Darnell in Defense of the ‘Truth’
Fox Executive Talks About the Network’s Controversial Lie Detector Show
“Last time I felt like this was before ‘Joe Millionaire,’” said Mike Darnell, sitting in his office wearing his trademark cowboy boots.
“This is going to be the talk of the town and knocked out of the park. You’re either going to love it, or think it’s the end of Western civilization. And that’s the stuff that works.”
Fox’s president of alternative entertainment is referring to “The Moment of Truth,” the network’s sure-to-be controversial game show in which contestants are asked a series of highly personal questions while connected to a polygraph machine.
The show’s international format first gained notice Stateside in August when Fox ordered a pilot. Last month, a popular Colombian version of the series (called “Nothing But the Truth”) made headlines when a contestant confessed to hiring a hit-man to murder her husband (an attempt that failed). The show was, at least temporarily, taken off the air.
Fox’s version works like this: Before the show is taped, a contestant is given a polygraph test and asked 75 questions. Samples include: “Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?” “Are you sexually attracted to one of your wife’s friends?” “Do fat people repulse you?” and “Do you think you’ll still be with your husband five years from now?” Unlike the Colombian version, the show avoids asking about felony-level activities and sticks to revealing family secrets and unearthing private opinions.
The contestant’s responses are determined to be truthful or untruthful by a certified polygraph examiner, but the contestant is not told the results. Within a couple of days after the test, the contestant appears on the show, where he is again asked 21 of their previous questions before a live audience, including family and friends.
“This is the first game show where you technically know all the questions and you know all the answers,” Mr. Darnell said. “And yet this is the hardest game show I’ve ever been a part of in my entire life.”
All the player has to do to win, goes the pitch, is tell the truth. If his answer matches what the polygraph says is true, he advances to the next round. The top prize is $500,000. The contestant can stop at any time, but once a question is asked, he must answer.
“Quite frankly, if you hear the question and say you’re not going to answer it, everybody knows what the answer is anyway,” Mr. Darnell said. “So you might as well answer.”
Mr. Darnell screened a “Truth” preview for a small group of reporters and staff in his office, which is decorated with leather furniture and animal-skin rugs. The clips showed anxious contestants looking as if they’re seconds away from cardiac arrest.
As the Fox executive responsible for “American Idol,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” Mr. Darnell has given Fox the sturdiest reality platform of any broadcast network. With the writers strike shutting down scripted programming, that platform has taken on even greater importance. Next year’s schedule features Mr. Darnell’s new shows like “Truth” (which premieres Jan. 23) and “When Women Rule the World” (March 3).
But it has been a while since Mr. Darnell unveiled a show that feels like a media high-wire act.
About half the “Truth” contestants, Mr. Darnell said, “left because they couldn’t take it anymore. Most people don’t make it past 12 questions.”
Though “Truth” first debuted overseas, the concept was created by American producer Howard Schultz (“Extreme Makeover”). The U.S. version began as a presentation ordered by NBC. The network passed, and Mr. Schultz said he was in Mr. Darnell’s office the next day.
“People have been trying to crack this lie-detector thing for a decade,” Mr. Darnell said. “And it works perfectly. It’s exactly the way to use a lie detector for a scary game.”
Around the same time Fox picked up the pilot, NBC ordered a game show called “Amnesia.” Like “Truth,” constants are asked questions about themselves. Instead of embarrassing questions whose answers are balanced against a lie detector, the “Amnesia” questions are tamer and fact-checked by the show’s researchers.
Mr. Darnell is adamant the two shows should not be confused “There’s no similarity,” he said. “I was pitched that show. It’s a simple comedy game show. ‘Amnesia’ is, ‘Do you remember what color your first car was?’ This is a hard-ass, hell-bent crazy television show.”
After ordering the pilot, Mr. Darnell made some changes. He increased the prize money and made the questions “more aggressive.”
“There’s no, ‘Is your favorite color blue?’” he said. “Some people are freaked out by that. They get to question three and they’re like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
He also added a button where the contestant’s friends and family sit that they can use once during the game to “rescue” the player from a difficult question. Except, Mr. Darnell said, the friends and family never seem to use the button for its intended purpose. When one contestant was asked if she would be more attracted to her husband if he lost 20 pounds—which is considered a relatively easy query—her husband lunged for the button.
“What ends up happening is they use it to help themselves because they don’t want to hear something revealed about themselves,” Mr. Darnell said. “Or they don’t use it [because they really want to hear the answer].”
Screening for contestants, Mr. Darnell said he looks for “the most average person available.”
“I don’t want this to be Jerry Springer,” he said. “Because these are things that you and I relate to but we never have to say it. Everybody thinks this stuff, but they never have to say it. Here they have to say it—or they lose the money.”
The question that’s bound to haunt “Truth” is not about the accuracy of the participants, but of the show itself.
Polygraphs are highly reliable for determining anxiety, but their ability to detect truthfulness has been debated for decades. The American Polygraph Association, from compiling hundreds of research studies on the matter, says field examinations produced an accuracy rate between 92% and 98%. Laboratory-based examinations were less accurate at 80% to 81%.
The Supreme Court declared in 1998 that “there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable” and that “to this day, the scientific community remains extremely polarized” on the issue.
Fox’s “Truth” is legally protected because participants sign an agreement to abide by the polygraph examiner’s conclusion. But what if a contestant is unjustly humiliated before millions of viewers for a moral crime he has not committed?
Mr. Darnell and Mr. Schultz said the reactions of the show’s participants have convinced them their process is fair and reliable.
“In the vast majority of contestants, 99%, [they don’t say the machine is wrong]. You get, “Hmm, I was a little worried when I answered that question,’” Mr. Darnell said. “It was very obvious in the back of their mind they knew it might come up as a lie. I don’t think we ever got it wrong in the 24 contestants we’ve had. And they never protested. They’re embarrassed, they thought they could fool a lie detector or weren’t sure about their answer.”
Given the revelations and the stakes involved, Mr. Darnell said he doesn’t consider “Truth” a game show. The whole process is too personal and revelatory to be lumped in with the likes of “The Price Is Right.”
“The game is an illusion, it’s a mechanism,” Mr. Darnell said. “By the time a participant is done, you feel like you know all about them. It’s like doing a dysfunctional family documentary in 20 minutes. All the secrets come out. All the lies come out.”