Who doesn’t enjoy a good game show? From the play-along-at-home trivia rounds to that awesome feeling you get when a contestant hits the jackpot, game shows offer some of the most comforting entertainment on television. Yet every so often something happens on-screen to disrupt that cozy equilibrium. And when this happens – as in these 20 scandalous cases – it’s enough to transform the most predictable quiz into a full-blown drama.
20. The major who coughed his way to success on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
It was September 2001 and Charles Ingram was on course to win the U.K.’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Following a shaky start the previous day, the former major in the British Army had returned to the hot seat seemingly reinvigorated and easily scooped the show’s top prize. But producers – puzzled by Ingram’s drastically improved performance – smelled foul play.
Shockingly, their suspicions were absolutely correct. As it transpired, Ingram, his wife Diana and co-entrant Tecwen Whittock had plotted a scheme the previous night that involved the latter two coughing from the stands whenever the contestant read the right answer aloud. And so when this was discovered, Ingram and his cohorts – instead of receiving the £1 million prize – were put on trial and eventually received suspended prison sentences.
19. A Million Dollar Money Drop contestant chooses the right answer – and loses $800,000
Have you ever been asked a question to which you were absolutely certain you knew the right answer, only to be told you were wrong? And can you imagine your frustration when said correct answer actually led to you losing almost $1 million? If so, then you can probably understand Gabe Okoye’s feelings when he appeared on Million Dollar Money Drop in 2010.
Appearing on the show’s premiere, Okoye lost $800,000 after guessing that Post-It Notes went on sale before Walkmans. Afterwards, intrepid viewers went online to confirm the contestant’s claim, which resulted in the show’s producers admitting their research was “incomplete.” And although Okoye was invited back to play again as recompense, he never actually received his deserved prize money.
18. Spell-checks even apply to little kids on Jeopardy!
Of course, good spelling is a necessary skill in many walks of life – such as writing for a beloved pop culture website, for example. But with regard to quiz shows – especially those with pre-adolescent contestants – you’d think a few spelling errors would be forgiven. Not so much for Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek, however, whose merciless approach to good grammar gives no quarter, even for younger players.
This provoked the ire of fans online who complained after the host refused to accept a technically correct answer from 12-year-old Thomas Hurley in 2013. Although the young contestant rightly guessed the answer “Emancipation Proclamation,” Hurley slightly misspelled the first word. And while Trebek claimed he was merely acting on judges’ orders, Hurley went on to tell local newspaper the Danbury News Times he felt cheated.
17. The Holy Man who made an unholy mistake on The $64,000 Question
Charles E. “Stoney” Jackson Jr. was a pastor and all-round decent man who loved raising money for underprivileged youths. In 1956 this pillar of his community became a minor celebrity when he enjoyed a winning streak on The $64,000 Question. Yet behind Jackson’s success lay a shocking secret: he was being supplied answers by the show’s producers.
Being a man of God, Jackson was conflicted, but his congregation urged him to continue the duplicity. It wasn’t until a co-contestant on follow-up The $64,000 Challenge was deliberately fed wrong answers that the pastor’s guilt became too much. After exposing the show’s wrongdoing, Jackson would later testify before a congressional committee on fraud in game shows.
16. Our Little Genius gets canceled by its own producer days before its first episode
You all remember that beloved game show Our Little Genius, right? You know, the one that broadcast on Fox and saw Kevin Pollack testing kids on their general knowledge? If you’re drawing a blank, then don’t worry – you probably haven’t even heard of it. That’s because allegations of cheating got the show pulled before it even began.
Even weirder than this is the fact that Our Little Genius was canned by its own creator. Less than a week before its 2010 premiere, producer Mark Burnett learned that contestants were being fed correct answers and demanded the network ditch their already-recorded episodes. As of now, Our Little Genius remains shelved in Fox’s storeroom of shame.
15. A law student wins big by reading body language on Millionaire Hot Seat
Anyone who’s ever played poker knows that being able to read your opponent’s bluff is vital to a winning round. And – as Australian law student Khaled El-Katateny found out in 2014 – the same is very much true of game shows. But instead of reading a card shark, El-Katateny read Millionaire Hot Seat host Eddie McGuire and went home with $70,000 as a result.
During his run on the show, the crafty contestant realized he didn’t know the correct answer to many of the questions posed to him. So instead, he read McGuire’s body language and the excitement level of the audience to gauge which option was correct. “I didn’t play the game,” El-Katateny bragged to news.au afterwards, “I played the man.”
14. Contestant is caught using their phone to cheat on Spanish TV
Smartphones have undeniably changed our lives for the better in many ways. But one drawback of having all the world’s information in the palm of your hand is that it’s made it easier for unscrupulous contestants to cheat on quizzes. And cheaters – such as actress Adriana Abenia – have almost got away with their trickery on live TV.
