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"Survivor" host Jeff Probst speaks to the contestants during the "Survivor: China" finale at CBS Television City on December 16, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. "Survivor," barring one returnee season, has offered the same $1 million prize for decades. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Why haven’t more game show prizes been adjusted for inflation?

Janet Nguyen Jun 29, 2023
"Survivor" host Jeff Probst speaks to the contestants during the "Survivor: China" finale at CBS Television City on December 16, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. "Survivor," barring one returnee season, has offered the same $1 million prize for decades. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Inflation eventually comes for us all, even our game show prize winnings. 

While some game shows and reality TV competitions have raised their prize winnings over time, several have maintained the same jackpots for years, sometimes decades. Inflation means those same prizes are now worth less than when they were initially offered. 

“Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” have typically offered $1 million grand prizes since they debuted more than 20 years ago. But if those amounts kept up with inflation, winners on “Survivor” would now be getting a $1.8 million prize, while the winners on “The Amazing Race” would be raking in north of $1.7 million. 

“Everything’s more expensive, so why shouldn’t the winnings be more?” said Becca Droz, a two-time competitor on “The Amazing Race.” 

Although inflation is starting to cool down, inflation rates have increased over the past two years, reaching a 40-year high of 9.1% in June. 

The prizes for runners-up, along with compensation for expenses like travel and lodging, can vary depending on the game show. Runners-up on shows such as “Jeopardy!” have to pay for their own airfare and walk away with very small consolation prizes, while those on a show like “Survivor” can end up taking home tens of thousands of dollars.

“Marketplace” spoke to contestants from game shows, including “The Amazing Race,” “Jeopardy!” and “Survivor,” who expressed gratitude for their experience and say they’ve been able to parlay their appearances into career opportunities.

But most of the competitors we interviewed also say that the runners-up or consolation prizes, if not the final prize, should be worth more. 

They say that the prizes should increase for various reasons, including the fact that everyday expenses are higher and taxes on prizes mean contestants get much less than advertised. 

Small cash prizes, the months-long wait to receive your check and the time commitment needed to compete could also keep these shows from reaching a more diverse applicant pool. Many contestants who are able to compete on reality TV shows have flexible schedules or the financial wherewithal to upend their lives and spend weeks away from home.

ShowInitial PrizeValue if prize were adjusted for inflationCurrent prize Change in value of prize over time
Survivor (2000)$1 million $1.77 million$1 million-44%
Big Brother (2000)$500,000 $883,000$750,000-15%
The Amazing Race (2001)$1 million$1.72 million$1 million-42%
Top Chef (2006)$100,000$150,860$250,000+66%
America’s Got Talent (2006)$1 million$1.51 million$1 million-34%
Chopped (2009)$10,000$14,180$10,000-30%
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009)$20,000$28,350$200,000+606%
MasterChef (2010)$250,000$348,680$250,000-28%

These amounts do not take into account any additional prizes, cash-related or not, contestants may have received. Some seasons of these shows have also provided larger final grand prizes on special occasions.

“Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune”: Is it time to raise the jackpot? 

Jean Westcott, who competed on “Jeopardy!” back in 2021, said her total bill ended up being more than $880. Because the show doesn’t reimburse for hotel accommodations or travel, she paid out of pocket for a three-night hotel stay and her flight from Arlington, Virginia to Los Angeles. 

While the show has provided contestants with a shuttle from the hotel to the studio, COVID-19 protocol at the time forced her to pay for a car rental. However, she had travel and hotel points that ended up shrinking her bill to about $536, without counting meals and tips. As the third-place contestant, she netted $1,000, which covered less than half of her expenses.

“Basically if I hadn’t had all those points, it would’ve been a lot of money out of pocket for two days,” she said. 

In 2021, Jean Westcott competed on “Jeopardy!” — a lifelong dream of hers. (Courtesy Jean Westcott)

Westcott had just been laid off, but she was willing to make the sacrifice because appearing on the show had been a lifelong dream of hers. 

“I had been trying out for ‘Jeopardy!’ since the ‘90s. I had done in-person auditions and all this other stuff, and I got the chance and I just was gonna do it. It was a lifetime goal,” Westcott said. “It was a financial burden, a significant one. But at the same time, because I had travel points and such, it was an achievable dream.”

For more than 20 years, the consolation prizes for runners-up have remained the same, with second-place contestants taking home $2,000 and third-place contestants receiving $1,000. Beforehand, trips and merchandise were offered as prizes. 

“It’s not enough money, and it really hurts the idea of diversifying the people who can play,” Westcott said. 

She also noted that checks can come several months after your episode airs, which means you have to pay upfront for your travel and lodging. 

“Jeopardy!” is marked by prestige, a game show that champions the pursuit of knowledge. But at the end of the day, Westcott pointed out that the show is still a commercial enterprise that makes money, so it should pay contestants fairly. 

