Time for Fox and Burnett to Come Clean About ‘Our Little Genius’

Pulling the show was the right thing to do. Now it’s time to go further and explain just what went wrong

Last Updated: February 22, 2010 @ 12:40 AM

Memo to Fox and Mark Burnett: It’s not the crime — it’s the cover-up.

Richard Nixon discovered that during Watergate. Ditto Ronald Reagan with Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton with Monica.

Now — with some folks determined to turn the never-aired "Out Little Genius" into The Quiz Show Scandals Redux — complete, full and possibly embarrassing disclosure may be needed to prevent some potentially stupid actions from morphing into an all-out PR nightmare.

On Saturday, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times  reported that the FCC was looking into a complaint from a parent whose child was almost a contestant on the show. The parent contends the child was highly coached before the production,  and that parents were given the chance to help select questions for their child.

The FCC complaint ups the tension level in a matter that already ought to be behind us.

After all, it’s not as if Fox and Burnett didn’t try to be at least somewhat transparent about all this. Last month, just days before "OLG" was set to premiere, the network (at Burnett’s behest) pulled the show from its lineup.

Instead of offering up some lame excuse about creative concerns or scheduling issues, everyone involved ‘fessed up that something fishy had gone on.

“I recently discovered that there was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production of ‘Our Little Genius,’" Burnett said at the time, via a prepared statement. "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.”

A few days later, Fox reality chief Mike Darnell tried to further explain things, telling TheWrap that "there was certain information that was related in a way Mark [Burnett] found worrisome. It was not egregious. But Mark felt like this was his show and he wanted to be beyond reproach. Like my mother would say, a little Jewish phrase here, kina hora to him."

So it’s not exactly shocking to discover that, if the parent of one potential "OLG" contestant is to be believed, producers on the show may have over-coached the possible contestant.

Per the New York Times’ characterization of the letter, "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."

Well, right. That’s sort of what Burnett and Fox had hinted had happened last month — though both parties were maddeningly vague about just what went wrong.

And that’s the problem.

Yes, Burnett and Fox were candid about admitting something fishy might have happened. They also tried to do the right thing by pulling the show and deciding the eight episodes already shot would be shelved. They even agreed to pay winnings to the kids who emerged victorious on the shelved episodes — even though, in the past, some producers have (at least temporarily) refused to pay winnings when a show is canceled before it airs.

But as Tiger Woods has discovered, a little disclosure often isn’t enough, particularly when some in the media are already convinced you’re guilty.

As admirable as Fox and Burnett’s attempts at candor were, they didn’t go far enough. By not detailing exactly what happened — and promising to reveal what, if anything, went wrong in the process — they invited continued media scrutiny of a matter that really ought to be closed right now.

Wouldn’t it be better to just rip off the bandage rather than prolong the pain via a drip-drip-drip of developments?

If the worry is that full exposure might mean having to explain some questionable — but fully legal — elements of modern-day game show production, then so be it.

After all, an element of production which can’t be easily defended in the light of day probably ought to be changed.

Fox and Burnett did the right thing by refusing to air a show that might have been tainted. Now, even if they’re under no legal or even moral obligation to do so, they ought to go further and just explain everything that apparently went wrong.

That way, we can all move on to grilling Fox about more important matters — like who’s going to replace Simon on "American Idol."

A footnote: It would be surprising if anything comes of the alleged FCC "investigation."

The agency regularly gets complaints about all sorts of irregularities — usually related to indecency allegations. But just because the FCC is reviewing a complaint letter doesn’t mean it’s actually involved in what’s generally considered an all-out investigation.

More importantly, it’s hard to see how the FCC has any jurisdiction over this matter since "OLG" never aired– and the FCC doesn’t have any power over independent production comapnies. Indeed, while the agency does have oversight of contests via the communications act of 1934, there are several big exceptions that would seem to make this a non-FCC issue:

According to a copy of the law posted on the FCC website, "The broadcast contest rule is not applicable to: (1) licensee-conducted contests not broadcast or advertised to the general public or to a substantial segment thereof; (2) contests in which the general public is not requested or permitted to participate; (3) the commercial advertisement of non-licensee-conducted contests; or (4) a contest conducted by a non-broadcast division of the licensee or by a non-broadcast company related to the licensee."

Had "OLG" actually aired, and the public potentially duped by an allegedly rigged contest, then that would’ve been a different matter altogether.