Reality TV Prizes

After investigating winners' prizes for 20 popular reality shows, The Daily Beast has learned that most dole out far less than they promise—because of payments dragged out over time, fine print, or taxes. And sometimes they give nothing at all.

NBC,Chris Haston


America's Got Talent, NBC

Prize: $1 million

What You Actually Get: $1 million if you wait 40 years, $375,000 or so right now

Having a ridiculous or Vegas-worthy talent pays off for winners of America's Got Talent, it just takes half of their life. The prize is technically an annuity that matures over 40 years, as the closing credits reveal. Like lottery winners, Talent winners can take a smaller prize upfront, around $375,000, depending upon interest rates, but otherwise, they receive just $25,000 a year. There are other jobs in Las Vegas that probably pay more than that, though they're not quite prime-time TV material.


Hell's Kitchen, Fox

Prize: A job as head chef at a restaurant; for Season 7, it's at Ramsay's new restaurant in London.

What You Actually Get: A role in the kitchen suited to your experience

Besides getting yelled at by Gordon Ramsay for weeks, and having to endure working in a kitchen with the morons the producers have stocked the cast with to ensure Ramsay has someone to really scream at, the winners of the show tend to get something less than what's announced. Its first three winners received less-impressive, less-involved roles, while the first winner received restaurant equipment instead of time in the U.K. being mentored by Ramsay. Last season's winner, Dave Levey, was promised a job as head chef at Araxi, a restaurant in Whistler, British Columbia, but its executive chef openly mocked the prize, calling the eventual winner just "an employee."


Survivor and The Amazing Race, CBS

Prizes: $1 million

What You Actually Get: $1 million minus taxes for Survivor, or $500,000 minus taxes for Amazing Race

Survivor actually gives its announced prize, though no one becomes an actual millionaire thanks to the federal government, which takes a substantial portion for taxes. Richard Hatch spent more than three years in prison after being convicted of tax evasion for not paying taxes on his winnings, among other things; he still insists he's innocent. The Amazing Race also gives its winning team $1 million, but since players compete in a pair, each only gets half that, and of course, taxes are subtracted, leaving a few hundred thousand dollars as the reward for racing around the world.

CBS / Getty Images

Big Brother, CBS

Prize: $500,000

What You Actually Get: $500,000 minus taxes as a reward for bad behavior

Being locked in a soundstage house for three months nets the winner of Big Brother $500,000, so they actually get their announced prize. Maybe they shouldn't, though? Because it's Big Brother, the show frequently gives its half-million dollar prize to a vile, disgusting human being, rewarding their behavior and encouraging future contestants to act just as despicably.

Everett Collection

The Apprentice, NBC

Prize: A year-long job as Donald Trump's apprentice, and a salary of $250,000

What You Actually Get: A job promoting Donald Trump

The Apprentice's title is actually its
Prize: a title and job as Donald Trump's apprentice. They actually got those jobs and an office in Trump Tower. But as Newsweek reported after the first two winners had worked for Trump, the "$250,000-a-year gigs are less about climbing the corporate ladder, and more about using their Apprentice celebrity to promote Trump." We'll see if that's the case once again when the regular, non-celebrity edition returns to NBC next season.


The Celebrity Apprentice, NBC

Prize: A $250,000 donation to the winner's charity and hired as "the apprentice"

What You Actually Get: The cash and a nonexistent job

The celebrity edition dispensed with half of what The Apprentice offers, as the celebrity winners don't actually go to work for Donald Trump, unless you count showing up on future seasons of the show; instead, they get the money as a donation to their charity, and the title, even though it's meaningless. Still, for the charity and the celebrity who doesn't actually have to work for Trump, that's a win-win situation.


America's Next Top Model, CW

Prize: A modeling agency contract, a Cover Girl contract, and a cover and spread in a magazine

What You Actually Get: Forgotten

Quick: Name a top model who actually came from America's Next Top Model. Yes, though Tyra Banks has produced 14 winners from her house full of beautiful, dramatic "girls," there has been no actual supermodel to come from the show. Apologists and super-fans will cite obscure appearances by the winners, but they're apologists, and that's what they do while the winners don't become supermodels. Next season, the winner's photo shoot will appear in Vogue Italia instead of Seventeen, but even that prestigious upgrade is unlikely to change the way the previous season's winner is forgotten about as soon as the cycle ends.


The Biggest Loser

Prize: $250,000 and the title of "Biggest Loser"

What You Actually Get: $250,000, weight gain, and the title even if you aren't the "biggest loser"

The Biggest Loser gives its winner the cash prize, but the game element means that it might not go to the person who loses the most weight, or the largest percentage of their original weight. That's because people are voted out, and game play encourages contestants to get rid of their biggest competition. It also encourages poor behavior to lose that weight, as The New York Times revealed, so contestants often gain back some weight immediately after the finale. But at least they've helped sell sponsors' products.

American Idol

Prize: $350,000 for the first album and up to $1 million for the sixth

What You Actually Get: An awful first single

While the prize for winning is a recording contract that awards an increasing amount of money for each subsequent album, American Idol retains the right to sign any of its finalists. In addition, the person who receives the most votes doesn't necessarily have the best album sales. Just ask Ruben Studdard (compared to his runner-up, Clay Aiken) or Taylor Hicks (his season's fourth-place finalist, Chris Daughtry, has done much better). The show hasn't done much to help them, giving the winner a treacly first single to release. American Idol has had winners become successful, but Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are the only two who approach true idol status.


