6 Shocking Game Show Scandals That Changed TV Forever
These stories made headlines in the past—and they remain just as surprising now.
We all have a favorite game show, whether it's one you grew up watching or one that you recently got hooked on. Perhaps you tune into The Price Is Right when you're home sick, or maybe you look forward to nightly Jeopardy! after a long day of work. Part of the fun is playing along and cheering for contestants as they win big, but unfortunately, these shows aren't always defined by good vibes and underdog stories. In fact, over the years, there have been several notable game show scandals, including some that prompted new laws—and others that are just deeply unsettling. Read on for a look back at six shocking incidents that changed TV forever.
RELATED: 8 Most Awkward On-Air Jeopardy! Moments.
Serial killer Rodney Alcala on The Dating Game
In one of the more chilling scandals, an active serial killer made his way onto The Dating Game. In 1978, Rodney Alcala appeared at "Bachelor No. 1"—and while he'd yet to be convicted of murder, six years earlier, he'd been convicted of molesting an eight-year-old girl, The New York Times reported.
Even more unsettling, the host described Alcala as "a successful photographer." According to the NYT, Alcala lured in his victims by offering to take their pictures.
Alcala ended up winning the game, using sexual innuendo to entice the bachelorette, who later said she decided not to go out with him after meeting backstage, Rolling Stone reported. The woman said, "I started to feel ill. He was acting really creepy. I turned down his offer. I didn't want to see him again."
Alcala's appearance on the show did end up getting him caught, however. A detective investigating the death of 12-year-old Robin Samsoe saw the episode and then called in one of Samsoe's friends, who had previously provided a sketch of the killer. When watching the show, the friend was able to identify Alcala immediately, per Rolling Stone.
The serial killer was later convicted of murdering six women and Samsoe. While the real number is unknown, investigators think Alcala may have had up to 130 victims. He died of natural causes in 2021 while waiting to be executed.
The Post-its answer on Million Dollar Money Drop
The rules of Fox's Million Dollar Money Drop were relatively simple. Contestants wagered portions of $1 million on trivia questions, and if they answered incorrectly, that's where the "money drop" came in: The bills would fall and disappear in front of them.
But things got complicated for Gabe Okoye and Brittany Mayti, who appeared on the show in Dec. 2010, Daily Mail reported. The pair was asked whether the Macintosh computer, Sony Walkman, or Post-it Notes were sold first, submitting Post-its as their final answer. However, they were told the answer was incorrect, costing them $800,000.
But it was later determined that Post-its actually did appear before the Walkman, and the show had been given incorrect information by Post-it makers 3M.
"Unfortunately, the information our research department originally obtained from 3M regarding when Post-it notes were first sold was incomplete," executive producer Jeff Apploff said in a statement, per the Daily Mail.
The producers offered to let Okoye and Mayti compete again, but wouldn't refund them the $800,000. Host Kevin Pollak told The Hollywood Reporter that the situation was a "moot point" because the couple "lost everything on the next question" and they "never had a chance to win that money. Ever. No matter what."
The couple told the NYT that they didn't hold a grudge, but decided not to return to the show. "To go through that again and maybe to lose again, that's a lot of stress," Okoye said.
This wasn't the only controversy the show faced, however, as another couple sued the show in 2012 for alleged "trick questions."
Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren on Twenty-One
One of the oldest game show scandals dates back to the 1950s. The popular trivia show Twenty-One premiered in 1956, hosted by Jack Barry. That same year, Herb Stempel held a winning streak for six weeks, eventually losing to Charles Van Doren, who went on to win his own streak of games.
While this sounds like a run-of-the-mill game show episode, it turns out that the game was rigged. Stempel was given all of the questions and answers ahead of time by producer and co-creator Dan Enright, according to THR.
Stempel also knew that he would be "defeated" and replaced by Van Doren—who Enright thought would be a better face for the show. In exchange, Enright said he would find Stempel another game show gig, Closer Weekly reported.
