When the reality show “Survivor” debuted on CBS in the summer of 2000, the 1 million in prize money it promised its winner caused a stir. Since then, large cash payouts have become a staple of the genre. “The X Factor,” a singing competition on Fox, holds the record for the largest cash prize, an astonishing 5 million. These shows and others like them are available through http://www.getdirecttv.org.
But large cash payouts do not necessarily represent the best reality show prizes. It can be much more rewarding for a contestant to win a business opportunity within his or her field. “American Idol” is one of the pioneers of this approach. From the start, the show has not only awarded prizes such as cash or automobiles, but also a record deal. If that record deal turns out to be successful, then the reality show victor might parlay that prize into a fulfilling, hugely lucrative, perhaps decades-long career. Carrie Underwood, the fourth winner of “American Idol,” provides a perfect example of this phenomenon: Her debut album following “Idol” was a hit, and she’s since proven herself a top country music star.
Other reality shows offer winners a chance to pursue their dream profession. “Project Runway,” a cable show that pits budding fashion designers against one another in design competitions, gives each of its winners a package of prizes designed to boost her or his career, including a showcase in the magazine “Elle” and, in its first few seasons, a mentor from a top fashion label. In the first iteration of NBC’s “The Apprentice,” winners got to work for one of Donald Trump’s companies for a year, allowing them to network among corporate leaders and hone their business skills at an advanced level. Bill Rancic, the first “Apprentice” winner in 2004, even published a book about his experiences.
Indeed, though it might sound trite, simply appearing on a reality show is often a huge prize in itself. Consider the case of Jennifer Hudson. In 2004, she only came in seventh place on “American Idol.” But that exposure helped Hudson land movie and TV roles. One of those performances even earned her an Oscar.