said the stress was so severe, "that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage."
She filed suit against the show in March, 2010, claiming she lost her job because of a second pregnancy.
It was only five months later when another former Price is Right model, Shane Stirling, pictured at left, claimed she also was fired from the show because she got pregnant.