“I have the ability to cover my council tax payment!” – the diminishing value of television prize winnings.
After winning the sixth season of Big Brother in 2005, Anthony Hutton was able to shop without checking price tags. Currently a 41-year-old barber and mental health advocate residing in Darlington, Hutton spent his £50,000 winnings generously. Along with money from photoshoots, he purchased a Range Rover, traveled to Las Vegas, and invested in property. He even treated his aunt to a vacation at Disney World. Reflecting on his extravagant spending, Hutton reminisces about driving to the Monaco Grand Prix in a Lamborghini, a far cry from his previous trips to Magaluf.
After being declared the winner of the latest season of Big Brother in November, 26-year-old Jordan Sangha’s face lit up with satisfaction. He excitedly exclaimed, “I can finally afford my council tax!”
People appear on reality TV for any number of reasons: fame, glory, finally getting to taste kangaroo testicles. Yet an undeniable draw is the cash prize, which has been a constant on British TV since the 1955 gameshow Take Your Pick! But – as often seems to be the case – things aren’t what they used to be. When the latest series of reality competition The Traitors debuted on BBC One in early January, host Claudia Winkleman asked contestants what they would spend £120,000 on if they won.
One participant expressed that they had no support or backup plan, making this their only opportunity to establish themselves. (They were eliminated from the show in episode four.) Another contestant had a goal of paying off their mother’s mortgage, while another wanted to treat their siblings to meals. Only one person mentioned their desire to travel the world. Another stated that they couldn’t afford to get married due to the current financial crisis: “I would love to get married, but it’s just not feasible.”
Previously achievable goals are now seen as ambitious. This is not a revelation to those who have attempted to purchase a bottle of ketchup recently, but it is noteworthy to observe its impact on the aspirations of reality TV hopefuls. Hutton, a former postal worker, competed on Big Brother after giving up his dream of becoming a professional football player. He wondered if this was the peak of his life and applied for the show in hopes of a life-changing opportunity. His intuition was correct. However, could it be that now people apply solely to cover their expenses?
The first winner of Big Brother, Craig Phillips, decided to donate his £70,000 prize money to cover the cost of a heart and lung transplant for a friend. The second winner of the series, Brian Dowling, has stated that he spent at least half of his winnings on traveling, vacations, and luxury items such as designer clothes and a personalized Gucci belt. However, following the economic recession, Chloe Wilburn, who won the largest prize of £116,100 in 2015, immediately returned to work. Wilburn explained that she had plans to get married, start a family, and even put an offer on a house with her winnings. She also shared that she was unable to spend her winnings freely as her mother was holding onto the money to keep her grounded and prevent her from spending it on extravagant trips.
Not all narratives of decline are the same – contestants on reality TV shows have always strived to keep up with the increasing cost of living. For example, the first winner of Britain’s Got Talent, Paul Potts, used his prize of £100,000 to pay off his debts. The second winner, George Sampson, openly discussed his financial struggles on the show and even admitted to busking to help his mother afford petrol. Producers have always been aware that certain stories are more captivating to viewers. However, long-time gameshow participant Mike Stratton reveals how the dynamic has evolved over time.
According to Stratton, a 55-year-old who has been featured on 18 quizshows and authored a book titled “How to Get on Game Shows and Win £1000’s: Confessions of a Game Show Addict,” the rising cost of bills has shifted his focus from indulgences to everyday necessities. Over the course of 23 years, he has accumulated a total of £70,000 in cash and prizes, which he has used for expenses such as laser-eye surgery, IVF, cars, and vacations. However, his most recent winnings of £2,400 from the BBC gameshow Decimate in 2016 were put towards paying off credit card debt.
According to Stratton, a male stripper residing in Wigan, winning £40,000 is now equivalent to what he could do with £10,000 twenty years ago. His initial £10,000 victory was on the 2001 edition of the game show Greed, hosted by Jerry Springer, where he correctly answered the question, “What building is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC?” with “The White House.” He used the money for a down payment on a house, a vacation, and other miscellaneous expenses. In 2000, the average house deposit was £9,865, but by 2023, it had increased to £62,500. To put it differently, two decades ago, reaching question eight out of fifteen on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would have covered most of a down payment; now, one would need to reach question eleven.
The cost of living has risen over the past twenty years, and at the same time, prize money has often decreased. This was notably seen when the popular Channel 4 quiz show The Million Pound Drop was renamed The £100k Drop in 2018. Similarly, when Survivor first aired in 2001, its prize money was £1m, but when it returned in 2023, it had been reduced to only one tenth of the initial amount.
The amount of winnings that have remained unchanged may have actually decreased. While the winners of Britain’s Got Talent have been given a significant sum of £250,000 each since 2013, the impact of inflation suggests that the prize money would need to be raised to £330,000 in order to have the same worth in today’s economy.
Hutton argues that prize money should adjust for inflation, not just to cover living expenses, but also to improve the quality of television. He suggests that a £250,000 prize on Love Island would lead to strategic gameplay and potential compromise of contestants’ morals for the cash.
There are still some television shows that offer large sums of money. Recently, two NHS workers named Helen and Charlie won £1 million on Ant and Dec’s “Limitless Win” game show, where the prize has no limit. Despite the significant amount, the couple stated that their first priority would be paying off their mortgage, and they also mentioned needing a new used car. In 2004, a Scottish nurse won £1 million on “The Vault,” becoming the largest amount ever won on live TV at the time. Her initial plan was to take a luxurious trip to St Lucia.
In 2003, a student who won £700,000 on The Vault mentioned using the money to purchase a holiday home in Spain.
Maybe current participants are not interested in showing off, but it is evident that winnings are not as valuable as they used to be. In the span of 2022 to 2023, the cost of vacation packages has risen by 30%. The term “£1m home” used to bring to mind images of grand estates with servants, but now it refers to a three-bedroom townhouse in London. Certain programs have recognized the financial struggles of our times. For instance, in 2022, This Morning held a spin-to-win contest where the reward was having four months’ worth of energy bills covered.
The situation can be seen as dystopian when individuals participate in competitions not for luxury, but for basic necessities. We may be closer to the world depicted in The Hunger Games than we realize. In this setting, how will viewers respond to negative actions portrayed on television? On programs like The Traitors, contestants often justify their manipulative tactics with the common phrase: “It’s just a game.” However, if the prize is essential for someone’s shelter or retirement savings, the stakes are incredibly high.