Why do so many people dream of competing on a television game show? Is it for their 30 minutes in the spotlight, the ability to brag to friends and family, or the desire to prove to themselves that they can do it? Short answer: all of the above! But what really pushes hundreds of thousands of people to apply and go through rounds of castings and tests is the possibility of winning a lot of money.
If you’ve seen an episode of Jeopardy!, you know that the winnings can easily reach tens of thousands of dollars. The possibility of taking that money home is very enticing. There is just one catch: not everyone gets to take their winnings home. You have to be the lucky one to turn your hard-earned Jeopardy! cash into real-world dollars. Keep reading to find out why Jeopardy! contestants don’t always get to keep the money.
Why Don’t Jeopardy! Contestants Keep Their Winnings?
It might come as a surprise for many to learn that not all Jeopardy! contestants get to walk away with their winnings. The winner is determined by the amount of money they’ve won, which depends on the number of questions answered correctly. At the same time, the first and second runners-up often boast a handsome sum on their scoreboards too. Unfortunately for them, they do not get to take that money home.
There is a very specific and straightforward system on Jeopardy!. The winner of the game gets to play against two other contestants in the next game. Their winnings get transferred to the next episode, and they get a chance to win even more money. They still get to keep their winnings from the previous episode if they lose. And, if they win, they can take that money and continue to the next episode until they lose to another contestant (which could take quite a while, depending on the winner’s level of skill!).
The contestant that gets second place walks away with $2,000, which is not a bad consolation prize. The person in third place gets $1,000. The two players receive that money regardless of the size of their winnings. Come to think of it, it’s not a bad reward for going on the show and answering trivia questions in front of a live studio audience.
These are the rules for regular Jeopardy! episodes. The rules may differ in the case of a 2-way tie, a 3-way tie, or a special championship.
Now, the question is, why doesn’t Jeopardy! just pay everyone the amount that they earned? That sounds like a fair and reasonable system, doesn’t it? There is a very simple answer: it would cost way too much! Jeopardy! is a successful television game show that has been running for over 35 seasons. Even without the late host Alex Trebek, it continues to bring families together in front of the TV. Nevertheless, the winnings tend to be so large that they would probably go out of business after a few months of such generosity.
The Hypothetical Cost of Paying Everyone
The cost of paying everyone their winnings could make a significant dent in the show’s budget. Though there is the odd contestant that ends the episode with $100 in their bank, most have over a thousand by the end of the game. So, how much would it cost, exactly, to pay everyone? Let’s see.
Let’s look at the month of December 2022, from the 1st of the month until the 28th. By the end of each episode, the cumulative winnings of all three contestants average just above $40,000. I arrived at that number by adding up the winnings of all three contestants. I then found the sum of all the cumulative winnings for the past 20 episodes and divided it by 20 to find the average.
If every single player got their winnings at the end of these 20 episodes, that would set the show back $821,319. If, on the other hand, we stick to the current system and only pay the whole sum to the winner and give the runner-up $2,000 and the second runner-up $1,000, the show pays out $615,859 in winnings. That lands us at an approximate average of just above $30,000 per episode.
At only about $10,000 per day, the difference is not too grand. However, this money can add up to a significant sum through the years. Supposing the showrunners don’t want to pay everyone off because it would cost too much, they’re saving a decent amount per year. Perhaps there is a certain element of exclusivity that plays into it too. Only the winner will receive their winnings. Provided they exceed $2,000, it’s not a bad deal!
Even though the runners-up don’t get to keep everything they’ve won, they still get a consolation prize, which is reassuring. This way, the winner gets to feel superior and experience all the joys of earning their money the hard way.
What do you think about this system? Should Jeopardy! give every contestant what they deserve (or what they’ve earned), or are they doing the contestants a favor by giving them any money at all? Knowing what you know now, would you still consider going on an episode of Jeopardy!? Why or why not?
And for more lessons in Jeopardy! history, check out our articles on why contestants always look to the left, if Jeopardy! has ever had wrong answers, and the show’s unique answering format. For more info on game show winnings, check out this article on whether or not Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is tax-free.