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Game Show Winnings Cap

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Way back in the earlier days of television in The '50s (more specifically, 1956), a man named Herb Stempel competed on the Game Show 21. Although he claimed to have intentionally lost to Charles van Doren upon instruction by producer Dan Enright, he was ignored until Dotto was found to have been certifiably rigged two years later. After that, the entire game show industry was nearly brought down.

Although the genre regained popularity in the 1960s-70s, many shows from that point onward had to endure a series of standards and practices to prove that they were on the up-and-up. Among these limitations was the Game Show Winnings Cap, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin: a limit to the amount of money that a game show contestant can win and/or how long s/he can be a returning champion.

In response to the seven figures available on big-money shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, many other game shows have offered seven-figure winnings. With the late-1950s rigging far in the genre's past, tighter security to prevent cheating and rigging, and multiple $1,000,000 game show winnings in the 2000s, winnings caps are pretty much a Forgotten Trope.

Returning champion caps, however, are still present, as most remaining game shows are one-and-done while Family Feud continues to hold onto the same five-game limit it has had since 2002. Further, contestants may not participate on more than one game show within a one-year period, or three in ten years.note 


  • The Big Three networks imposed winnings caps on all network game shows, all in answer to the quiz show scandals:
    • CBS imposed a cap on game show winnings. Initially, contestants on CBS-affiliated shows were retired after winning $25,000, and could not keep any winnings over that limit (although sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, a contestant could keep up to $10,000 more than the limit, for a $35,000 maximum payout). Whew!, not by coincidence, offered that much as the jackpot for winning the bonus round. The cap increased to $50,000 in 1984, $75,000 by 1986, then $125,000 in the early 1990s. By 2006, with The Price Is Right having long since been the only CBS original game show (although a new incarnation of Let's Make a Deal joined it in 2009), the winnings cap was done away with entirely.
      • The Price Is Right used to limit contestants to one appearance in a lifetime on the show, whether they played a pricing game or not. Since Drew Carey became the host in 2007, however, contestants can return 10 years after they first played, which such contestants often reference on their t-shirts and/or when they chat with Drew after getting out of Contestant's Row.
    • NBC put a limit on the number of games a returning champion could play, but did not cap winnings (and numerous shows took advantage of this.). An exception to this was Three on a Match (1971-74), which eradicated championship limits entirely in mid-1973. Several game shows took full advantage of this, particularly the 1980s version of Sale of the Century (which, accounting for top-end Cadillacs and opulent trips as prizes plus cash jackpots of $50,000 or more, could net a contestant well over $100,000) and Dream House (which ran for 15 months during 1983-84, where a couple could win a house; with the value of the house and other prizes added in, big winners came away with $125,000 or more during their stay).
      • The daytime Wheel of Fortune, although they didn't have the massive prize budget as the syndicated series, sometimes had weeks with increased budgets, with Porsches and yachts parked onstage in the years before the syndicated show premiered. As far as returning champions went, contestants were limited to a five-day stay during (roughly) the first two years before a three-day maximum stay was instituted for the rest of the run (over both NBC and CBS).
      • The original Concentration also did not have a winnings cap, again thanks to NBC's rules, but a 20-win maximum was instituted. That said, some of the big winners could come away with well over $20,000 in prizes – and that's in 1960s dollars – if their puzzle-solving skills were sharp. When Classic Concentration came around, champions were at first retired after winning five games (sans interrupted games) [theoretically they could've won as many as five cars; the most anyone actually claimed was three]; this later changed to a contestant being retired immediately after winning a car, although the five-win maximum was left in place.
    • ABC limited winnings to $30,000, although contestants were retired after winning $20,000. This cap was removed in 1984.
    • Family Feud retired families at $25,000 (later over $30,000 in the final season of the Richard Dawson version).
  • Considering that they were the ones who rigged game shows in the first place, Jack Barry and Dan Enright Productions didn't limit returning champions on their flagship shows Tic-Tac-Dough and The Joker's Wild — you could literally stay on as long as you kept winning. In 1980, Thom McKee (the most famous contestant on Tic Tac Dough) won $312,000 in cash and prizes. However, starting in 1981, the shows imposed winnings caps (at the CBS owned-and-operated stations' insistence). As such, Joe Dunn, the biggest non-tournament winner ever on The Joker's Wild, was retired as an undefeated champion in 1983 and kept $50,000 in cash and prizes (raised from $35,000). The remaining $16,200 in cash and prizes was donated to the United Cerebral Palsy Association.
