In the season premiere of Nailed It!, the Nicole Byer-hosted baking-fails competition show that drops its sixth season on Netflix today, a professional dentist takes home the top prize for producing a underbaked and misshapen animal cookie that resembles a "space creature," followed by a "pretty good" cake draped in jagged fondant that resembles a puppy more accurately than the cakes produced by the other two contestants.
For this, she is awarded $10,000 and the thanks of a grateful nation. Along the way, much fun is had, laughing both with and at the flailing contestants. Such is the appeal of Nailed It! But I can't help myself from also pondering that cash reward. $10,000 pre-tax American dollars for an afternoon spent baking one cookie and one cake, each deemed the third-worst of a sorry bunch. That's nice work if you can get it.
In the realm of reality and competition shows, prize amounts vary wildly, from the humble hundreds of dollars you might take home if you're fortunate enough to get picked up by Bravo's Cash Cab to the million-dollar prizes offered by shows like Survivor and The Challenge. But so too do the requirements for what must be done to procure these prizes. Some are awarded to the mentally sharp, others to the athletically impressive, others still to the socially manipulative or the aesthetically pleasing or the good at being on television.
As a frequent viewer of reality TV and game shows, I often find myself doing exactly what these shows want me to do: putting myself in the shoes of the contestants and imagining what I would do... and what I could win. And as someone who seeks the greatest reward for the least effort, I often think about which reality show would offer the greatest bang for my buck.
Among all the major reality competition shows, it's become clear to me that Nailed It!, yes, takes the cake. Think about it: You don't have to be good at anything to win that $10,000. You just have to be the least catastrophically bad. As someone who doesn't have talents or athletic prowess or patience, this is very appealing. Even if taping a single 30-minute episode were to take an exorbitant amount of time, you're still spending at most the better part of a day on the set. And so long as you don't set the oven on fire or douse Jacques Torres in royal icing, you've got a really good shot at winning.
Not yet convinced? Let's consider how each of the other major reality/game shows measure up when it comes to prize money for effort expended:
Jeopardy, my personal go-to show when it comes to imagining winning a bank-account-altering amount of money, is a relatively strenuous bargain. The average winning score in an episode of Jeopardy comes in just under $20,000, so you're just as likely to cash in under that amount as you are to exceed it. And that's if you win. Otherwise it's a sad consolation prize of $2,000 to the runner-up or $1,000 for showing up. And to win, you need to be incredibly smart! Smart enough to survive the show's challenging application process, telegenic enough for them to want to put you on TV, and quick enough in your hand-eye coordination to smash that buzzer at exactly the right time. For maybe double the Nailed It! prize money, you're doing something that is, I think, well... more than twice as hard as baking a semi-crappy cake.
Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy's dumber, less intimidating cousin, offers a much wider variance in prize money. Sometimes you'll hit that "Jackpot" space on the wheel; sometimes you'll luck yourself into the million-dollar prize envelope at the end. But probably not. As its name suggests, Wheel of Fortune is very much a game of chance and thus hard to properly assess for the purposes of this exercise.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (yes, it's still on in syndication) offers a ladder format to its prize money, with fallback points after answering five questions ($5,000) and ten questions ($50,000), plus the opportunity to quit and keep what you've earned at any time. This puts a lot of the power in your hands as the contestant, even as the prospect of even greater riches preys on your hubris in hopes of taking you down like the protagonist in a short story meant to teach you a lesson about greed. But, again, as with Jeopardy, the barrier to getting these high prize amounts is you have to be smart. And, in fact, not just smart but a lucky guesser. The higher up the ladder you climb, the more Millionaire questions become less about knowledge that any person would know and more about guessing between equally plausible answers to obscure questions. Still, the fact that a decently smart person could quite conceivably climb their way up to $75,000 in the span of an afternoon and then call it a day makes Millionaire one of the more potentially profitable game show options.
Low-key, one of the best bang-for-buck game shows on TV is ABC's revived $100,000 Pyramid. Each hour-long episode is split into two games, each with a $50,000 prize, so while the title of the show misrepresents how much money any single contestants can win, $50,000 for answering simple Password-style prompts from celebrities like Rosie O'Donnell is a hefty sum for not a ton of work. Dick Clark's legacy is truly bulletproof.
How about the major reality shows, where talents other than trivia smarts can win you money? Here the prize amounts tend to be bigger, but so is the investment. RuPaul's Drag Race earns the winner a $100,000 grand prize, plus whatever $5,000 cash tip tends to go to the winner of that week's challenge. Considering the average Drag Race winner takes about three challenge wins, that's around $115,000, plus whatever the prize package from Anastasia Beverly Hills is worth. But this comes in exchange for weeks spent in competition, not to mention whatever is spent on the drag garments you bring to the competition. Granted, success on Drag Race has the added benefit of increasing one's career profitability going forward — a perk enjoyed by competitors in other shows like Top Chef and Project Runway — but it's still a long-haul hustle.
Survivor is, of course, is the gold standard for reality TV excellence, offering a million dollar grand prize to the winner. But, again, that comes after what has historically been 39 days (it's about to get cut down to 26 days for Season 41) on a deserted beach with little food, no comfortable place to sleep, and being eaten alive by bugs. And, again, that's if you WIN. The sliding scale of prizes means that, reportedly, the first person voted out gets $3,500. And that's after spending THREE nights sleeping on Sand Flea Beach.
Big Brother's conditions are far less harrowing (although the sound stage masquerading as a house is said to get filthy as hell by the end of the season), and they just this season upped the grand prize to $750,000, but that requires staying in the house for upwards of 80-85 days. While the skill required to win isn't in the same league as the feats of athletics and endurance required to win Survivor, on a time-spent basis alone it's hard to argue that it's terribly efficient.
Not all million-dollar prizes are created equal. The Challenge recently upped its prize package to $1 million, but the barrier to winning that money is enormous. Not only do you have to succeed at a series of challenges inspired by the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road, almost all of which seem designed specifically to murder the contestants, but you have to navigate a political mine field that requires you to spend multiple seasons on the show to build up the clout and connections to advance.
Meanwhile, NBC's Plinko-inspired The Wall boasts eye-popping prize amounts in the area of up to $12 million. But it's that "up to" that pulls you in. The fickle drops of the oversized ping-pong balls down the Wall tend to send prize amounts plummeting down, sometimes to zero. Any consideration of The Wall's promise of lottery-style riches must also consider how much the mental healthcare costs will be when you and your loved one lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars because one of you made the wrong decision on whether to take the buyout or not. Not worth it.
After considering how each of these shows tax your brain, deplete your bodies, and ravage your emotions, the idea of baking a less-bad cake for $10,000 starts to sound pretty good, doesn't it? Especially when you consider that baking GOOD cakes for TEN weeks straight will earn you ZERO dollars, because The Great British Bake-Off doesn't offer a cash prize.
Nailed It! season six is now streaming on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.