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Our Little Genius

Posted 21st January 2017

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Our Little Genius publicity photo

In late 2009, a project was announced with a great deal of excitement.

“Fox announced on Wednesday that it is seeking participants for a new game show that will allow parents of young geniuses – age 6 to 12 – to put their kids’ knowledge to use winning “life-changing money.”

The series, to be called Our Little Genius, will feature the children competing to answer “increasingly difficult questions as they work their way up to win their family hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The new series is being created by Mark Burnett, the producer behind Survivor and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.”

– The New York Times, 11th November 2009

More and more information is announced.

“Kevin Pollak has been tapped to host Fox’s new competition series Our Little Genius.

The actor and comedian will serve as host for the upcoming Mark Burnett game show, which gives child prodigies the chance to prove their knowledge and win money for their families. […]

Genius is premiering out of American Idol on Jan. 13 and will regularly air on Tuesday nights. Genius effectively takes the place of Fox/Burnett’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, which has entered syndication and tapped another famous comedian (Jeff Foxworthy) to host.

– The Hollywood Reporter, 3rd December 2009

There are reports from tapings of the show… but wait a second, surely this isn’t quite right?

“Two of yesterday’s contestants were given second chances after missing one of the first two questions in the game. Their games were halted, and everyone left the stage, only to return to start a new show with new questions. This may seem like game show blasphemy. But, according to the show’s stage manager, Our Little Genius producers has stated in their rules that each contestant is guaranteed to win at least $10,000. In order for that to happen, contestants must answer correct the first three questions. Not sure why this rule was written into the guidelines of the show. But, I’m going to guess that it could be one or both of two things: 1) to help show ratings, and 2) the fact that a genius contestant misses one of two of the easiest questions directly conflicts with the image of being a ‘genius’.”

–Hollywood Junket, 5th December 2009

Still, excitement builds as the planned air date looms… with perhaps a small note of caution.

“The game show’s questions, on topics that the child chooses, like astronomy, the Civil War or Greek mythology, increase in difficulty over 10 levels, with each level worth an amount ranging from $1,000 to $500,000. At each level, it is the parents of the contestant who decide whether to advance to the next question or to stick with the money they have already won. Once they get above $10,000, they are guaranteed at least that much. But any additional winnings will disappear if their child attempts a new question and fails.

The issue of whether preteen prodigies might be under an unhealthy amount of pressure when up to $500,000 is riding on their ability to remember, for example, the location of several different landmarks in ancient Egypt, has bothered some clinical psychologists and behavioral experts. The producers, however, say the show simply celebrates the children, who are recruited from school programs for gifted students, Mensa and other organizations. The burden of whether to continue playing, they say, is on the parents.”

– The New York Times, 5th January 2010

Then, two days later, disaster.

“Fox has pulled the first two episodes of new game show Our Little Genius because of information given to contestants before the show’s production, the network has announced. Our Little Genius executive producer Mark Burnett said in a statement: “I recently discovered that there was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production of ‘Our Little Genius.’ As a result, I am not comfortable delivering the episodes without re-shooting them. I believe my series must always be beyond reproach, so I have requested that Fox not air these episodes.”

The show, which is a competition between smart 6- to 12-year olds, had been scheduled to debut on Jan. 13 after a special episode of American Idol. Instead, Fox will broadcast an encore of The Simpsons‘ 450th episode. And on Jan. 19, Fox will air an encore of the drama pilot Human Target.

Fox released the following statement: “Mark Burnett is one of the pre-eminent producers of unscripted programming on television. Even though we were incredibly pleased with the quality of ‘Our Little Genius,’ we respect and appreciate his due diligence and the decision to pull these episodes. We agree there can be no question about the integrity of our shows. While these episodes will not air, the families who participated in the show will receive their winnings, and we are grateful for their participation.”

– Entertainment Weekly, 7th January 2010

On the same day, there are more reports of dodgy on-set activity.

“In one case, a young boy was brought back for a second time. In the format of how the game is played, the contestants’ category is revealed to them before they take on the next set of answers. This is how their parents decided whether or not they want their child to continue on. When the boy stated that he was not very familiar with that particular category, filming was again halted briefly. Then when filming started again, the child was given a new category, which – surprise, he did know!. The stage manager stated that there was a “technical error”, and that the categories got “mixed-up by mistake”.”

–Hollywood Junket, 7th January 2010

There are rumours the whole series will be entirely remade from scratch… although Fox isn’t committing themselves to showing it.

“In other news, the emphasis at Fox next season will be on comedy development. The network also is not about to abandon an aggressive programming slate on Friday. (There is no official news on when, or if, recently yanked reality competition show Our Little Genius will return.)

‘This is something that happened at the producing level, a miscommunication in which information was potentially overlapping that could have seemed to compromise the sanctity of the show,’ said [Kevin Reilly, Fox’s entertainment president]. ‘Mark Burnett, to his credit, I think at a very early stage, looked at this and said, ‘This could open up a possibility of impropriety, so I’m going to shut it down now.’ Going forward, Mark has indicated he wants to reproduce Our Little Genius himself. We haven’t had a chance to really engage on that, so we’re going to cross that bridge next.’”

