1. Could you be less boring?
Prior to his audition> for "Million Dollar Money Drop," Joel Sturdivant thought he and his friend had a pretty compelling story high school sweethearts, now best friends. Then he heard one of the other would-be contestants was a lion tamer, another pair had spent the last year as missionaries in a developing country. "I knew we were screwed," he says.
To a game show's producers, fitting a type or having a unique background is as important as playing the game well, says computer programmer Warren Usui, who has been a contestant on "Jeopardy!," "Merv Griffin's Crosswords" and "20Q." They want interesting people who will keep viewers watching. For those who aren't missionaries or circus folk, Usui suggests weaving interesting tidbits into the answers to the shows' producers' personal questions. "I once lost a boa constrictor in my car," Usui recalls telling producers, who later asked him to share the details on-air with Alex Trebek during what ended up as a four-game stint on Jeopardy. (For the curious, the 6-foot-long red-tailed boa slithered behind the back seat when his owner and Usui left him unattended during a restaurant stop; despite attempts to remove him, the snake then lingered there for a month.)
2. You'll pay taxes on those winnings. Lots of taxes.
If you win, you'll owe federal and state income taxes on your total winnings and maybe more, says Melissa Labant, a tax manager at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. A big enough windfall could push you into a higher tax bracket. A married couple making $135,000 who win $10,000 would see their federal rate increase 3%, which would pad their tax bill with an extra $231 compared with someone whose winnings kept him in the same tax bracket.
Then there's the state tax bill. Winners must file a return where they won (usually California or New York), then claim the taxes paid as a credit in their home state, Labant says. If your home state has a lower tax rate, you won't get back the difference. For example, an Ohio resident who won $5,000 might pay as much as $528, or 10.55%, to California, but claim a credit for only $150, the 3% his own state would have taxed him on that income. That second state return also adds to fees for tax prep and e-filing TurboTax.com, for example charges $36.95 per state in most of its online filing options to prepare and file a return online. Net loss: $414.95.
3. Winning could ruin you.
Like lottery winners, game show contestants who come home with a cash or prize windfall can end up worse off than before, says Susan Bradley, a certified financial planner and the founder of the Sudden Money Institute. Problems start with a winner's pie-in-the-sky idea that the $100,000 he won is really exactly that amount in his pocket (taxes: see above).
The next domino: spending more than he can afford on a big ticket purchase such as a vehicle, home or home renovation. "You're mentally spending $100,000, but you don't have $100,000," says Bradley. "You have maybe $70,000." What's more, winners don't always ask the important questions on a big purchase even if their winnings can cover it. "Can you afford the taxes, the insurance, the upkeep," asks Bradley. Smart winners limit "celebration" spending to 10% of the winnings, she says, and make a plan about how best to use the total amount.
4. Taping the show makes jury duty look tame.
When Carl Balediata arrived for a 2007 taping of "Wheel of Fortune," he didn't think he'd spend the next 10 hours sequestered with other contestants to wait for his taping (the last of four shows to be taped that day). There were escorts for bathroom trips and network compliance officers to make sure contestants couldn't talk to audience members, Pat Sajak or anyone else. "It was like being on a jury," says Balediata, a San Diego lawyer who went on to win $14,000.
The tough restrictions hew to Federal Communications Commission regulations designed to prevent cheating, says Gary O'Brien, a contestant producer for "Wheel of Fortune." "We like to avoid the appearance of any impropriety," he says. It also prevents a curious contestant from wandering on to a live soundstage, say. The long waits are typical for games shows, which cram up to six 40-minute show tapings per day--plus time for breaks and a few hours for makeup, practice games and a briefing of the rules, O'Brien says.
Contestants are alerted that taping day is intense, and shows allow them to bring select books, games or other entertainment to pass the time, says Nicole Dunn, a Los Angeles producer who helped cast the U.S. daily syndicated series of "The Weakest Link." "It's not like you're locked up and you can't leave," she says. Plus, you might get lucky and tape on the early end. If not, like Balediata, you'll just be that much more eager to get up and spin that wheel.
5. Our prize values are inflated.
Non-cash prizes -- from cars and vacations to computers or a year's supply of pudding are considered income, which means winners will pay taxes on the value. But the official retail value, as stated by the game show, might be significantly higher than the actual going rate, says the AICPA's Labant. For example, a New Yorker who wins a 2011 Chevrolet Traverse might be expected to pay taxes on the MSRP of $29,999, even though price-tracker Edmunds.com reports most buyers are paying just $29,076 for the SUV. For someone in the 25% federal tax bracket, that's an extra $231 in taxes. The gap between retail and real value can be especially harmful for winners who accept a prize with the intent to resell it: They're paying taxes on a value they have no hope of recouping, which eats into the profits.
