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Answer by Eric Mueller, contestant on seven game shows, and I've helped with many more run-throughs and pilots:
As someone who has been on a lot of game shows (and who has tried to be on a lot more), I can tell you that there is a huge pool of professional actors who go out for game show auditions regularly. It's not hard to understand why: If you're an actor, you probably have a flexible job to allow for auditions, it's a chance to get in front of casting folks, it's a chance to win some money, and you get validation and attention. (Never underestimate the power of validation and attention when it comes to actors.)
But nobody on a game show is a hired actor, in the sense that he or she is given lines, a script, the answers, or are paid. That's illegal—Google “quiz show scandal” if you don't know why.
The main thing to remember is that game shows are cast ... you don't just sign up and they call you in. The producers know what kind of contestants work best on a game show, and they hire casting people to find those contestants. In turn, the casting folks conduct auditions to evaluate potential players. For one of my recent appearances (as a player on the GSN reboot of Pyramid), I auditioned twice before I was chosen. For bigger shows, I've been through three auditions and still didn't make it on the show. Heck, even casting agents for The Price Is Right talk to every single person in the audience before going into the theater; during that time, they make the determination about who will be called to come on down! (More info on this Marketplace piece, and if you click the play button directly under the top photo, you'll hear me talk about my experiences, too.)
The casting agents I've worked with make it clear that they're looking for a few key factors in a contestant: tons of energy, ability to play the game (you don't have to be a brilliant player, but you have to understand what's going on and be able to compete), and a ton of personality. Along with those elements, a great “story” helps a lot. Sure, contestants may have perfect teeth, and while I'm sure looks factor into it a bit, at the end of the day, a strong story can beat out everything else. In other words: all other factors being equal, a highly attractive person who is boring might get on a game show, but an average-looking person who has a killer story (say, a dad whose Army wife is stationed overseas, leaving him at home to raise their young daughter) is far more interesting to viewers at home and is more likely to end up on the air. After all, when you have some emotional drama—the daughter is so cute, Dad is really likeable and humble and you're rooting for him to win, and now here's a surprise video message from Mom, direct from Afghanistan, urging him on, causing Dad to burst into tears—that makes for great television.
And finally, a word about the over-the-top personalities you see: The TV camera sucks so much energy out of everything, which is tough because game shows work best with high energy. So not only is the contestant holding area stocked with tons of sugar and caffeine (I am so freakin' buzzed by the time I'm actually playing the game), but everyone is constantly reminding you to have tons and tons of energy. In my experience, when I think I am being ridiculous and over the top and super crazy, that means I'm about halfway there. I got a callback for the NBC show Minute to Win It in part because during the initial audition, 30 of us took turns playing the game and I was the only one clapping and cheering for every single one of the 29 other players when they took their turns. I looked stupid doing it, and by the end my voice was hoarse and my hands were sore from clapping like a maniac (seriously), but I was one of three people who made the cut, and the casting agent told me he loved my energy.
So to circle back around to the question: When you consider everything above and how many people audition (especially for games that are either extremely popular or give away big money/prizes, like Wheel of Fortune), you can see how the over-the-top personalities, with great stories, advance to the front of the line and make it on the air.
Finally, here's a little secret: If the show you are watching has that moment where the host introduces the contestants and chats with them about where they're from and what they do, listen closely. When a contestant happens to be an actor in real life (not an actor on the show, mind you, but someone whose job outside the show is acting), he or she is usually coached to not say he or she is an actors, only because it can raise questions and confuse the home audience who may think the game or contestant is somehow fake or scripted. So when you see a game show contestant who comes across comfortable and polished on camera, and he says he is a receptionist, waiter, personal assistant, or professional baby-sitter, that might just be his part-time job between auditions and acting gigs.
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Do contestants refuse the prizes? I don't know, but I can tell you two data points that might help. Many contestants on The Price Is Right either refuse their prizes or blow them out on Craigslist. (Just scan these Craigslist search results.) I also know that when you declare a prize for your taxes, you can make a case with the IRS about the actual market value of the prize, not what you hear on the show. For example, when I won a five-night trip to Rome, the on-air value was something like $7,000. When I reported it on my taxes, I simply added the value of the airfare and the hotel from a search on Expedia, and of course, it wasn't anywhere near $7,000. So that $11,000 “steak delivery service” you mentioned probably isn't the enormous tax burden it initially appears.
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