January 8th, 2010
01:07 PM ET

The ethics of 'Our Little Genius'

A few months back, I wrote about a new game show from Fox called "Our Little Genius." . I expressed concern that the show would exploit the pre-teen contestants, but I pledged to watch at least one episode before passing final judgment. Now, it seems that won't happen.

Less than a week before its premiere, Fox pulled the plug on "Our Little Genius."  According to series creator Mark Burnett, he had concerns over, in his words, "how some information was relayed to contestants during pre-production."  Burnett says he will produce new episodes, but Fox has not decided whether those new shows will air.

So what was this "information" that caused this sudden change of heart from Burnett and Fox?  Some are speculating that the contestants may have been privy to some of the questions they would be asked before the taping.  Others are suggesting the contestants were given the answers to the questions - a clear violation of federal law banning the fixing of game shows.

Still others note that the decision came just hours after the New York Times published a story expressing concerns about the show's production, including the practice of taping multiple endings in case a contestant missed a question.  That practice alone marks the hallmark of a "reality" show producer like Burnett, who should stick to what he knows best and stay out of the game show genre.

In 2006, I attended the annual Game Show Congress event in Burbank, California.  The Congress honors the past, present and future of the game show genre, and brings together the personalities that make game shows exciting.  Among the events I attended was an informal chat with such game show personalities as Jack Narz (host of the original "Now You See It" and other shows), Burton Richardson (the voice of "Family Feud") and Johnny Gilbert (the voice of "Jeopardy!").

All three agreed that the classic game show worked because of its simplicity, as well as the natural spontaneity shown by the contestants, panelists and hosts.  When the contestant knew he or she won the car or big money, the reaction to the win was real - no one needed to be coached on how to react or what to do.

Reading about "Our Little Genius" and its fallout made me look back at that Burbank talk.  Are we so unsure of what spontaneity is that we have to over-script it all, from the first question asked to how we should react to defeat?

"Our Little Genius," in its original form, was no game show.  It was an over-produced, over-scripted affair from a "reality" maven who knows very little about how the genre works.

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soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Julie

    I know that when i saw the commercials for this show, I was going to make sure that my son was not exposed to this show. I do not think it is right that our children are made to feel less bright than these "Genius"...

    January 11, 2010 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
  2. Stewbum

    I was optimistic that prime time gameshows were going to make a comeback when ABC made Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Unfortunately, viewers have the attention span of a gnat, and quite frankly, the average person was too dumb to play along once the questions hit the $16,000 level. At least with Jeapordy the everage viewer has at least a chance at playing along. As for reality tv...thank God for the remote control.

    January 11, 2010 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
  3. Margaret De Vido

    I agree with Joel T.,also....Bring back the classics!!!

    January 11, 2010 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  4. bag o'doo

    @GD

    Dude, chill out. You start off by saying people should not watch TV but end by saying people involved with TV should be shot? That's insane. I hate reality TV and all that as much as any normal, thinking person but seriously, it certainly isn't worth the vitriol you are spewing. Take your own advice and just stop watching.

    January 11, 2010 at 7:48 am | Report abuse |
  5. SNAPPA

    Lost, Flashforward these shows seem to be good but when you get right down to it they are mysteries that can never be solved simply because the show would end, the entire show is about the mystery of what is going on so they drag it out for years and the frustration only grows with each new mystery that takes the place of the original mystery its simply not maintainable in my view.

    January 11, 2010 at 1:18 am | Report abuse |
  6. SNAPPA

    As for USA yeah some of the shows are OK, but how many detective shows can you really do? How many cop shows or ex-CIA, all they are a rehashes of old shows simply brought up to date. Charlies Angels, Dragnet, LA Law, Perry Mason, Emergency, St. Elsewhere, McMillian & WIfe, Columbo, Adam 12. The televisions stations are overwhlemed with Law & Order, CSI, NCSI, Mercy, Trauma all shows that have simply been reduxs and nothing more subject matter that hits to much on reality. I watch movies and television simply to escape from this world which is slowly going insane with politics, terrorism, war, poverty, sickness why on Earth do I want to watch it in primetime?

    January 11, 2010 at 1:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. SNAPPA

    As I always understood TV and movie theathers they were there to provide an escape from everyday life, now we're bombarded by reality TV. Such fine shows have been pulled way before their times and the ones on now only try to imitate those shows. Some of the shows pulled for me at least were great TV:

    American Gothic
    Firefly
    X-files
    FARSCAPE
    Andromeda
    Xena

    and many more, these shows do not represent reality which is why I loved them. You can only watch so many re-runs.

    January 11, 2010 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
  8. guinevere

    Nice. Another real-life "21", only with getting kids to cheat this time.

