Synopsis: If Jerry Springer and Maury had a three-way with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the resulting bastard child would have been The Moment of Truth. Thanks to a lead-in from American Idol, the January 2008 premiere of Fox’s disturbing game show drew 23 million viewers. By the end of TMOT‘s 10-episode initial order, the audience had fallen by over 60%. With only 4 million viewers remaining halfway through the show’s 13-episode second season, Fox pulled it for good. As an inglorious basterd, The Moment of Truth (2008) earned the #9 spot on T10B’s ranking of Reality TV Busts.
#9 REALTY TV BUST: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Ostensibly billed as a provocative game show, Fox’s The Moment of Truth (2008) simply redefined the line that people will cross for some money and 15 minutes of fame. In case you missed the show, contestants had the opportunity to win up to $500,000 based on their ability to correctly match the results of a polygraph test taken prior to filming. As you might imagine, the questions began innocuously before becoming morally compromising as the prize value increased.
When TMOT premiered in January 2008, American Idol ruled the airwaves. Fox’s singing competition averaged 28 million viewers for both the original performances and results show each week. To be clear, close to 30 million people tuned in each night. In comparison, networks salivate today if they can get 15 million viewers, including those who watch through DVR within 7 days of the original airing.
Taking advantage of its lucrative property, Fox used the post-Idol slot to try to launch new shows. By keeping 23 million viewers from Idol’s lead-in for its debut episode, The Moment of Truth made the most of the opportunity. Confident in its new show, the network moved TMOT to Monday nights after only four weeks. Not surprisingly, Fox heavily promoted its most risqué episode for the jumping off point.
MOMENT OF TRUTH – EPISODE 5
Like many fans, I fully embraced Jerry Springer’s transition from serious talk show host to freak show ringleader when it happened over 20 years ago. The premise of alcohol-induced audience excitement and contrived physical confrontations still doesn’t bother me. At the same time, I stopped watching his show (and others of the same ilk) after the initial shock wore off.
Fox tried to position The Moment of Truth as a more scandalous version of Who Wants to be Millionaire. Instead, I saw it as a more tame version of Jerry Springer. Regardless, I avoided the show until host Mark L. Walberg enticed me with his claim that one particular episode made him the “most uncomfortable he’s ever been on television.” I had watched Walberg host Temptation Island several years earlier so I knew he had witnessed (and instigated) many uncomfortable television moments. As a result, his statement carried weight with me.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I offer this image to set the scene for the famed Episode 5.
CONTESTANT VICTIM: LAUREN CLERI
Of note, I hope you picked up on the following:
- The cheesy set design
influenced bystolen from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
- The contestant’s seemingly jovial attitude while in the “hot seat” for one of the more innocent questions.
- Mark Walberg’s attempt at appearing like a serious game show host.
- The contestant’s appearance (i.e. the bleach blonde hair and plunging neck line)
- Would you have guessed that she worked at a hair salon, or that she took her wedding ring off to appear single?
As the contestant, 26-year-old Lauren Cleri brought her husband (a NYC police officer), parents and siblings for support. Based on what transpired, she arguably invited them as a form of torture instead.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH – THE FORMAT
With respect to the actual game, The Moment of Truth contestants needed to answer 21 questions truthfully in order to win the grand prize of $500,000. However, they could back out at any time and walk away with accumulated “winnings” based on the following tiers.
- $10K after answering 6 questions truthfully.
- $25K after answering another 5 questions truthfully (11 in total).
- $100K after answering another 4 questions truthfully (15 in total).
- $200K after answering another 3 questions truthfully (18 in total).
- $350K after answering another 2 questions truthfully (20 in total).
- $500K after answering 1 final question truthfully (21 in total).
Clearly, a contestant needed to walk away before giving a wrong/untruthful answer. The person conducting the lie detector test presumably had the only say when determining the truthfulness of the answer. If that standard makes you question the show’s legitimacy, you’re not alone. Then again, the money seemed secondary to the potential for
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH – EPISODE 5 QUESTIONS
By detailing the questions and answers revealed on the show, I hope to save an hour of your life. Still, if you crave the drawn-out, overly-hyped suspense of the actual episode, click here.
TIER 1 / QUESTION 1: Have you ever told a customer that you liked their hair style when you know you didn’t?
