I sat down to watch the first episode of the new season of Downsized. My eyes widened when the father, Todd, decided that it was time to start looking for a home to purchase. Not only did they just have a foreclosure 18 months earlier on top of a bankruptcy, but his argument to purchase a home was that the children now owned about 5 vehicles between them (they worked hard and paid for their own vehicles) and there was no room to park them all.

The wife was not keen on purchasing a home after just getting out of such a rough period in their lives (listen to your gut Laura!) and so they decided to discuss their finances and home purchasing outlook with their financial advisor. During the sit down, it came to light that they had received money from starring in the first season of Downsized. The amount of money was not disclosed; however, they were able to pay off their debt, their debt to their children, and still had $18,000 in the bank. In my mind I think they were paid around $50,000, but this is just speculating based off of the debts I remember from the first season. Needless to say, they are in a much better financial situation due to their involvement with the television show…but I am still completely against the idea that they should purchase a home.

Reality television shows to me are sort of like terrariums. Through the glass we are given a sneak peek of a different ecosystem, however frail or robust it may be. Because of the recession we are seeing reality shows pop-up that are based on people whose finances are in disrepair. However, by paying them money to be on a reality tv show the producers jeopardize the terrarium environment that we all find so fascinating or gut-wrenching to watch. It’s like when you watch one of those Renovation Reality tv shows and you know that there just has to be a handyman behind the camera—wouldn’t it be nice if they swooped in and pointed out what they were doing wrong before they hurt themselves or their wallets? But if they did…then it wouldn’t be reality anymore.

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This made me wonder about financial reality television shows: how much money do financial reality tv stars make for being in the shows, and how does this affect their reality and the ‘reality’ that we are witnessing? From what I have seen and researched online, reality tv stars are compensated in some way for their participation. I think whether or not this affects the reality that we see is based on many factors, such as the type of payment, time of the payment, and the amount of the payment.

Time of Payment

I think the time of the payment is key in whether or not it interferes with the reality that we are viewing. Is the person paid per episode, before taping, or after the episode/season? This could have a lot of bearing on their lives. I think if the people are not paid during the tapings, then that holds a little bit more reality than those who are paid per-episode.

For example, Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s show ‘Til Debt do Us Part pays the person at the end of the show if they made the improvements and changes she was hoping to see. The payout from this show can be up to $5,000, and she often throws in a monetary gift of some sort like a weekend getaway or paid-for classes to further someone’s passion. During the show there is typically no money exchanged between the producers and the person. However, several times she has had to give a person monetary loans against their potential $5,000 earnings at the end (every time she does this she informs the viewers and subtracts it from any money earned at the end of the show).

The show Downsized is another example where the people were not paid during the season; however this one has a twist. For the first season the family was unpaid. Then they were paid an undisclosed sum of money at the end of the first season, and WETv is now airing a second season. This means that their reality has now changed dramatically as they were able to pay off their debts and have $18,000 left in a savings account. How would their family have fared without this money? What would their reality be then?

Type of Payment

Some people are paid for their appearance and participation with cash, while others are given non-monetary compensation such as a new home and a vacation while the home is being built (Extreme Makeover Home Edition). While not having a mortgage to deal with each month arguably gives you a huge financial leg-up, the families also have to cover higher property tax, utility and maintenance bills (it is typical for a home to go from being 1,200 square feet to over 4,000 square feet, which ends up raising the property taxes for not only the owner, but in some cases the neighborhood). Also, there are tax ramifications for someone giving you such a large gift. However, this show stops taping after the owners are given their new house, so we don’t really see the results of people being given such a large gift.

Amount of Payment

Depending on how much money the show is bringing the network, industry experts say that reality tv stars are paid anywhere between $750 per week (Big Brother) to $75,000 episode (Jon and Kate at their height of notoriety).

Teen Mom on MTV reportedly pays $60,000-$65,000 per season. This is a lot of money for a teenager (heck, it’s a lot of money for someone my age!), and would certainly change their financial circumstance. In fact, this would seem to backfire because it could show other teenagers that it is not that tough to make it as a teen mom (which undoubtedly it is incredibly tough to do so, especially due to finances, but for other obvious reasons as well).

Anticipation Factor

I’d like to discuss one other thought I had: the anticipation factor. I am not sure how much reality can be in what we are viewing due to the fact that it is human to make financial decisions based on what you are anticipating. If you know that you are going to receive monetary compensation at the end of the season or show, then perhaps you will spend money as needed or wanted. This would certainly change the reality of the terrarium.

After all is said and done, I feel that paying financial reality television stars is going to change the reality that we are watching, whether it be because of the anticipation that they are receiving payment after the show is finished, or because they are being paid all along. Yet I do believe that they should be paid for their time and willingness to bare their lives on television—after all, networks are making money off of them. I guess I need to have a dose of skepticism for shows that I watch and remember that primarily they are for entertainment purposes.

Do you watch any financial reality television series? What are your reservations about them? Do you feel that payment changes the reality of the stars?

7 replies
  1. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    I don’t watch any reality shows (we just get Netflix; not sure those are even on there) but my understanding is that the “reality” is pretty “pick-and-choose” / somewhat directed to begin with. I do think though that knowing you’re going to be paid a certain sum of money would change how you act.

  2. Suba
    Suba says:

    I don’t watch reality TV (I don’t even have a TV) but I always thought those reality TVs are directed. So they are just entertainment and nothing more.

  3. Olivia
    Olivia says:

    The whole idea is weird. It’s crazy that people who botch their finances get rewarded, while people who pinch and save to stay afloat, don’t.

    • Betty
      Betty says:

      I love your comment. It’s too often the way of the world these days that you can screw up and have someone else deal with it.
      Most “reality stars” get famous for doing something stupid or wrong. Next thing you know they have been made rich by this foolish act where the hard working, responsible average joe struggles to make it.

  4. Kylie Ofiu (Aspiring Millionaire)
    Kylie Ofiu (Aspiring Millionaire) says:

    I don’t watch TV and have never understood the fascination with reality tv, but your post really made me think. I like Val’s way of doing it.

    It will be interesting to see too if downsizing stays popular as that is a HUGE change to make to a tv show.

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