- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2002

The clues: New homes. Expensive cars. Dream vacations. The answer: How some game show contestants squander their winnings. Others are a little smarter.
Perhaps it's a sign of tough economic times, but Americans are increasingly hitting the game-show circuit to win money to pay off debts or to augment their retirement funding, according to veteran producers.
In other words: Game shows are no longer just about meeting your favorite host or winning a lifetime supply of car wax. Today's contestants want cash prizes so they can pay their bills.
"It isn't just people seeking their 15 minutes of fame. Money is a huge motivator. Where else can you win $25,000 in 30 minutes?" said producer Stephen Brown, whose credits include "The Newlywed Game and "Shop 'Til You Drop."
Mr. Brown is on a seven-city tour this fall to round up new contestants for his latest project "Pyramid," a revival of the old "$25,000 Pyramid." The tour stopped Saturday at the Tysons Corner Center shopping mall in McLean, where Mr. Brown auditioned roughly 300 "Pyramid" hopefuls.
Many of the potential contestants came just to meet "Pyramid" host Donny Osmond, who presided over some of the auditions. They clutched faded copies of his 1973 album "Donny Osmond Superstar" and swooned at the foot of a stage near Bloomingdale's as the former teen idol worked the crowd.
Other would-be contestants such as Cockeysville, Md., resident Jennifer Miller came for a chance to win the dough.
Mrs. Miller and her husband whom she described as a game show fanatic practiced for the tryout using a board game version of the program. She said she could use the $25,000 prize to pay off debt she racked up starting her Web site design business.
"My husband and I would pay the bills first," she said.
Few Americans would bank their financial future on winning a game show, but during tough times, people are more likely to take chances on unconventional methods to boost their wealth, according to investment adviser Susan Bradley.
"There are no guarantees, but some people may feel like they don't have anything to lose," said Ms. Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute, a Florida group that advises people who experience a sudden windfall through game show or lottery winnings, a big inheritance or a lawsuit win.
Because most people squander windfalls, many financial advisers recommend "sudden money" be set aside for a year before it is invested or spent. Ms. Bradley said 10 percent can be used to splurge, but the bulk should be used to pay down personal debt.
Damascus resident Tim Hughes used the $16,000 he won on "Jeopardy" two years ago to finance a new house and to buy a family car. The money also helped the supermarket clerk afford taking a few weeks off work when his wife gave birth to their first child.
"[The money] enabled us to do things we would not have been able to do otherwise," Mr. Hughes said.
Doug Szafran, a Frederick, Md., resident and high school math teacher, won $24,000 on "Jeopardy" in 1997 and $64,000 on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" two years later. He said he used the money to pay off bills and to boost his retirement fund.
Producers told Mrs. Miller they will notify her in 30 days if they will invite her to compete on "Pyramid," in which contestants are paired with celebrities and given a series of clues in order to determine what the words have in common.
The odds are against her. Of the 300 persons who auditioned for "Pyramid" Saturday, only a handful are expected to make it onto the show, according to Leslie AquaVia Shulman, the program's contestant coordinator.
The competition is tough. Not only do hopefuls have to know how to play the game, but they also have to be enthusiastic, she said.
One of Mrs. Miller's rivals, Manassas resident Mike Glass, said he drank lots of Coca-Cola before the audition to appear extra peppy. He also hoped to impress the producers by programming his cell phone to play the old "$25,000 Pyramid" theme song.
It also helps if contestants have a good story to tell. "We're looking for people who are interesting, people the audience can identify with. We like single moms a lot," Ms. Shulman said.
Once a competitor gets on the show, winning the money is even tougher. Mr. Brown said on the 70 episodes of "Pyramid" that have been taped so far, only six persons have won the $25,000 prize.
Ms. Bradley said Mrs. Miller has the right idea about using game show winnings to pay off debt.
For example, contestants often splurge their winnings on an expensive home but neglect to calculate the cost of living in such a place, such as taxes and landscaping.
Others simply splurge on sports cars, boats and other toys.
"Sometimes when people win money, they don't treat it as seriously as when they earn it. They feel like it's OK to blow it," she said.


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