Quiz show fraud makes prime-time viewing

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It was just before 8pm on Sunday and Italy's best-known variety show, Domenica In, was reaching its nailbiting climax. Mara Venier, the presenter, had just got through by phone to a viewer in Rome who had been selected, supposedly at random, to take part in a grand quiz.

"Marco," she said, "there are 100 million lire at stake. Are you ready?"

"If only I could win, Mara, the money would really come in handy," Marco responded.

If only. Marco, as it turned out, had every reason to suppose he would win since he had been supplied - illegally - with the quiz answers in advance. He duly sailed through the first question, concerning another popular Italian television programme.

But then things started to go wrong. Before the show went on air, the programme makers suspected something fishy might be going on, so they switched the second question at the last minute. Marco plunged straight into the trap. Ms Venier asked for the name of the latest album by the Italian singer Franco Califano, only to be given the answer to the question that had been dropped - the name of the mother of the Italian actor Alessandro Gassman.

"What do you mean Juliette Mayniel?" Ms Venier fumed. "Why did you say Juliette Mayniel?"

"It was suggested to me," Marco mumbled.

Thus began the latest scandal to hit Italy's beleaguered television screens. By yesterday no fewer than three people had gone through the judicial ringer: Marco, a 30-year-old barman, an accountant called Angelo Vegliante, and Umberto Baldini, the Finance Ministry official whose job it was to select the telephone numbers for the programme and keep them secret.

According to the confessions of Marco and Mr Baldini, the scam involved a straightforward trade-off. The viewer was given the quiz answers and in return he handed over a proportion of the prize money. As further details have leaked out, it appears that on the night there was a frantic race against time between Ms Venier's producer, who was determined to uncover the fraud, and Mr Baldini, who realised he was being unmasked and tried in vain to keep Marco off the air.

The affair, with its melodramatic denouement broadcast live to the nation, is reminiscent of Robert Redford's movie Quiz Show, which told the true story of a game show fraud on American television in the 1950s.