Reaction: Huh? That’s better than most of us can say. Don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed.
TIER 1 / QUESTION 2: Have you ever flashed a stranger just for laughs?
Reaction: Can’t you just see her walking down Bourbon Street with layers of beads around her neck after a drunken afternoon of flashing her tatas? Well, I hope that’s all she exposed.
TIER 1 / QUESTION 3: Would you give food to a stray dog before you’d give it to a homeless person?
Reaction: Despite groans from the audience, the contestant doubled down on her response. Specifically, she justified her answer by commenting that a dog has a cute face but a homeless person has a dirty face. At this point, I knew I’d be comfortable with anything that happened to her.
TIER 1 / QUESTION 4: Have you ever derived pleasure when one of your siblings got into trouble?
Reaction: Yawn. After all, who hasn’t?
TIER 1 / QUESTION 5: Have you ever been fired from a job for stealing money?
Reaction: If this question makes you feel bad for her, scroll back up to Question 3. As a quick reminder, she would rather give food to a stray dog instead of a homeless person.
TIER 1 / QUESTION 6: If you knew you wouldn’t get caught, would you steal money from your place of employment?
Result: True. Reached the $10K prize level.
Reaction: At this point, we knew her price for being publicly humiliated in front of millions of people. Specifically, she only needed $10,000 to confirm that she’s a thief who’s thinks more highly of stray dogs than homeless people.
TIER 2 / QUESTION 7: Since you’ve been married have you ever pretended to be asleep instead of having sex with your husband Frank?
Reaction: The contestant’s answer certainly shouldn’t have offended anyone. However, she didn’t need to respond by saying, “Pretended to be asleep. Pretended to have a headache. Yes.” Eh oh Frank, this isn’t looking good for you.
TIER 2 / QUESTION 8: Do you blame your husband for your lack of close friends?
Reaction: My Spidey sense started to go into overdrive at this point. Specifically, I wondered in which direction the line of questioning would go. Might she be justified for her actions? In retrospect, her lack of friends likely related to her flawed personality.
TIER 2 / QUESTION 9: Would you ever be a surrogate mother for your sister if she were unable to have children?
Reaction: Finally a selfless answer. I guess she’s at least partially human.
TIER 2 / QUESTION 10: Do you think your parents are proud of you?
Reaction: As you might imagine, both daughter and parents teared up for this question. After hearing the answer, Lauren’s dad confirmed that he had always been proud of her. Meanwhile, I said to myself, “Hold your horses, she’s not done yet.”
TIER 2 / QUESTION 11: Do you know things about your father that you keep secret from your mother?
Result: True. Reached $25K prize level
Reaction: Like father, like daughter. Actually, I felt for Lauren’s mom and wondered whether she’d interrogate her secretive husband that night or wait until they got home. Apparently, Lauren’s price to throw a wrench in her parents’ relationship (and reveal her own low self-esteem) was a cool 25 Gs.
TIER 3 / QUESTION 12: Do you secretly stay in touch with any boyfriends that your husband does not know about?
Reaction: I instantly thought that she probably told her husband about being Facebook friends with old boyfriends, but refrained from detailing any face-to-face encounters with them. Then again, she might surprise us.
TIER 3 / QUESTION 13: Have you ever taken off your wedding ring to appear as if you were single?
Reaction: Okay, back on track.
TIER 3 / QUESTION 14: Do you believe you might have been in love with another man on your wedding day?
Reaction: Similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, The Moment of Truth offered a lifeline in the form of relief from having to answer a particularly tough / embarrassing question. TMOT provided a twist in that family members could also provide relief in case they didn’t want to hear the answer. Whether overly trusting or overly stupid, Frank didn’t use the lifeline after hearing this question. What a mistake that proved to be!
Right on cue, Cleri’s ex-boyfriend walked on the set in order to ask the next question. I admit that I jumped out of my chair and clapped when I saw him. If you’re wondering, he was the unidentified “mystery guest” in the earlier picture with Lauren and her blindsided husband.
TIER 3 / QUESTION 15 (as delivered by the ex-boyfriend): If I wanted to get back together with you, would you leave your husband?
The questions at this point certainly had reached the danger zone on the cringe-worthy scale. I can understand the husband not offering her a lifeline. After all, he deserved an answer. Then again, it could have been handled much better in private.