– Adweek, 12th January 2010

A month later, and more specific allegations come to light… and the FCC gets involved.

“The Federal Communications Commission is looking into whether the producers of the planned Fox game show Our Little Genius gave potential contestants the answers to some questions before taping episodes of the program last year.

In December, the parent of a child who was recruited for the quiz show sent a letter to the commission. The letter alleges 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. […]

For example, the letter states that when the child said that he didn’t know the British system of naming musical notes, he was told by the production staff member the names of four specific notes that “he needed to know,” including semibreve for whole note, crotchet for quarter note and quaver for eighth note. “He told us that it was very important to know that the hemidemisemiquaver is the British name for the sixty-fourth note,” the letter says.

For privacy reasons, the F.C.C. redacted the names of the author of the letter and the child contestant. The letter states that the child went to the studio for a taping on Dec. 8, but after a meeting with an attorney for Mark Burnett Productions, at which one of the child’s parents raised issues about some of the planned questions and the contest’s rules, the child’s appearance on the show was canceled.”

– The New York Times, 19th February 2010

But then, as the show never actually aired, can the FCC do anything?

“Usually, the FCC only investigates something after it has aired. If “Our Little Genius” had aired it’s a pretty safe bet that — if the allegations about the show are true — the show might have found itself in violation of government regulations.

But the idea that it may look to penalize Fox for a show it decided was not worthy of broadcast has caught many Washington insiders by surprise.

At issue may be how one interprets the FCC’s Communications Act with regards to quiz and game shows. Here is part of the section that will keep the FCC and lawyers for Fox working overtime. I have put in bold the area that may have the FCC thinking it has room to maneuver. Of course, I am not a lawyer, just a hack who spent a lot of years covering the commission and D.C.

Prohibited practices in case of contests of intellectual knowledge, intellectual skill, or chance. […]

(4) To produce or participate in the production for broadcasting of, to broadcast or participate in the broadcasting of, to offer to a licensee for broadcasting, or to sponsor, any radio program, knowing or having reasonable ground for believing that, in connection with a purportedly bona fide contest of intellectual knowledge, intellectual skill, or chance constituting any part of such program, any person has done or is going to do any act or thing referred to in paragraph (1), (2), or (3) of this subsection.

Seems like a stretch, but one could try to interpret that bold section to mean that it doesn’t matter that the show never aired. A lot seems to hinge on “to” and “of.” We reviewed this section with one veteran communications attorney who agreed that this would likely be the FCC’s argument for a regulatory hook if it decides to proceed. […]

We’re betting instead that after spending lots of time and money, the FCC will say in several months that it has no grounds for any investigation. But it wouldn’t be Washington if a bunch of money wasn’t spent and a bunch of paper shuffled before reaching that conclusion.

– Los Angeles Times, 22nd February 2010

And here comes the irritating bit: as far as I can tell, the FCC never said anything one way or the other. The reports at this point just stop. Believe me, I’ve looked everywhere. The name of the show isn’t listed anywhere on the FCC site, which indicates they never made any kind of report one way or another. The story just… vanishes.

Because, hey, of course it did. Clearly the FCC decided not to pursue the case; only a regulator mad on power would do so, considering the broadcaster voluntarily pulled the programme before broadcast. Even if you could get them with a strict interpretation of the rules, it’s clearly not in anybody’s interests to do so.

Fox never broadcast any version of the show; Mark Burnett Productions almost certainly never remounted it after all, or there would have been reports of those recordings. All that’s left is an itch, of a story which is never quite finished. The closest we get is this footnote in Variety:

“And Our Little Genius?

Once allegations emerged that the show’s young contestants may have been coached, exec producer Mark Burnett and Fox decided to put a stop to the show. At that point, the concept was too damaged to continue. But Fox found a new home for “Our Little Genius” host Kevin Pollack, who will now emcee the channel’s upcoming gamer Million Dollar Money Drop.”

– Variety, 13th November 2010

The above is no doubt true. But with no statement from the FCC, no statement from Fox, and no statement from Mark Burnett Productions, it feels like a nice fat punctuation point is missing from the end of the story.

Well, until now. In an effort to provide that punctuation point, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FCC on the 7th November last year. My request was as follows:

“In February 2010, it was announced in the press that the FCC had opened an inquiry on unbroadcast Fox game show Our Little Genius:


I hereby request any documentation regarding the conclusion of this investigation. This request is not for commercial purposes, and the documents may be published on the website dirtyfeed.org.”

On the 20th January, I received a reply to my above request from William Knowles-Kellett, an attorney at the Investigations and Hearings division at the FCC. The key part of the letter is as follows:

“The Enforcement Bureau searched for responsive records. The search produced no records responsive to your request. As you may be aware, there was no enforcement action taken relating to these investigations.”

And I think that’s as close to a punctuation point as we’re likely to get. As far as we can tell, while complaints were made to the FCC, no official investigation ever took place, and there was certainly no action taken whatsoever. Which makes perfect sense, seeing as the show was never broadcast. There is no case to answer.

But seeing as the press was all over the story in its initial stages, isn’t it nice to finally have at least some kind of conclusion to the story in writing?

UPDATE (22/01/17): I have corrected a couple of dates in this article, with thanks to flanl on Ganymede & Titan.

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