What amount would be fair? Westcott thinks $3,000 minimum would cover most people’s expenses. Or even just covering hotel expenses would be a tremendous help. 

Josh Woo, a game show contestant who’s been on multiple shows, including “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” said while monetary prizes are a nice bonus, they aren’t the primary reason he goes on them. (Full disclosure: Woo used to work as a producer at Marketplace.) 

But he agrees that contestants on a show like “Jeopardy!” should get greater consolation prizes — at least enough to significantly offset the cost of expenses like travel, especially since airline flights are more expensive than they were pre-pandemic. 

The clues on “Jeopardy!” — ranging from $200 to $2,000 each — have also stayed the same for decades. In 2001, the show doubled those amounts in response to the massive jackpot on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and has kept them at those values since. 

But Woo said he thinks it makes sense to keep those dollar values the same. “They used to cap you at five games. Now that they’ve removed that cap, you can go on and win hundreds of thousands, if not millions,” he said.

Marketplace reached out to a representative from “Jeopardy!” for comment, but did not receive a response by publication time. 

“Jeopardy!” clues and consolation prizes have remained the same for decades. (Credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

There are some game shows, like “Wheel of Fortune,” that have increased cash prizes over time. Although the highest-value wedge on the show’s wheel is still $1 million, Woo noted the lowest value jumped up from $300 to $500 in 2014.

Former contestants say that “Wheel of Fortune” also doesn’t pay for airfare or hotel expenses. But Woo pointed out that unlike “Jeopardy!” all the contestants are rewarded with the money they’ve accumulated by the end of the episode. If you end up with nothing, you receive a consolation prize of $1,000.

Competitive reality TV: Bigger prizes, but a bigger investment

Competitive reality TV shows that film for weeks can come with far more generous prize packages, but contestants have to make greater sacrifices. They’re isolated from friends and family members for weeks, sometimes placed in environments where fellow contestants, in the case of “Survivor,” wage psychological warfare against one another. 

Some of these shows have increased their grand prizes since they first launched. CBS’ “Big Brother” raised its prize from $500,000, which it had been offering since its first season debuted in 2000, to $750,000 in 2021. And the winning prize on MTV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” rose from $20,000 in the first season, which premiered in 2009 on Logo TV, to $200,000 in 2023.  

But others, like “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race,” have remained the same (although there are some special occasions where the prize is doubled, like on “Survivor: Winners At War,” which featured a cast of previous winners).  

Both shows, which air on CBS, also pay runners-up on a sliding scale. There is no publicly available data showing how much every contestant receives throughout each season. But Nancy Gunn, a producer on “The Amazing Race” from 2002 to 2005, said that when she worked on the show, the first eliminated team received $1,500. The amounts go up the further you make it in the race, with the third-place team earning $10,000 and the second-place team taking home $25,000. 

Reports show that at least some prize amounts on “Survivor” have remained the same. Entertainment Tonight said that the second place winner on “Survivor” received $100,000 for their placement in the show’s latest season, which aired earlier this year. That’s the same amount that the runner-up took home back in 2000. One big change in potential earnings: Lucky castaways in recent years have received prize money from the pop star Sia, a “Survivor” superfan who famously likes to give tax-free cash gifts to contestants she likes. 

Contestant have also typically received $10,000 for appearing on “Survivor’s” live reunion show, where the winner is announced. However, for the past few seasons, the reunion show has been replaced by an aftershow that takes place on location.

We reached out to CBS to find out if runners-up prizes have changed over time, and also asked for comment on game show prizes, but did not receive a response by publication time. 

Rowan Joseph, who competed on “The Amazing Race” back in 2013, is one contestant who doesn’t think prize money needs to go up.

“It's grueling, don't get me wrong. But the [race] is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is greater than any financial value you can put on it,” said Joseph, who's president of the film company Greenwood Hill Productions.

Joseph said the experience was invaluable to him because he got to be thrown together with teams from all different backgrounds.

Rowan Joseph (right) and his "Amazing Race" teammate Shane Partlow (left) may have been eliminated second, but that didn't stop them from enjoying their time on the show.
Rowan Joseph (right) and his "Amazing Race" teammate Shane Partlow (left) are pictured above, prior to competing on the race. They may have been eliminated second, but that didn't stop them from enjoying their time on the show. (Courtesy Rowan Joseph)

“Two of the guys were NFL players — people that we would never have, in all likelihood, gotten to meet,” Joseph said. After Joseph and his teammate, Shane Partlow, lost the race and came in 10th place, they stayed at a villa in Tuscany that they jokingly nicknamed “Loser’s Lodge.” Excursions throughout Rome, along with their meals, were all paid for.

“We were very well taken care of over the course of our time with the race,” he said.

