Narrative tension in competition reality-television programs doesn't come from writers’ imaginations, nor from Lost-like smoke-monsters. Instead, these shows, from American Idol to Top Chef, cull most of their drama from the show’s prize. The competition exists to award one person something spectacular—$1 million, a job, or even just a title—and contestants battle each other to get it.
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When the show is a talent competition—such as American Idol—ultimately the marketplace will decide whether the right winner was chosen. After all, how many American Idol winners have become actual idols?
As a season unfolds, most of the competitors are looking at the prize at the end as the thing that will change their lives. But they may not know about the fine print: America’s Got Talent, which began its fifth season at the beginning of the month, for instance, promises “the ultimate prize: $1 million, and a headline show in the entertainment capital of the world, Las Vegas,” as host Nick Cannon described at the start of a recent broadcast. But that $1 million is actually an annuity, which pays out about $25,000 over 40 years—before taxes.
Other times, the prize gets modified because it’s so consequential. Fox's Hell's Kitchen gives Gordon Ramsay fodder to scream/entertain via the idiocy of its contestants, but it also promises one of them an actual job in a restaurant. While the fourth-season winner was to become executive chef at Ramsay’s West Hollywood restaurant in the London hotel, she became senior chef instead—mentored by an executive chef.
During this current season airing on Fox, Ramsay is again offering a position at one of his restaurants as the prize, and he told me, via email, that’s to be expected: “You can’t take someone and put them in an unfamiliar restaurant and expect them to” do well, he said, so “they need to have a mentor and work alongside an executive chef.”
At least the chef who survives Ramsay’s soundstage restaurant hazing actually gets something. The first America’s Next Top Model winner, Adrianne Curry, told Steppin’ Out magazine in 2005 that her promised modeling contract “fell through” and said, “We trusted Tyra [Banks] but we’ve all been screwed over.” At the time, Banks responded sympathetically, saying that the agency that signed Curry made the mistake of sending her abroad. “So instead of her being a star in these countries, she became a brand new model that no one knows who she is.” (Curry still returns to the unhappy subject occasionally on her Twitter feed.)
The Daily Beast has investigated the prizes for 20 popular reality shows, and for most of them, winners have ended up with far less than what they were promised, for varying reasons: because the government is entitled to a large share of the prize, producers hide the details, or the job meant to be theirs doesn’t quite exist. And sometimes—as in Curry’s case—winners get nothing at all.