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Production costs

Game shows aren’t very expensive to produce because they don’t have a lot of overhead — many film multiple episodes a day, re-use the same set and only have a few people on salary.

Typically, the bulk of profits found in running a game show come from selling ad spots.

According to an interview with Art Alisi, former CEO of Promotional Considerations Incorporated, in 2015, a 10-second commercial spot on Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000.

Sometimes, the ads even show up as sponsored items within the game itself — a form of product placement called “integrated brand partnerships.”

This works out in the show’s favor because, while the network does chip in a budget for prizes, the ad revenue helps to top up the coffers.

A perfect example of a game show that runs on integrated brand partnerships is The Price is Right (TPiR). Contestants guess the retail price of a given prize, and the one who guesses closest without going over gets to keep playing.

The majority of the prizes on TPiR are donated by advertisers, and while “donating” doesn’t sound profitable, the structure of the game means that both the viewers at home and in the studio become very familiar with each product and how much it costs.

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Playing to win on “The Big Three”

Three of today’s most well-known game shows have been around for almost 40 years. Of course, we are talking about Wheel of Fortune, The Price is Right, and Jeopardy!.

The “winningest” contestants from each of these shows have made, at minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars when it was their turn at the podium.

Take, for example, Autumn Erhard, who in 2013 solved Wheel of Fortune’s final puzzle in two seconds, making her only the second contestant in the show’s history to win over $1 million in a single episode. Or James Holtzhauer, who was the first Jeopardy! player to win over $100,000 in one appearance, and then repeated his record-breaking feat five other times.

There is a common thread between all successful game show winners: Each of them was a long-time fan; they each built a game-time strategy, and each of them studied, studied, studied.

If you’ve ever wondered about how contestants actually get in front of the camera, here’s a quick rundown on how to become a player on each of “the big three.”

The Price is Right

To be a contestant on The Price is Right, the one necessary thing you have to do is buy tickets.

While the theater can hold 325 people, only nine are chosen to “come on down,” so insiders recommend getting there early. This will help your chances at making an impression on the producers, who are responsible for choosing contestants to compete.

Chat with the other players, show the bubbling excitement you feel and you’ll have a better chance of hearing your name called when it’s go-time.

Wheel of Fortune

For Wheel of Fortune, the first step to becoming a contestant is filling out a quick online application.

Along with the application, you’ll need to include a headshot and a quick 60-second video so the producers can see a bit of your personality.

You can practice your skills by trying to solve the toss-up challenge, which can give you a feel for each of the categories and the sense of humor of the show.

Jeopardy

In order to become a contestant on Jeopardy!, you’ll need to sign up on the show’s website.

After you take a “practice test” of 50 questions, (you’ll need to get 35 in order to pass) you’ll be automatically entered into a contestants’ pool to take part in a three-day testing event that you are only allowed to take once per year.

The fine print

With all three shows, the ultimate key to securing your spot on the contestants’ stage is impressing the producers.

Even though it might be a “wildest dream” moment to win a game show, you may come crashing down to earth when you realize that, big payday or not, you may not get the prizes as advertised.

Sometimes, the cash value of the “trip to Italy'' will be substituted for the trip, and you won’t get the cash right away — it can take several months to receive your prize money. And no matter what, at the end of that road, you will still need to pay taxes on whatever you win.

Hosts

Game shows have one person consistently on salary: the host.

At their best, game shows combine novelty with familiarity, and their hosts can make the humdrum hilarious.

That’s a big part of why hosts and the success of their shows are often inextricable.

If the audience likes a particular host, they will keep tuning in, and the hosts’ take-home pay proves that.

Pat Sajak reportedly makes $14 million a year just from hosting Wheel of Fortune— pretty sweet if you consider that the show only films four days a month. Sajak will be retiring at the end of the 2024 season, with Ryan Seacrest being tapped as his successor.

At the time of his death in 2020, Alex Trebek’s contract netted him about $10 million a year, which at the time made him the second-wealthiest game show host on the circuit, after Sajak.

It’s hard to believe, but TPiR has been around for over 50 years and has only had two hosts: Bob Barker and Drew Carey. In 2021, Carey reportedly took home $12.5 million from hosting TPiR.

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Pop culture pivot

These days, what remains fascinating about game shows beyond the genre’s impressively low production costs and loyal fanbase, is that they continue to — ever so gradually — change with the times.

Part of the formula of success for the shows themselves is nostalgia and tradition, as we’ve seen, but they’ve also needed to adapt to demand. For instance, if you sign up for streaming service Hulu, you’ll be able to watch all the classic episodes of Jeopardy! you want, as well as keep up with the 2023-24 season.

An interesting case study is Sony’s Game Show Network. The platform did have a subscription-based app for a while, but since early 2023 has gone back to being partnered with cable providers.

This is no doubt a symbiotic relationship: Game shows can still avail themselves of the massive budgets of the cable companies, and while more and more customers are ditching their cable packages, there will still be game show fans looking for their shows on the small screen, where they’ve always been.

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Bronwyn Petry Email Specialist

Bronwyn is currently part of the email content team for Moneywise. Before starting here, they freelanced for several years, focusing on B2B content and technical copy. Pre-pandemic, you could find them planning their next trip, but lately, if they're not at work, you can find them hanging out with their cat and dog.

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