    Mark Burnett is the producer of my favorite (and, really only) reality show, Bully Beatdown. (I don't only watch trash, but there is some entertainment in watching a bully d-bag get beaten up by an MMA fighter). Well-written shows do actually exist, but no one ever watches them because they come on the USA Network.

    Before you knock USA shows, I defy you to watch Psych or White Collar and then knock them. If you don't like them, you don't like them, but there's no denying actual, quality entertainment.

    January 10, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Casey

    At the moment I saw this commercial, I thought, oh God, it's a rip off of Are You Smarter Then A 5th Grader.
    BUT WITH BRAGGING 7 YEAR OLDS THAT *THINK* THEY KNOW *EVERYTHING*.
    Let's not exploit any more.
    Nuff' Said.

    January 10, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Alex!~

    I cannot stand kids, BRATS everyone!

    January 10, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. RB

    Yay. Finally, a smart decision about a potentially bad show. Let's not exploit kids for the sake of "reality" tv anymore. They'll grow up thinking they live on a television set.

    January 10, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Stormer

    It's a FOX product. Ewww. 'Nuff said.

    January 10, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Susan

    And why "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me" on NPR is so great! You get great comments from the moderator, Carl Kassell's send-ups, the panel, and even better, the average listener-contestant. The "Not My Job" celebrity spots shows that we are all alike, too!

    January 10, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Patrick

    I demand the resignation of the entire Fox staff. Including Rupert Murdoch. This is an OUTRAGE!

    January 10, 2010 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  15. Tony

    Mark Burnett doesn't understand game shows?

    SURVIVOR and THE AMAZING RACE are nothing more than game shows, in a "Reality TV" setting. The folks who fail to grasp this are clearly not understanding the genres. They're both huge successes.

    So, while you can snipe that he should "stick to what he knows", he clearly IS, and he's garnering a lot more money, success and fame than you while doing it. Seems to me that continuing to push the boundaries of what we know and have been successful at has been the key to CONTINUED success for centuries.

    January 10, 2010 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  16. lance

    I gave up on reality TV after the first season of MTV's The Real World.

    pity the rest of the country hasn't caught up yet.

    January 10, 2010 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
  17. mike

    Let the kids prove themselves in school! A good one would show how the states rate in education scores, state by state! That is reality!!! The rest of reality shows, I consider trash, such as "Girls Next Door", MTV's "Real World", "The Kardashians" and "Jon & Kate". I can buy a Playboy if I want and not have to listen to them, MTV show is just a bunch of whining drunk kids that need to get real lives, I could care less about Bruce Jenner's stepkids, and for the last one, I have 21 cousins in one family that did not have to be turned into a show! Watch The Learning Channel, History Channel or National Geographic channel and really enjoy TV and learn something! I am not going to get caught up in somebody else's drama life, I have better things to do with my life!

    January 10, 2010 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  18. Erick

    Mark Burnett ushered in the death of quality television as we once knew it.

    January 10, 2010 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  19. PsKing

    TCM has most of my business these days. I have yet to watch a reality show- why sit through junk "entertainment"? There is no talent, no thought- just plain exploitation. The "uncomfortable" factor- you know the type of garbage that makes people squirm in embarrassment for the humans that easily trade fame for self-respect. Most of the newscasters these days are an extension of reality shows, too. No, thanks. My world hasn't the time for that muck.

    January 10, 2010 at 8:29 am | Report abuse |
  20. bob

    you mean it's hard to find a bevy of photogenic genius children, and the easiest way is to take a cute kid and feed them answers? Shock!

    January 10, 2010 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
  21. Bobby Knightmare

    My favorite show was "Match Game." It was pretty much the most risque thing I was allowed to watch as a kid, considering that if the contestant answered "boobs," "butt" or "making whoopee," he or she would match at least two conestants. "The Gong Show" was pretty good, too. It was basically "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent" before its time.

    January 10, 2010 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
  22. Ross

    How about well written TV shows, perhaps revisit classics
    Sherlock Holmes
    Jules Verne
    Updated productions of Ulysses (an adventure story at its best)
    Well produced documentries including a series on how Government is currently being run as opposed to how it was written (Constitutional Law etc.) Politics is NOT supposed to be a full time job and/or career

    Reality TV is dumbing down America

    January 10, 2010 at 5:36 am | Report abuse |
  23. Tony Titus, Ohio, USA, Earth

    If they really want to do a show with intelligent kids they need to find some intelligent kids who are real. There are a lot of them out there. I talk to kids, really talk to them and not down to them and there are some really smart kids out there. Maybe they aren't photogenic or whatever passes for acceptable but they are smart and more worldly than ever. They have to be to avoid being exploited by the very type of parent that passes for ideal in the televised world. The irony is that they are probably smart enough to avoid being put on display and have other priorities that engage them in the real world. Like being a kid.