Fortunately for the couple, Lauren’s sister hit the buzzer to stop question from being answered. Fortunately for the viewers, the reprieve would be short-lived.
REPLACEMENT QUESTION (also asked by the ex-boyfriend): Do you believe I’m the man you should be married to?
Result: True. Reached the $100K prize level.
Reaction: Clearly, the contestant didn’t want to stay married to her husband. Still, was it worth $100K to let him know on a television show? I guess so.
Perhaps thinking it couldn’t get any worse, Lauren and her family decided to press forward. Actually, her mom recommended that she stop the public humiliation. Didn’t she know . . .
Fortunately for the rest of us, Lauren ignored the advice.
TIER 4 / QUESTION 16: Since you’ve been married, have you ever had sexual relations with someone other than your husband?
Answer: Well, wow, um. I’m going to be honest and say, “Yes.”
Reaction: Before each commercial break, viewers saw this question being asked as a teaser to stay tuned. I went back and forth several times throughout the episode with the following thoughts.
- They’re showing this clip way too much. It’s a trick making us hope she’ll say, “Yes,” but in the end, she’ll say, “No.”
- She’s a despicable person. She’s going to say, “Yes.”
- That’s too cruel. She has to say, “No.”
- He’s part of this charade so he knows she’ll say, “Yes.”
- Nah, he looks like a wounded puppy who doesn’t know. She’ll say, No.” Hopefully, he can use that cute dog face in case he ever falls on hard times and wants to eat.
When it actually happened, I had the following reaction:
TIER 4 / QUESTION 17: Do you think you’re a good person?
Reaction: That should have been a slam dunk. She just spent the better part of an hour detailing her lack of integrity in front of the world. By just about any definition, she’s not a good person. In an article published by the New York Post after her appearance, she challenged the result by saying, “I am a good person. I’m not a murderer, I’m not a serial killer.” Wow, brains to match her beauty!
Upon further reflection, the producers disgusted me for setting up the contestant. After destroying her marriage and hurting her chances for future employment, she walked away with absolutely nothing. I’m sure they knew she would trip up on this question and waited to use it after she had won some money (and lost all of her self-dignity).
Not surprisingly, the couple’s marriage didn’t survive. For a People magazine article published two months after the episode aired, the contestant revealed that she and her husband no longer lived together. Furthermore, she commented that they didn’t have any intention to reunite. She expressed regret for appearing on the show, but said, “I’m thankful. It sped up the process of finding what Frank and I need.” Would you be surprised to find out that she also said, “I couldn’t be happier?”
In addition to providing the disclaimer at the beginning of Episode 5, TMOT host Mark L. Walberg tried to distance himself from the fallout after it aired. Of note, he commented that he begged for the contestant to stop numerous times during the taping of the show. In a moment of self-awareness, he told realitytvworld.com:
So while I am completely whoring myself out for cash, I’m kind and sensitive to those who have chosen to ruin their lives on national television.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Back when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire saturated ABC’s prime time lineup, I watched the show until I saw both extremes. Specifically, I stayed committed until I saw one person win the million dollars and another person miss the first question. Today, I’d skip the whole show and watch clips on YouTube instead.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to waste too much time before witnessing both extremes of The Moment of Truth. The famed Episode 5 went from jump-out-of-your-seat entertaining to shield-your-eyes disturbing within one hour. At that point, I knew it was too polarizing to last.
After the initial success of The Moment of Truth, Fox started licking its chops and envisioned having a year-round show that could challenge Survivor. Of note, it finished 13th in the 2007-08 ratings based on an average of 14 million viewers. To be fair, those numbers were distorted because only 8 million viewers remained by the end of its 10-episode initial run.
From there, ratings continued to go downhill. The audience fell from 7 million to 4 million viewers during the first eight episodes of the show’s 13-episode summer run. Based on these numbers, Fox scrapped the idea of putting it up against CBS’s powerhouse reality show. In fact, the network decided to pull the remaining 5 episodes without ever airing them.
Based on its promising start and monumental collapse, The Moment of Truth qualifies as a reality TV bust. At the same time, Huff Post suggested that it might be the “most repugnant game show in television history.” For both reasons, the show earned the #9 spot as a Top 10 Bust.
#9 REALTY TV BUST: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH