Just so you know, each of these 13 scandals falls into 1 of 3 categories: the contestant cheated, the contestant didn't cheat (but everyone thought they did), or the show itself cheated its contestants and/or the audience.
1.In the 1950s, quiz shows enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States. There was only one problem: Many of them were rigged. Producers and contestants collaborated to ensure certain outcomes, and carefully choreographed filming to make it seem like, for instance, a person who had been fed an answer before taping was genuinely stumped. Soon enough, viewers who devoured these programs were watching their very public downfalls. The first show to be caught was called Dotto.
Dotto was a general knowledge game where contestants would attempt to guess the subject of various connect-the-dots portraits; for each correct answer, they could connect another dot. It was pulled off the air without explanation in 1958, despite high ratings. Its host, Jack Narz, was told that CBS found out that the show was rigged; he was instructed to "keep out of sight" and say nothing to the press. (Narz later took a polygraph test and "satisfied authorities" that he had not participated in the scam.)
A man named Ed Hilgemeier noticed the reigning Dotto champion, Marie Winn, studying notes backstage before the show. Damningly, she had written down two answers ("Barry Fitzgerald" and "Donald Duck") to questions she had not yet been asked. This cheating scandal led to "other disgruntled contestants" coming forward, triggering the end of the quiz show's reign on American television. For her part, Winn never publicly spoke about Dotto beyond her grand jury testimony, and she went on to "a distinguished career as an expert on birds."
2.The Dotto downfall paved the way for the most famous of the quiz show scandals to get the attention of the press (and the authorities): the curious case of Herb Stempel, Charles Van Doren, and an NBC quiz show called Twenty-One.
Let's start with Herb Stempel. Stempel was a 29-year-old college student when he first wrote to the folks behind Twenty-One, claiming, "I answer so great a bulk of the questions that my wife has continually urged me to try out for your fine show." After he was invited to be a contestant, producers Daniel Enright visited him at home and promised, "Play ball with me, kid, and you’ll win $24,000 just like that."
For five weeks, Enright provided Stempel with the questions and their answers before taping, and coached him on "stage directions," such as which gestures he could use to appear convincingly challenged. Stempel won nearly $50,000 before his successful run on the show came to its (scripted) end at the hands of Columbia professor Charles Van Doren. He asked Enright if he and Van Doren could play by the rules in their final match-up, but Enright told him the show needed a "change" to be successful; he also told Stempel that he would find him a full-time behind-the-scenes job on a quiz show.
In what was surely a crushing turn of events, Stempel took a dive by incorrectly answering a question about his favorite movie, Marty. After his loss, he heard someone backstage remark, "Now we have a clean-cut intellectual as champion instead of a freak with a sponge memory." When the game show gig never materialized, Stempel tried to tell people that the show was fixed, but nobody believed him. While one newspaper investigated his claims, it couldn't find any evidence besides his testimony; the story was subsequently dropped...until the demise of Dotto a year later.
3.Of course, Charles Van Doren was in on the scam, too. His run on the show resulted in him becoming a "full-fledged television celebrity," a radical change from his previous life as a professor at Columbia University. When the scandal was discovered, Van Doren said, "I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them."
Producer Albert Freedman met Van Doren at a party and told him, "I’ve thought about it, Charlie, and I’ve decided you should be the person to beat Stempel. And I’ll help you do it. I swear to you, no one will ever know." In their match-ups, Van Doren and Stempel were pitched to audiences as two "fundamentally different New Yorkers." It was Van Doren, an "engaging WASP" with an Ivy League background, versus Stempel, a Jewish student enrolled at the City College of New York.
Just like Stempel had before him, Van Doren convincingly pretended to be stumped by questions he had been given beforehand, and would on occasion answer incorrectly. He won nearly $129,000 before his run on the show ended. Van Doren continuously denied charges that Twenty-One was fixed, but when previous contestant James Snodgrass provided letters sent from the show to its participants with the list of questions and their answers, there was no way out.
Van Doren admitted to cheating in a 1959 testimony to the Congressional committee in charge of investigating the widespread fraud. He resigned from his position at Columbia, and subsequently worked as an author and an editor at the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In 1960, Congress made "fixing quiz shows" illegal.
The strange and fraught story of Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren was immortalized in the 1994 movie Quiz Show. Here's the trailer:
4.But just because it's against the law to rig a game show doesn't mean people haven't tried. Take the ill-fated Fox show Our Little Genius, for instance. It was set to air in January 2010, but it was pulled from the schedule at the request of the show's creator and executive producer, Mark Burnett. At the time, Burnett explained in a statement, "There was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production."
The quiz show, which focused on child prodigies competing against adult academics for cash prizes, was ultimately investigated by the Federal Communications Commission after the parent of a contestant claimed that their child was given "a list of potential topics" and "specific answers to at least four questions" by a producer before taping.
Because of the aforementioned quiz show scandals, it's illegal for anyone to covertly assist a contestant, and therefore "deceive the viewing or listening public" in a "purportedly bona fide contest of intellectual knowledge or intellectual skill." The show was shelved indefinitely, and its first season never aired.
5.Here's a case of trivia scam artistry where the show wasn't in on it: Major Charles Ingram, along with his wife Diana and accomplice Tecwen Whittock, were accused of cheating their way to the top prize on the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
According to the show's producers and the courts, which ultimately found the trio guilty of "procuring the execution of a valuable security by deception," the scheme involved Ingram reading each of the four possible answers out loud. When he happened upon the correct choice, an audience plant would cough, signaling that he should choose that answer.
6.Actor Adriana Abenia was caught using an iPhone to cheat on the Spanish game show Pasapalabra after the phone got a text and started vibrating.
Abenia was attempting to use the Shazam music identification app during a "beat the intro round," but she was found out when Christian Gálvez, the host of the show, saw a light underneath the table and asked her if it was a phone. Laughing, Abenia admitted that it was.
Said Gálvez, "To be honest, I think she deserves a special prize anyway, because in seven years of organizing this TV contest, nobody has ever done anything like this, and certainly not quite as brazenly."
7.In 1988, a contestant named Patrick Quinn appeared on a show called Super Password. He won $56,000, a "one-day record for the show." That's all well and good, except he wasn't who he claimed to be, and on the day he arrived to claim his winnings, he was arrested.
"Patrick Quinn" was actually Kerry Dee Ketchum, a fraudster who "faked his wife’s death to collect on a $100,000 insurance policy." (The pseudonym came from a college professor.) Ketchum was wanted for his crimes in multiple states, including Alaska; it was an Alaskan viewer who recognized him on the show and reported him to the authorities.
Ketchum was sentenced to five years in prison for the whole "faking his wife's death" thing (which she didn't know about, by the way). The prosecutor described him as a "virtual tornado of deception," while Ketchum's lawyer said, "He came from a good, working class family...but let’s face it, Kerry’s a rascal."
8.Project Runway contestant Keith Michael was disqualified by the show's producers for keeping forbidden pattern-making books in his room during the taping of Season 3.
While the books are banned to keep designers from gaining an unfair advantage over their fellow competitors, Michael argued after the fact that while he did bring the books with him, he didn't use them to cheat. He claimed one book was the "most detailed pattern book you would ever see about menswear," and that he brought it to the show (which typically focuses exclusively on womenswear) to work on his new line of men's clothing. The other book was a "dictionary of production terms."
Said Michael, "I think this whole thing is farfetched and crazy... People want me to be the bad boy, but I am not that guy." In addition to the books, Michael was disqualified for going "AWOL from the production" without permission. Michael said he spent the four hours he was unaccounted for looking for his boyfriend's spare key at his apartment.
9.And 13 seasons later, another Project Runway contestant found themselves ejected for rule-breaking: Season 16 contestant Claire Buitendorp admitted to bringing a tape measure to the designers' apartment and using it to take measurements of a tank top in order to recreate it in the workroom.
Just before mentor Tim Gunn found out about the tape measure, Buitendorp won a challenge, leading other designers to voice their suspicions that she was unfairly copying their work from previous episodes and recreating clothing items from her own personal closet instead of coming up with new designs.
The judges and Gunn clarified that getting inspiration from other looks wasn't against the rules. It was at this point that another designer brought up the tape measure, which is very much against the rules. Gunn asked Buitendorp if she kept a measuring tape and if she had been "measuring garments" in her room; when she answered in the affirmative to both questions, he voided her win and disqualified her on the spot.
During the Season 16 reunion, Buitendorp walked back her confession, telling Gunn that she didn't use the tape to cheat and only said she had done so because of the "onslaught of negativity" that prevented her from being able to "articulate and adequately express my side of the story." Instead, she said she'd brought the tape home "absentmindedly," but never used it.