Prior to a music round on the Spanish quiz show Pasapalabra in 2014 Abenia cued up song-identifying app Shazam on her phone. Yet the contestant forgot to put her device on silent and a text notification alerted host Christian Galvez to her duplicity. “To be honest, I think she deserves a special prize,” the presenter joked about Abenia’s bold attempt at cheating.
13. Pronunciation matters on Wheel of Fortune
If you live in any of the Southern States, you know how common it is for people to drop the ‘g’ from the end of words. So when Floridian Renee Durette spoke the phrase “seven swans-a-swimmin’” instead of “swimming” on a 2012 appearance on Wheel of Fortune, her guess should have been accepted, right? Well, it seems that for host Pat Sajak, pronunciation is everythin’.
Incredibly, the presenter disregarded Durette’s answer – and cost the contestant $3,850 – on the basis of the missing ‘g.’ Afterwards, outraged viewers accused Sajak and the show of prejudice against Southerners. And yet the player herself opined that the TV personality was just abiding by the show’s strict rules. “I should have been more straight-lined in my enunciation of the phrase,” Durette told TV station WSVN.
12. An ice-cream truck driver breaks Press Your Luck
Airing in the mid-1980s, Press Your Luck was a quiz show that left how much money a contestant could win to chance. Or so producers thought, anyway. Behind the show’s seemingly randomized prize board lay a hidden pattern. And one observant viewer was able to figure this out and walk home with an unbelievable amount of money.
Through hours spent watching the show, contestant Michael Larson discovered the secret sequence and used his knowledge to bag $110,000. And though the out-of-work ice-cream truck driver would eventually gain his earnings, network heads initially tried to withhold his prize money. But after some thought, they concluded that Larson’s meticulous method didn’t actually count as cheating.
11. Soul Train fixes its Scramble Board in the name of social justice
When quiz shows get rigged, there’s usually a nefarious purpose behind the fraud. But for pioneering series Soul Train – which brought African-American culture to the mainstream only years after the Civil Rights movement – duplicity was used for social progress. Specifically, the show featured a Scramble Board segment that was impossible to lose.
According to host Don Cornelius, the segment – which saw contestants spell the names of black icons – was fixed to promote African-American lifestyles. “We were into projecting positive images of black people,” the TV personality explained to VH1 Rock Docs in 2010. “And so we couldn’t have them stand there misspelling Stevie Wonder’s name.”
10. A contestant on Dotto discovers cheating – and producers try to pay him off
Most game show guests hit the jackpot by providing the right answers. But Dotto’s Edward Hilgemeier almost gained a fortune by asking the right questions. While waiting for his turn to play on the show in 1958, Hilgemeier discovered a cheat sheet backstage belonging to current contestant Marie Winn. And after taking his complaint to producers, he was offered a bribe to keep his mouth shut.
You see, Dotto’s creators were in on Winn’s duplicity. And knowing how bad their complicity would look if revealed, the producers attempted to buy Hilgemeier’s silence. Despite a bold move to offer $1,500 to the contestant to keep his mouth shut, he decided to go public. Afterwards, other contestants with similar stories would come forward, prompting a huge wave of American quiz show scandals.
9. The Gong Show’s creator tells network heads exactly what they can do with their job
Although it struck a chord with fans of wacky comedy, The Gong Show’s risqué humor wasn’t to everyone’s taste. And few people were less impressed with its stylings than the upper echelons of parent network NBC. When the series was finally canned in 1978, creator Chuck Barris was understandably upset. So he planned a suitably acerbic riposte for its final episode.
Trading in his hosting duties for a performance slot, Barris took to the stage in the guise of a country and western singer. There, he played a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” which was a very thinly veiled attack on his former bosses. If that wasn’t enough, Barris even flipped the bird to camera.
8. A judge’s decision costs a Jeopardy! player points
Of course, we all know how important judges are to any contest, be they a quiz or sporting event. And just like the referees and umpires of athletic competitions, show adjudicators have been known to make the wrong call. Just take the arbiters of Jeopardy!, for example, who harshly penalized a player in 2012 for mispronouncing a famed tennis tournament.
When asked a question to which the answer was “Wimbledon,” Nebraskan contestant Reid Rodgers replied with “Wimble-tin.” Even though host Trebek initially allowed the answer, judges behind the scenes ruled it incorrect due to Rodgers’ Midwestern delivery. Some found the decision unfair, especially sports blogger Will Brinson who tweeted the result was a case of “dialectical bias.”