    January 10, 2010 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
  24. SJB

    Too bad some "genius" doesn't pull the plug on FOX!

    January 9, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Dawn

    Our Little Genius gets to be a smart a$$ is all that I got from the preview

    January 9, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Guest

    Was this show a "reality show" or a "game show" and can someone please tell me what the difference is? If it's a reality show, why go through the bother of the game show format, which has to raise costs on production. It's kind of like when the NFL banned the NFL Network from creating a "reality show" on making the NFL team? The NFL said that the NFL itself was a "reality show" and it didn't need to make up such a spinoff.

    If it's a game show, how can a game show have "alternative endings"?

    And I really don't understand how come federal law does not ban contestants under twenty one from participating in these types of quiz shows. The pressure on these kids to succeed must be enormous, and then what does it do their "tv career" for the rest of their lives? They fill their heads with useless knowledge and are then are has-beens by 18.

    January 9, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Kyle

    So what. It looked stupid and I wasn't going to watch it anyways.

    January 9, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Lisa

    I don't generally watch game shows except for Jeopardy, which I assume is an honest broadcast. My kids enjoy a game show on Nickelodeon called Brain Surge, which is more along the lines of the game shows I watched as a kid (Double Dare, Hidden Treasure, GUTS, etc.). Keep kids on kid shows and stop exploiting them for adult ratings. They are their own best audience and should remain that way.

    January 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  29. momof3

    All adults let's demand no more exploitation of children for money, parents should not use their children for fame or to satisfy some other selfish need.

    An adult wants to be famous or rich? Do it yourself, don't use your children.

    January 9, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Linney17

    Am I the only person all set with child geniuses? If they're smart, let them be and leave them off the TV. The ones chosen for Oprah and Ellen and whatnot always come off as smug, over-confidant little jerks. Obviously, their parents have been handing them compliments on silver platters and/or training them like animals their whole lives and encouraging it by putting them in the spotlight even further is only annoying.

    January 9, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Noelle

    People care to much what happens in other people lives.Why should we care what happens with their kids?

    January 9, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse |
  32. GD

    Kill your television! Get of your butts and get out and do something! This country is turning into a quivering mass of jell-o (no offense, Jell-o).

    This producer should be slapped soundly upside his head for even thinking about producing a show with kids.

    The inane pap we're served up each and every day labeled as "reality" should be classified as electronic terrorism and the makers thereof shot on sight.

    January 9, 2010 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |
  33. Derek

    Wasn't there a game show channel on cable at one point?I'm not sure if it is still available but I know they would run classic game shows from the 1970's to current I believe.

    As for the "Our Little Genius" concept the first thing that came to mind was the movie "Magnolia." Honestly, the show just sounds like a derivative of "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader" which also exploited children for money.

    January 9, 2010 at 1:13 am | Report abuse |
  34. Mindy

    How about the kids show "I'm Telling!"
    Those prizes were RAD!

    January 9, 2010 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
  35. Jack James

    Want to know why there was an explosion of reality shows a few years back? It wasnt just because of Survivors success. It was because the networks realized that the current SAG (Screen Actors Guild) contract was about to expire and they didnt want to go thru a lengthy strike after SAG had shown some balls in holding out for over 6 months in the 2000 commercial strike and basically got what they wanted. Reality TV was the networks way of saying "We dont need you". So ... in a nutshell Reality TV is a way for the networks to put union actors out of work. I make my living as an actor (Ok ..I'm not famous but I make a living!) and as far as I'm concerned, ANYBODY that works on or appears in a "reality show" (and I dont include REAL game shows ie: Jeopardy, Beat the Clock, Who Wants to be a Millionaire etc in this catagory) is a SCAB. Even watching reality tv is the same as crossing a picket line which I was always taught was wrong and unAmerican.
    A good sitcom is not that expensive until someone like Jennifer Aniston wants a million an episode and by then the network is making so much its not a problem. The real problem is getting network execs that recognize good scripts and not trying to apply a "formula" to everything that passes their desk. I think they should shoot a few low cost episodes and try them out online...not as risky as a prime time premiere and it would help them create a buzz for the shows whend the DO air. Just my 2 sense.

    January 8, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
  36. Al

    How about this for a game show? "Are You Smarter than a Network Programming Executive? No wait, that wouldn't work. Everyone is smarter than that.

    January 8, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
  37. Chad

    Burnett is a plague.

    January 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  38. Jason

    PRESS YOUR LUCK!