But some other contestants on reality TV shows, when asked, say that it's time to up the ante on the grand prize and rewards for the runners-up. “The answer is, unequivocally, yes,” said former contestant Sean Rector, who competed on the fourth season of the show, “Survivor: Marquesas,” which aired in 2002.  

“Inflation affects our daily life and everything is expensive and has gone up,” said Rector, who’s now president and CEO of the T.Y.M.E. Foundation, a nonprofit that offers a youth outreach for boys and educational programs geared toward the needs of Black students in middle school and high school. 

Rector, who placed fifth during his season, pointed out that you also owe taxes on your winnings, which he wasn’t aware of at the time. 

Yes, game show winnings are taxed just like your income. You have to pay up to 37%, which is the top federal income tax rate, and you may also face city and state taxes, although there are some states without an income tax. Other non-cash prizes, such as trips and gifts, are also taxed. 

Since appearing on "Survivor," Sabrina Thompson has formed a media production company called Kuu Productions. (Courtesy Sabrina Thompson)

“In retrospect, I wish they would have had a financial planner, or at least someone there to say, ‘Hey, guys, this is what you need to do, because Uncle Sam will be coming after you,” Rector said. “I turned into Daddy Warbucks. I was paying people's bills.”

Sabrina Thompson — who finished in second place on “Survivor: One World,” which aired in 2012 — also agrees the “Survivor” $1 million jackpot should be higher, while the runners-up prizes should scale up accordingly. 

“I think it's just the right thing to do,” Thompson said. “The people make the show, in essence. The different personalities and stories behind people — they make the show.”

Becca Droz, from “The Amazing Race,” pointed out there are experiences you have on the race that you can’t put a price tag on, but said that increasing the cash prizes is “just logical.” 

Those with jobs who are taking time off to compete, she added, are taking a pay cut if they don’t win certain prize amounts. 

Droz said she was able to compete on the show because she had a flexible lifestyle and work schedule, working as a barista and a rock climbing instructor, along with tackling odd jobs here and there. 

Former "Amazing Race" producer Nancy Gunn, who's now a professor at Tulane University, said the prize money is — as they say in New Orleans — “lagniappe,” or a bonus. But she thinks if you are going to quit your job or take a leave of absence, you should receive a stipend, which some shows do provide, like “Hell’s Kitchen” (which she also produced).

Becca Droz competed on the 29th and 31st seasons of "The Amazing Race" with teammate Floyd Pierce. (Credit: James Lucas)

Peih-Gee Law, who competed in 2007 on “Survivor: China” and in 2015 on “Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance," said she owned her own jewelry business at the time she was on both seasons, so she didn’t have to request time off like other contestants with a 9-to-5 job. And Erik Reichenbach, a two-time contestant who was on “Survivor: Micronesia” in 2008 and “Survivor: Caramoan” in 2013, noted he was a student the first time he competed.

“My parents, essentially, were funding my life. I was of means in that respect,” Reichenbach said. “I wasn't working and going to school, I was just going to school. So I had that ability to walk away and do this.” 

Rector said he thinks it’s easier to take time off to compete if you have job security or money set aside, pointing out there was a Superior Court Judge on his season. 

“I definitely think that the demographic of people that would apply is affected by the time commitment,” he said. 

Rector said to be able to compete on the show, he saved enough money as a safety cushion to ensure he could keep paying rent. “I was an actor who became a teacher by default because I had to pay bills in-between auditions,” Rector said. “I wasn’t getting paid while I was on the show.”

And even though “Survivor” contestants can walk away with tens of thousands, as Rector did, there’s a months-long gap between when contestants compete and when they’re actually paid, just like with “Jeopardy!” contestants. 

On “Survivor,” the time spent away from home is also longer than the competition, which was typically 39 days (now 26 days, a change that was initially made in response to COVID-19 quarantine rules). Peih-Gee Law said you’re on site before the game begins to handle press and deal with medical-related matters. 

Even preparing to be on the show is a time commitment. 

After first Rector competed on “Survivor,” he was asked back for the show’s “All-Stars” season, which was filled with returning cast members. 

Survivor contestant Sean Rector attending the "Survivor: Thailand" finale and reunion show back in 2002, which aired shortly after his season: "Survivor: Marquesas." (Credit: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

“I accepted, so I physically was getting ready. I was going to the gym,” he said. He got his life in order, informing his school’s principal that he would be competing again. 

But the show ultimately decided not to cast him on the show —  a decision that producers failed to relay to him. There he was, on the day he was supposed to leave, waiting in his living room with his newborn and then-girlfriend, confused about the lack of communication. 

“What seems like sour grapes was justified,” he said. 