7. Terry Kniess makes The Price is Right change their entire rulebook
As a former meteorologist and casino surveillance operator, Terry Kniess was well equipped to spot patterns. So when he began watching The Price is Right in 2008 he noticed a game waiting to be cracked open. After four months spent memorizing the price of virtually all of the game’s products, the eagle-eyed viewer got on the show and walked away with $56,000 worth of prizes.
But Kniess’ technique was a little too good. And after guessing the value of one product correct to the last digit, the contestant left show insiders suspicious. “I thought somebody had cheated us,” host Drew Carey admitted to Esquire magazine two years later. To deter any further intrepid contestants, The Price is Right’s producers began mixing up their entire product line.
6. This Morning With Richard and Judy keeps paying-callers on the line even after its quiz has closed
We imagine phone scams to be practiced solely by unscrupulous individuals. And naturally you wouldn’t expect such behavior from something as trustworthy as, say, a daytime TV show. Unbelievably, this practice was inflicted on viewers of Britain’s This Morning With Richard and Judy who were urged to call in for the series’ “You Say, We Pay” segment after lines had already closed.
In 2007 it was revealed that callers paying about $1.30 to enter the quiz often had no chance of getting through. After this bombshell, the segment was dropped and presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan denied knowingly duping their viewers. Still, a subsequent inquiry discovered definite wrongdoing and the show’s producers were fined almost $200,000.
5. A con artist wins big on Super Password then gets arrested when he returns to collect the prize
If you were a wanted felon, the last place you’d dare show your face would be on national television, right? Well, con artist Kerry Ketchem wasn’t quite as sensible as the average person. In 1988 while evading a nationwide manhunt, Ketchem played on Super Password under the name Patrick Quinn. Not only was the criminal a success in the game, but he also managed to win a then-unprecedented $58,000.
Unsurprisingly, Ketchem’s win didn’t go unnoticed. And thanks to an observant viewer in Alaska – where the trickster was wanted for credit card fraud – lawmakers soon learned of his true identity. Soon enough, officers liaised with the Super Password staff and a sting was set up to catch Ketchem when he returned to the show for his winnings. He was later tried and sent to the slammer for five years.
4. The eligible bachelor’s hidden dark secret on Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?
The premise was meant to be so simple on Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? A rich Prince Charming would pick his Cinderella and the two would wed on television. Yet things didn’t go quite according to plan for millionaire Rick Rockwell and his TV bride Darva Conger. As it transpired, the wealthy property baron wasn’t such a charming person at all.
Following Rockwell’s on-air wedding to Conger, the groom’s ex-fiancée came forward with some disturbing allegations. According to model Debbie Goyne, Rockwell had been physically abusive to her during their betrothal, so much so that she resorted to seeking a restraining order against him. Despite Rockwell’s pleas of innocence, his new marriage would end just one week after the wedding.
3. Twenty-One fools an entire nation
You may not know of Herbert Stempel and Charles Van Doren. But in the late 1950s, their names were a source of huge national infamy. As contestants on the game show Twenty-One, both were loved by viewers due to their endless wells of knowledge. Unbeknown to their fans, this was entirely down to the showrunners’ making.
You see, producers had been feeding the players correct answers all along in order to mold likeable contestants. It was only after Stempel took a scripted dive to make way for the more popular Van Doren that the truth finally got out. After Stempel leaked the story to the press, Twenty-One was investigated by Congress. Later, the story would even be adapted for the big screen in 1994’s Quiz Show.
2. Moment of Truth leads to a couple’s separation
Lauren Cleri knew what she was getting into when she signed up for Moment of Truth in 2008. Before a studio audience that included her husband Frank, the contestant would be strapped into a lie detector and asked some revealing questions. Of course, no subject would be off the table – including her marriage. And her overly honest answers would prove to be her downfall.
After admitting in front of the audience that she’d both cheated on her partner and regretted marrying him, Cleri’s marriage hit the rocks. But while their questions resulted in her and Frank’s subsequent separation, show officials – including host Mark L. Walberg – put all the blame on Cleri herself. “The truth is, I was begging her to stop,” the presenter told TV program Access Hollywood.
1. The Price is Right’s long history of harassment
Prior to his 2007 retirement, The Price is Right’s Bob Barker was admired by countless quiz show fanatics. And yet his warm demeanor apparently masked some truly unsavory on-set behavior. From 1994 onwards, the host racked up an appalling number of lawsuits from female staff members who accused him of crimes such as sexual assault, harassment and racial discrimination.
But these awful actions weren’t just allegedly perpetrated by Barker alone. In 2011 former model Lanisha Cole sued producers for wrongful termination as well as incidents of bullying and harassment. Just one year later, fellow model Brandi Cochran received $777,000 in damages after she successfully sued the show for refusing to take her back following her maternity leave.