So, at the end of the fateful episode, Stempel was told by Enright to give an incorrect answer when asked about the winner of the 1955 Oscar for Best Picture. (The correct answer was Marty, one of Stempel's favorite films.)
Stempel tried to call attention to the scam, but he was dismissed until a complaint arose about Dotto (another game show) also being fixed. Van Doren revealed he was involved in the cheating scam, and the scandals ended up spurring nationwide change: In 1960, Congress made it a federal crime to fix game shows.
The scandal inspired the 1994 Oscar-nominated film Quiz Show, which featured John Turturro as Stempel and Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren.
Cheating allegations on Our Little Genius
In the 2000s, a new game show was enmeshed in a scandal before it even aired. Our Little Genius featured child prodigies between the ages of six and 12 answering trivia questions to win cash prizes. The caveat was that their parents got to decide when their "little genius" stopped playing. The Fox show was supposed to premiere in Jan. 2010, but it was pulled the week prior.
Mark Burnett, the show's creator and executive producer, issued a formal statement saying that there were questions about "how some information was relayed to contestants during the preproduction," the NYT reported. Fox issued its own statement saying, "There can be no question about the integrity of our shows."
As it turns out, one of the children's parents sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), alleging that the production staff reviewed a list of potential topics, as well as questions and answers, with a child and his parents a few days before taping.
Because of the aforementioned federal laws, it's illegal to give assistance that will deceive the public and affect the outcome of a "purportedly bona fide contest of intellectual knowledge or intellectual skill," per the NYT. The first season of the show never ended up airing.
The title bachelor on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?
Before The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, there was Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire. The show premiered on Fox in 2000, pitting 50 women against each other to win the hand of multimillionaire Rick Rockwell. The competition was held like a traditional beauty pageant, with 35-year-old nurse Darva Conger being crowned the winner.
Rockwell and Conger were married on stage then and there, on TV. However, there was apparent trouble in paradise, as Conger had the marriage annulled within weeks, claiming that she thought the network had preselected a contestant who would marry Rockwell.
It became even more scandalous when details about Rockwell emerged, including his background in show business and apparent fabrications about his career and finances, per the NYT. According to Huff Post, Rockwell didn't have millions in cash, either. Instead, he had $750,000 in cash and a net worth of roughly $2 million. Producers told the NYT that these details qualified Rockwell for the "multimillionaire" title.
Rockwell also had a restraining order against him, filed by his ex-fiancée Debbie Goyne due to alleged domestic violence, the New York Post reported. For its part, Fox said that Rockwell was "thoroughly checked out" before casting, and Rockwell has since denied the allegations of abuse, per the Los Angeles Times.
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Michael Larson on Press Your Luck
One of the most infamous game show scandals dates back to 1984, when Michael Larson competed on Press Your Luck. Larson took home $110,237, trips to the Bahamas and Kauai, and a sailboat—the biggest winnings ever in a single game show episode at the time, THR reported.
Larson was so successful because he managed to avoid hitting a "Whammy" over the course of 45 spins—odds were one in six—and losing all of his earnings. CBS' Standards and Practices department ended up looking into the possibility that Larson cheated, when really, he'd just figured out a flaw in the game.
While playing Press Your Luck, contestants answered trivia questions, with correct answers prompting a spin on an 18-space board, which hid cash and prizes. The cursor would then bounce from different spaces in a seemingly random pattern. However, as THR reported, Larson realized that the board wasn't random and followed five specific patterns. Larson memorized the patterns, helping him avoid any and all Whammies.
According to then-CBS executive Michael Brockman, this issue stemmed from the show's pilot, when production didn't want to spend too much money on the light pattern. According to THR, after Larson's appearance, the board was re-programmed so it had 32 patterns.
Larson went on to "become one of the pioneers of internet scams," leading the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to file charges against him. The SEC, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) were all after him, prompting Larson to flee to Florida. According to THR, he died in 1999 of throat cancer before he could ever be found and prosecuted.