On Press Your Luck, contestants who answered trivia questions correctly were rewarded with "a spin on an 18-space board that hid cash and prizes." If the "random bouncer cursor" landed on a prize, you won it, and if it landed on a "Whammy," you lost all of your winnings. But Larson had figured out that the board wasn't actually random; instead, the cursor followed only five different patterns, which he memorized. Larson made 45 spins without hitting a single Whammy, a "statistical impossibility."
Michael Brockman, a CBS executive at the time, noted that the board wasn't randomized for the pilot because no one wanted to spend that much money on it, and then it was simply never fixed. After Larson's winning streak, CBS programmed the board to follow 32 patterns rather than 5. Press Your Luck was off the air by 1986 (though it was rebooted in 2019), and Larson went on to become "one of the pioneers of internet scams."
11.On the premiere episode of the Fox quiz show Million Dollar Money Drop, contestants Gabe Okoye and Brittany Mayti lost a devastating $800,000 when they incorrectly answered a question about which out of three products (Macintosh Computer, Sony Walkman, and Post-It Notes) was sold first. The couple bet $800,000 on Post-It Notes, but to their dismay, the answer was apparently the Sony Walkman. But after the show aired, viewers realized that Post-It Notes were actually sold first, contrary to what the show claimed.
The producers denied they were wrong at first, then released a statement reading in part, "Unfortunately, the information our research team originally obtained...was incomplete." They offered to let the couple come back on the show and compete for a second time but refused to reward them the $800,000 they'd lost.
The show's host, Kevin Pollak, told the Hollywood Reporter that the story was a "moot point," since the pair lost all their money on the next question anyway, and presumably would have even if they still had that $800,000. But, depending on your perspective, the show cheated its own contestants out of money they shouldn't have lost. Million Dollar Money Drop was cancelled after one season, and Okoye and Mayti did not make a repeat appearance.
12.In 2008, a contestant named Terry Kniess became the first person ever to guess the exact price of a Showcase on The Price Is Right. Producers were suspicious, but ultimately couldn't prove that Kniess's "perfect bid" of $23,743 was the result of anything other than preparation, assistance from the studio audience, and some good old-fashioned luck, none of which are against the show's rules.
There are two versions of what happened. In Kniess's, he estimated $23,000 from his prior knowledge of the show's prize roster, and added the "743" because it represented his wedding anniversary (the seventh of April, the fourth month), and his wife's birth month (March, the third month).
And in Price Is Right superfan Ted Slauson's retelling, he calculated the number. Slauson was well-known for his ability to help out contestants "due to his devotion to the show and his knack for remembering numbers," and he was sitting next to Linda and Terry Kniess that day. Either way, nobody cheated, though it sure did look like it from the outside. Following Kniess's appearance, the show "tightened its internal controls" to stop people from being able to learn its patterns as fully as Slauson did. About the difference in his and Slauson's recollections of the day, Kneiss theorized, "Maybe we’re both right. Maybe he called out the price, I guessed correctly, and, boom, both of us got the same number."
A documentary about the incident was released in 2017. Here's the trailer:
13.And finally, a cheating scandal that only existed inside the host's mind for a few (very stressful) moments: Drew Carey, the current host of The Price Is Right, briefly believed that his show was rigged when he saw a contestant win $30,000 on the Plinko board.
In Plinko, contestants drop a chip down a pegged board and, depending on which slot it falls into, win that amount of money. On this particular occasion, a woman dropped the chip in the $10,000 slot an unprecedented three times in a row. When she was about to go for round four, a producer stopped her and told Carey that "the game is fixed."
In an interview with “Jeff and Larry’s Comedy Roundup” on Sirius XM, Carey recalled that he panicked and immediately started thinking, "I’m going to jail. I’m losing my job. There’s gonna be a scandal." But to his immense relief, there wasn't anything devious going on. The producer explained that the Plinko board was rigged with near-invisible fishing wire, because it had just been used to film a commercial for a video game based on the show.
The contestant wasn't allowed to apply the amount to her "overall total" and therefore get an advantage later in the game, but that probably didn't bother her too much, since she was still awarded her $30,000 off camera. To the likely relief of everyone involved (especially those who forgot to cut the fishing line), the moment never aired.