Game show winners can fight the estimated value in tax court, but proceedings can take months and rack up hundreds of dollars in court costs, says Labant. To determine if the difference in tax is big enough to warrant the fight, gather evidence on the prize's real-market value. Winners can also decline to accept a prize they don't want. In that case, there's no income to report, and no tax bill owed.
6. Win or lose, you'll be a target
Imagine waking up to the following barrage: "Kill yourself." "You're an arrogant douche. People like you give lawyers a bad name." "You are greedy and stupid!!!" Those are just a handful of the comments posted on lawyer Ken Basin's personal blog days after he became the first person to flub the $1 million question on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He also received hundreds of emails, many to his work address, from people who wanted to express their thoughts -- good and bad -- on his performance. "I was surprised -- people get really fired up," says Basin, who could have declined to answer and left with $500,000, but ended up with $25,000 for the wrong answer. ("Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" did not respond to requests for comment.)
Being in a spotlight sometimes, any spotlight presents an opportunity for people to go online and find you, says Paul Stephens, the director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Viewer attention could mean hate mail or a greater risk of fraud or identity theft if scammers are attracted to your winnings, he says. It also makes winners vulnerable financially, targets for investment pitchmen and family members who expect them to foot the bill for everything from great-aunt Ethel's trip to London to Dad's credit card debt.
7. Your competition does this for a living.
Michael Souveroff first caught game show fever in college as a contestant on "Remote Control" and "Clash." In the last 10 years, he's been on "Jeopardy!," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and "Wheel of Fortune" enough appearances to disqualify him from another until the summer of 2011, according to restrictions in show contracts. But as soon as he's allowed, he's going to rejoin the small cadre of regulars on the game show circuit. "People who do one time on a lark, that's the odd case," says Basin, who started his game show career on the college edition of "Jeopardy! "
Wannabes, take note: Souveroff, Basin, Usui and other repeat game show winners say their experience gives them an edge, because they're comfortable with the audition process and confidant in their performance. Many regulars even meet up to test their skills in regular trivia bowls. But previous experience can hurt, too -- producers aren't likely to pick someone who they recognize from a memorable appearance on another show, says Lewis Fenton, executive producer for Juma Productions, which is behind shows including "The Singing Bee" and "Elevator Up." And Basin points out that his college "Jeopardy!" appearance prevents him from auditioning for the main show, something he didn't think about at the time.
8. Fast reflexes trump a high IQ
Playwright Walter Meyer swept the board during his "Jeopardy!" audition, beating his competitors -- both former ministers even in the Old and New Testament categories. The trick: Meyer managed to nail the timing of the buzzer system, which lets contestants ring in as the last syllable of the last word in the question is read. But on the day of the taping, his luck ran out. "I was just a little out of sync, and if you ring in early, you're frozen out for 1.5 seconds," says Meyer, who came in a distant second. Former contestants often complain about the buzzer systems, though they acknowledge that the challenge of simultaneously listening to the question, thinking about an answer and watching for the prompt to buzz in is what makes for good TV. ("Jeopardy!" did not respond to requests for comment.)
Successful contestants practice, practice, practice, Meyer says, and they pay attention to producers' instructions during the audition, too, for important clues. Souveroff says producers at "Wheel of Fortune" instructed guests to "just say, 'M,' not 'I'd like an 'M,' please." Those who didn't do so didn't get through.
9. You're lousy on camera
Plenty of would-be contestants make it through the paper test, the interview and practice games only to fall flat when faced with a camera. "People have a lot of powerful reactions to a camera," says Fenton. Some look terrified; Others get so absorbed by the lights, the set, and everything going on around them that they come across as distracted. Neither get a call back. "Producers tend to look for people who, if they're happy, you can see it from 50 miles away," says Fenton.
Contestants need to bring on the energy, Fenton advises, but not so much that it comes across as fake, which would get you knocked out of the running, too.. Bright "TV-ready" clothing in bold colors helps too.
10. Even if you win, you might go home empty-handed.
When Meyer was a "Jeopardy!" contestant, he says he was told ahead of time that runners-up would get prizes instead of whatever cash they had earned during the game, as an incentive to get them to wager all they had banked on the "Final Jeopardy!" question. "They want you to go for broke and bet it all," he says. For his $5,200 bounty, Meyer's prizes included a trip to New York, a year's supply of Rice-A-Roni and a carpet cleaner. New Yorker Meredith Finnin, who also placed second on the show, ended up with even less -- just a framed photo of her and Alex Trebek -- because she turned down her prize of a vacation to Lake Mead. Taxes, she says, would have amounted to close to 40% of the trip's value.
Ah, but the lure of the show is the competition, not necessarily the prizes, say repeat contestants. The most common feedback "The Singing Bee "producer Fenton gets is that people wished they had made more of the experience. (Perhaps that's why so many go back for seconds.) "Consider it a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he says. "Suck up as much of it as you can."
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article misstated the federal tax implications of pushing a game show winner into a higher tax bracket.