Things Game Shows Won't Tell You

Kelli B. Grant

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 --, 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.

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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 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.

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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.

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