    January 8, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  39. Angelo Sherman

    There really cant be that many people left that think "reality shows" are real can there? Game Shows ARE the only reality shows left with the possible exception of the Amazing Race. All the others are clearly scripted and steered towards a TV friendly ending or solution. One only has to pay close attention to Survivor OR know someone that has been on a few reality shows to know the real deal. Let me put it this way, the person I know has been on three or four reality shows of hte dating kind. Her occupation? Actress...nuf said.

    January 8, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  40. BlitzNeko

    How about we bring back cartoons(like after school) and sitcoms(like funny ones)..... Enough of this game show reality tv junk.... they just seems to make people egotistical and stupid.....

    January 8, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  41. nora from pittsburgh

    i liked all the shows you mentioned joel. i remember watching the match game after school and thinking i was watching something dirty becaue of all the innuendo. i still love gene rayburn and charles nelson reilly.

    January 8, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  42. Angelina

    I've been on a game show....(Split Second with Monty Hall in the 80s – like Jeopardy but lighter; won $2Kand went to Paris) – it was a gas! So much fun and would love to do it again but this one sounds ridiculous and very prefab – who wants to see a 'game' show with a bunch of kids getting spoon-fed answers. Ugh. Burnett is a reality show pioneer and a good one- should stick to the genre he knows. Love Shark Tank he produces but did not originate – since it is a US version of the successful Cdn show Dragon's Den.

    January 8, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
  43. Kurgan

    I don't know anything about the show in question, but I have no problem with kids as game show contestants.

    Kids have been on game shows since the invention of the genre. In my youth, the most popular kids show on TV was Double Dare, which tested kids' smarts and put them through some harrowing, and often embarrassing, stunts.

    I haven't heard anything about Double Dare contestants growing up in maniacs or basket cases. That might be an interesting question to explore though.

    January 8, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
  44. StevieV

    I'm glad someone came to their senses and stopped another bad idea! I am sick to death of all these so-called "reality" shows which contain very little reality, if any at all! Lets see some real game shows with real contestants and no scripts! I guess those old-fashioned type shows are considered too boring for the "instant gratification generation"!

    January 8, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  45. Tank

    Joel T hit the nail on the head but don't forget Tick Tac Dough though.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  46. calv1n

    Shouldn't that read "Aren't there enough kids . . . ."? Turn off the TV and read something.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  47. Jason

    I live in L.A. and was in the audience for the first two shows they taped. Here's why you're right. Before the contestant even came out, they did all sorts of coverage of the parents looking concerned and worried about their kids' abilities and working in the phrase "Our Little Genius" to everything they said. Ew. It made normal parents seem false and stilted and not a little creepy.
    Here's also why the show doesn't work. It took well over two hours to film the show. That means a kid under age 10 is STANDING in the same spot for 2 hours and they don't know why and they didn't seem to like it.
    But here's the dumbest thing of all: the show's concept is ONE child per episode, answering 4-part questions, and they can't get ANY PART of ANY question wrong. What happens when they miss question number 2? The producers need 30 minutes of TV from one kid, which means they have to make sure that kid doesn't miss a question until/unless the show is over. That means cheating and wasting time talking to experts and parents in between EVERY question, drawing the whole thing out. If they were smart, they'd do it fast, and they'd have multiple kids on each episode.
    But they're not smart. And the show won't last.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  48. MPLS Guy

    How does this exploit kids any more then the kids on "Are You Smarter Then a 5th Grader" ? Am I missing something? that show seems to be doing just fine.

    Obviously this being pulled has more to do with the potential fixing or contestants possibly getting answers in advance then it does with child exploitation.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  49. Sean Boyd, Tacoma WA

    Burnett, like anyone in the reality show business, is a money wh#re. Reality shows, after all, are anything but realistic...they are sensationalized simulations of the outside world.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  50. gdh

    I saw the ads for that show, it had that little spaz from Regis and Kelly on it. That kid was irritating as hell, he could use some exploiting.

    January 8, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  51. ral-OH

    Isn't there enough kids on TV being exploited, such as the Gosselin children.

    I find it surprising that Mark Burnett of all people decided "Our Little Genius" would be proper, in the light of how much damage these type of shows can do to children.

    January 8, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  52. Joel T.

    I am a kid from the late 70's and early 80's and I can tell you I LOVE the shows from that time period.

    Give me shows like :

    To tell the truth
    Match game
    Press your luck
    Hollywood Squares
    Joker's Wild

    The list of gameshows is very lenghty. I'm sure there are MORE out there that are just as inexpensive to produce as the trash that is on TV now that is called REALITY shows.

    Sorry, I just can't stomach reality tv.

    January 8, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |

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