Reality television has certainly generated some big paydays for its stars and become a cash cow for networks. But for most of the people we see on-screen, there’s very little in the way of payment.
That may be surprising to you, but that’s just the business of reality shows.
Reality shows were designed from the beginning to be cheap television. They’re a break from the huge budgets that scripted TV needs, and they give networks more bang for their buck.
“The only people that really make money off the show is the network,” a reality TV agent told Business Insider on condition of anonymity.
As one reality producer told Reader’s Digest, “We’re always trying to get as much talent as possible while spending as little money as possible. Ninety-nine percent of the people on reality TV get their expenses covered and maybe a daily stipend of $20 or $30, but that’s it.”
So how do networks get away with paying people basically nothing?
They’re free labor by association.
- Matthew Eiseman/Bravo
To start, let’s look at ensemble reality shows. These are marketed as “fly-on-the-wall” shows, in which the cameras follow people’s ordinary (or extraordinary) lives. The “Real Housewives” franchise, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and “Pawn Stars” fall into this category.
While the show’s main and secondary players are making some kind of salary that ranges anywhere from $15,000 for supporting players to as high as $10 million per season for main cast members, often spouses and friends are paid nothing. They’re basically considered part of the package when shooting a main character. These people sign a release for the producers to use footage of them with the understanding that their loved one is really the one making the dough.
Why would anyone appear for free? In some cases, they just want to be on TV; they may want to get their brand, business, or product in the public eye; or they might hope to be promoted to a paid cast member at some point.
In some cases, an appearance fee is paid. For example, if the production needs to make a party look packed, then it will pay some of the people who are attending. One reality TV agent, who asked to remain anonymous, told Business Insider that he knows someone who was paid $1,200, which included that person’s hair and makeup, to attend the taping of a friend’s party.
They just couldn’t hang in there.
When someone is asked to change their lives in some way, a stipend is usually negotiated. This occurs mainly on competition shows, in which one may have to miss or quit work, as on “Project Runway” and “The Amazing Race.” And the longer you stay on a show, the more days or weeks you’re paid a stipend. But no one is getting rich on a stipend.
The real goal is to stay around as long as possible, so that you’re eligible for the higher-paid prizes. For example, the winner may get $1 million, but second place gets $100,000, third gets $90,000, and down the line.
“The longer you stay in it, the more you get paid,” an agent told Business Insider.
They just love the game.
For lower-budget cable competitions, it’s more likely that eliminated competitors will only get the weekly stipend (if there is one) and no prize money at all. These can include baking competitions, survival shows, and dating programs. These people are usually in it for the love of the game, or have a desire for an adventure.
“It’s one of those things where it depends on the show and the show budget,” a former producer for a cable competition show said. “If there’s an actual perk to be won at the end of the competition show and it comes down to two contestants or two teams, there is somebody that is going home with absolutely nothing but the experience.”
They have something to sell.
- Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Kirk DeWindt, who was on “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor Pad,” told Minneapolis’ WCCO-TV that he lasted six weeks into the competition and didn’t get paid a penny. How did he survive?
“You have no expenses,” he said of the room, board, and other perks provided by the show.
A personal trainer, DeWindt said that the show helped him get noticed by potential clients.
“Nobody’s getting rich here and we say it all the time,” an agent told Business Insider. “It’s about promoting your ancillary businesses, whether it’s endorsements or your own products.”