Top Chef, Bravo

Prize: $125,000, a Food & Wine feature, and a showcase at a food event

What You Actually Get: An unrestricted $125,000

While one might expect the winner of Bravo's food-competition series to receive a prize that helps them advance their culinary career, it's actually far less restrictive than that. Top Chef Las Vegas winner Michael Voltaggio is still working at his pre-show job as chef de cuisine at the restaurant at Pasadena's Langham Hotel, and suggested in an interview that it would "be irresponsible" to start his own restaurant with the $125,000; instead, he plans to save it for his kids, he said in another interview.


Project Runway, Lifetime (Formerly Bravo)

Prize: $100,000 to start your own fashion line, a magazine feature, $50,000 worth of computer equipment, and a chance to show at Bryant Park during Fashion Week

What You Actually Get: That prize, if you want it; a fashion show at Bryant Park, even if you lose

Project Runway offers its winner money to create their own collection, but often the contestants talk as if the real prize is being able to show a collection at Fashion Week in New York City. For the seventh season, the second to air on Lifetime, 10 of the 16 contestants presented collections at Fashion Week, although most weren't shown on TV. Those decoy collections have been presented since the show's time on Bravo in order to conceal the results of the competition, which was still being broadcast when Fashion Week occurred, but never before had so many of the contestants presented collections. On the opposite end, during the previous season, Lifetime's first, the finalists presented their collections but weren't allowed to be present because Fashion Week occurred long before the show aired and the designers were even announced. To top it off, at least one of the show's winners has rejected the actual
prize: First-season winner Jay McCarroll said no to the $100,000 to start his own collection because it came with too many restrictions.


The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, ABC

Prize: A relationship, maybe a marriage proposal

What You Actually Get: Dumped

The Bachelor and The Bachelorette exist to find their stars true love from a group of crazy famewhores, so it's no surprise that the titles of the shows are pretty accurate: The bachelor and bachelorette nearly always end up single again. That's despite how seriously the series takes itself, with its candles and roses and swooning music. Out of 19 seasons, four couples are still together, and three of those are the most recent seasons. Perhaps this is just reflective of real relationships, or perhaps an ABC reality series isn't the best way to meet one's ideal partner.


So You Think You Can Dance

Prize: $250,000 and the title of "America's Favorite Dancer"

What You Actually Get: The cash, plus other things—if you want them

Fox's So You Think You Can Dance actually gives its announced cash prize, which has increased during the series' run, in addition to other prizes that vary by season (such as a hybrid car). But sometimes the winners don't actually want what they're offered. Second-season winner Benji Schwimmer turned down a role in Celine Dion's Las Vegas show, telling a newspaper that it wasn't his style of dance, nor did he want to live in Las Vegas for a year. The first season's winner rejected an apartment in New York and instead received the cash equivalent. But every winner gets the title of "America's Favorite Dancer," at least until America picks a new favorite the next season.


Dancing With the Stars

Prize: A mirrorball trophy

What You Actually Get: A crappy trophy, and hundreds of thousands of dollars

Despite all the work the celebrities go through on Dancing With the Stars, they are competing for something that costs the network and the show's producers practically nothing: a crappy trophy. After winning her first two trophies, Cheryl Burke said they "are falling to pieces," and its executive producer once told the AP that it's just "a stupid trophy." There's no money for charity, though there is an unannounced prize, as celebrities are paid for their time on the show. Contracts filed for Shawn Johnson, who was a minor when she appeared on the show last year, showed she could earn up to $375,000 if she made it to the end.


I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, NBC

Prize: A donation to the winner's charity, "king of the jungle" title

What You Actually Get: Not even the winner knew

For living in the jungle alongside attention addicts Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag on NBC's awful revival of I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, Lou Diamond Phillips received a donation to his charity, Art Has Heart. But six weeks after winning last summer, the charity hadn't received a check, and he told me he had no idea how much it would receive. At least he'll always have his "King of the Jungle" title.

Food Network

Design Star and The Next Food Network Star

Prize: One's own show on the network

What You Actually Get: Their own show

These two entertaining and well-produced cable reality shows make an exceptional promise: Their winner gets an entire series on the network. That's a big gamble, but the networks actually deliver. Food Network even uses its own executives as judges, which adds credibility to the process. Some of the prize shows have worked out (HGTV's first winner, David Bromstad, still has his own show on the network; Guy Fieri won the Food Network's first season and is actually one of the network's stars) while others do not (the Food Networks' third winner, Amy Finley, opted not to do more than one season of her series).


Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Prize: A brand-new house with Sears appliances

What You Actually Get: Financial burden, maybe even foreclosure

While Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has done wonderful things for very needy families during its seven seasons and more than 150 episodes, it's also left some problems in its wake. That's because families are responsible for increases in everything from utility expenses to property taxes to their mortgages, and sometimes can't afford those. Some of the houses have gone into foreclosure, though the show's producer defends its track record. However, families have not been responsible for taxes on the gift of a new house because the show has found a creative loophole: Producers lease the home for the makeover period, and then counts the improvements–i.e., a brand-new house–as the rent payment, so the recipients owe no taxes.