    • Meanwhile, on Tic Tac Dough, Joan Diaz gave her excess $7,850 to Operation Head Start upon losing. There was one other contestant that hit over $50K during the ‘83-‘84 season.
    • The versions that ran on CBS had the $25,000 limit (although nobody on the CBS version of TTD reached the limit- mainly because it only ran from July to September of 1978).
  • After contestant Michael Larson used his Loophole Abuse of the game to hit up Press Your Luck for $110,237, that show placed a $75,000 cap on winnings. In Fall 1984, contestants were retired after winning $50,000. The show already had a cap on being able to return if the contestant had reached a certain amount. It was just that there was no cap on winnings within any one particular installment, hence how Larson was able to pull it off.
  • Jeopardy! also used to limit contestants to $75,000 in winnings, with the balance donated to the player's chosen charity. The cap was gradually raised over time and abolished entirely in 2003. The only two players who were ever affected by the cap were 5-time champions Bob Blake and Frank Spangenberg, who each exceeded the original $75,000 cap by winning $82,501 and $102,597, respectively, during the 1989-90 season. Blake gave $7,501 to Oxfam, while Spangenberg gave $27,597 to the Gift of Love hospice (according to Spangenberg, his sum helped them bring their place up to fire code). The removal of the winnings cap coincided with the removal of the five-day limit imposed on returning champions; since 2003, any Jeopardy! contestant can stay on as long as he or she keeps winning, and keep all money earned. The very next year, a certain young man named Ken Jennings took full advantage of this rule.
    • In an additional subversion, Jeopardy! champions who win at least five games in a row earn a bid to a future Tournament of Champions.
  • Similarly, Wheel of Fortune placed a $100,000 cap (later $125,000 and still later, $200,000) on winnings during the early 1990s, which is also the point that the show switched from one-and-done to allowing champions to stay on for up to three days. The winnings cap stayed at $200,000 when the show reverted to one-and-done contestants, but even with the addition of a $100,000 prize in the Bonus Round in 2002, the $200,000 cap proved unreachable. Wheel eliminated the cap in 2008 with the addition of a $1,000,000 prize in the bonus round, which has been won three times.
  • Break The Bank (1985-86) limited the winnings to $75,000 - this was due to airing on CBS' New York O&O station, so they had to follow their winnings cap. Once the Master Puzzle format was instituted, breaking the Bank retired a winning couple immediately.
  • A number of shows (examples: The $10,000/$20,000 Pyramid, Now You See It, and The Moneymaze) retired a contestant who won its top prize, regardless of what it was (on Now You See It, it could be as little as $5000).
    • As a matter of fact, the only way to win the top prize on The $20,000 Pyramid is to blow the first two bonus rounds.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Independent Television Authority imposed a per-episode cap following the 1950s rigging scandals in the US. For at least two decades, this limit was fixed at £6,000 with no adjustment for inflation. Eventual successor the Independent Television Commission would eventually remove the cap in 1994.
    • There was a revival of The $64,000 Question (and yes, it was titled in dollars) which offered a top prize of £6,400, but they got around this by alternating contestants so that the top prize would not be won twice in a row - once contestants reached £1,600 they would effectively tackle their remaining questions at a rate of one per episode. They eventually persuaded the ITC to increase the limit to £6,400.
      • Early ITV in the 1950s didn't have any limits on game show prizes. This meant that accounting for inflation, the top prize of the earlier British version The 64,000 Question of 64,000 sixpence (£1,600), later 64,000 shillings (£3,200), were worth considerably more in 1989 (at about £16,000 and £32,000) than the top prize of the then-new revival.
    • To ensure the combined value of cash and prizes didn't get over the limit, Family Fortunes originally awarded only a fixed prize for Big Money, regardless of whatever points had been scored beforehand. Like The $64,000 Question, the Big Money prize was £1500 for the first episode of the series, and in any episode where the prize had been won the week before, and £3000 in any week where the prize had not been won.
    • Sale of the Century's derisory prizes became such a joke that successful contestants were invited to play the Australian Sale for bigger prizes.
    • The Price Is Right in its early days offered much cheaper prizes than the American original. Despite this, the IBA still forced it off the air for repeatedly breaching the prize limits.
  • Japan has a nationwide cap set at 2 million yen (currently around $13,492 / £10,676 as of November 2023) per person and 10 million yen total for a prize split among five or more players (about $67,460 / £53,380). As a result, even single-player shows like Millionaire have the contestant bring along four friends and/or family members with whom to split the prize.
    • This is the reason why almost all game/quiz shows use celebrities: their winnings can just be added to their salary as a bonus.
  • The Spanish Saber y Ganar only allows the contestants to play in 100 shows. Seeing how only one out of the three players can be eliminated each day, and they can stay by winning a special game, it's a fair cap since it would be possible for the best players to stay indefinitely.
  • Downplayed on Wipeout Roblox, but anyone who makes it to round 3 is not allowed to compete in the next episode.