Legal Issues In the News

Game Show Law for $1000, Alex! (Rebroadcast)


Sean Anderson

University of Illinois College of Law

By: Sean Anderson

Recently, I appeared as a contestant on the TV game show Jeopardy. Inspired by that experience, today’s category is “game show law,” although I’m afraid I don’t have any prize money to give away.

As a contestant on a game show, your entire experience is surrounded by law. To mention one example, you have to sign documents agreeing to lots of stuff you will and won’t do, which brings into play the field of contract law.

But I want to focus on a different aspect of game show law: the still-palpable effects of the infamous quiz show scandals that happened almost sixty years ago. Back in the 1950s, it came to light that the producers of several major shows had been coaching contestants in order to create maximum drama and deliver champions they thought would please viewers.

When those manipulations became public, the outcry was swift and huge. Ratings for game shows dropped, and most were pulled off the air. Congress got into the act, passing an amendment to the Federal Communications Act that outlawed a range of practices that might predetermine the outcome of a game show, such as supplying contestants with secret assistance or inducing them to “throw” all or part of a game.

Based on my Jeopardy experience, I can tell you that the people who produce TV game shows today work very hard to avoid even the appearance that the results of their shows are in any way rigged. Before you go on the show, for example, they ask you multiple times to disclose any relatives or friends who work for the show or related employers, previous contestants you might know, and other connections that might trigger suspicion.

Once you arrive to tape the show, you’re subject to a whole host of rules designed to avoid even the slightest possibility that anyone could provide you with answers or other help. You have to turn off your cell phone. You’re not allowed to talk to, or exchange signals with, anyone in the studio audience. You can’t go anywhere at all during the taping day, including lunch, unless you’re accompanied by one of the show’s staff members.

The show also maintains considerable separation between employees who deal with contestants and those who prepare the questions and answers, as well as anyone who, like host Alex Trebek, gets to see those questions and answers ahead of time.

And finally, the show doesn’t rely entirely on its own employees to maintain all those rules. The show pays an independent company to assign one of its employees to be on the set for each taping day, keeping an eye on the show’s compliance with its own procedures and providing an outside hand in some of the key steps for maintaining the show’s integrity.

As I understand it, what I saw with Jeopardy is pretty typical of U.S. game shows these days. So next time you watch an episode of your favorite one, spare a moment to think of all these procedures, based on both law and the producers’ self-interest in avoiding even a hint of anything fishy. And marvel that it all came about because of a scandal that happened six decades ago.