Rector was asked back once again to participate on “Survivor,” but he wanted money upfront to help support his family. “If I say yes, I need to have in writing that I'm gonna have money to be left because I am a breadwinner,” he said. “Jeff [Probst, the host] is not losing paychecks.” 

He didn’t get a call back, but based on his previous experience, this time he expected it. 

Rector, who now has three children, said setting aside time to be on the show without upfront compensation would be “a huge sacrifice.” 

“Why do that for a billion-dollar network?’” Rector said. 

These shows offers more than the advertised cash prizes 

Peih-Gee Law said that competing on "Survivor" has opened up career and networking opportunities. (Courtesy Peih-Gee Law)

Both Law and Reichenbach noted there are intangible benefits contestants gain from competing. Law, who is “eternally grateful” for getting the chance to be on “Survivor,” said the show helped with networking opportunities and now she co-hosts a podcast called “Reality Escape Pod,” where they discuss immersive gaming. Meanwhile, Reichenbach, who’s an artist, said “Survivor” fans check out illustrated comics he makes of the show. 

“It's kind of this weird, niche side hustle-slash-passion. So I definitely see some business from that,” he said. 

Reichenbach also said that the rise of influencer culture, fueled by social media, means you can gain many followers overnight through a reality show appearance, which can translate into brand deals. 

But despite those benefits, both also said that the prizes should go up. Reichenbach went home fifth during both of his seasons, earning the same amount for both appearances. He collected $55,000 each time, plus the additional $10,000 appearance fee all contestants received for being on “Survivor’s” reunion show. 

Contestant Erik Reichenbach attending the 2013 finale and reunion show for "Survivor: Caramoan," which he competed on. (Credit Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

“I could afford a house, I could afford a car, I could afford a wedding. I could afford the things that normal people want to have in their life,” Reichenbach said. “[The winnings] helped me have a good, decent, middle-class life. And I think it’s important for the prizes to maintain the same value over time, because someone may go on the show and they won't get the same quality of life as maybe I did winning earlier in time.” 

Thompson, who came in second place, is another contestant who said she’s grateful for her time on the show. She earned $100,000, along with the $10,000 reunion fee. 

“I'm not complaining about my earnings at all, because it was more than what I had at the time,” she said. She said she got a speaking agent and has been able to make extra money by speaking at colleges and high schools about her experience on the show. 

She paid off her debt, spent a year traveling the world, and formed Kuu Productions, a media production company. 

“It's all been a win-win for me, but also, just because it's a win-win for me doesn't mean I shouldn't rock the boat and challenge the status quo. And so I'm just like, ‘Y’all know you should raise that money,’” Thompson said.  

Will we ever see prizes go up? 

There’s one simple reason why we won’t see prizes directly correlated with the rate of inflation anytime soon.  

“Game shows really like neat numbers,” said Vin Rubino, a game show producer with a long career in the industry. So you couldn’t adjust a $1 million prize to, say, $1.77 million. It would have to be $2 million or $2.5 million. 

“In 2023, while a million dollars is not worth as much, for most viewers, that is still life-changing money,” said Rubino, who served as a producer on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and more recently, “The $100,000 Pyramid.”  

Rubino said that with the advent of streaming, it’s become harder for reality TV show budgets to support bigger prizes, and with not much payoff since it wouldn’t mean greater audience numbers. 

“You’ll still get the same amount of viewership if you call something a million-dollar show,” Rubino said. 

During the heyday of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Rubino said the viewership was “astronomical.” 

“We had millions and millions and millions of viewers. And even if you gave away a million dollars, that was offset by what you were able to charge, for ad dollars, because your show is hitting big numbers and getting a large audience,” Rubino said.

That audience size is rare for broadcast TV these days, Rubino added. 

Contestant Doug Van Gundy competing on a 1999 episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (Photo By Getty Images)

With the tens of thousands of applications these game shows receive, being chosen is often framed as an opportunity of a lifetime for the contestants. It’s a favor to you, for being selected. Not the network. 

Nancy Gunn said she thinks money on “The Amazing Race” motivates contestants as they reach the end of the race. “But honestly, I think most people are really on that show to test themselves for bragging rights and to see if they can do it,” she said.

And Sabrina Thompson said there are players who love “Survivor” so much, they would probably even do it for free, which she can understand.  

“It's such a thrilling, exhilarating rush. It's very hard to put in words,” Thompson said.

Because so many contestants would be willing to compete regardless of the prize, these shows don’t have an incentive to raise prizes. “If they know you would do it for free, then why would they up the money?” Thompson said. 

On shows with professional actors, unions can advocate for a fair wage, time off and better safety conditions. But reality show contestants — who lack their own union — don’t have the power to collectively bargain and make similar demands. 

Rector, who was a unionized actor, said he recognized his worth, which is why he fought for upfront pay. 

“You have every right to negotiate on your behalf, even if it means them telling you no,” Rector said.

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