Have you ever been channel surfing and come across a reality show with such lame, mundane content, you can't believe anyone bothered to put it on TV? Following an exterminator, for instance? Listening to a couple of bakers have an in-depth discussion on whether the cupcakes should be baked for 14 minutes or 15 minutes? Watching young, underdressed and undereducated New Jersey residents get drunk, vomit and pass out?
When you read reports of 'Jersey Shore' reality star Snooki demanding, and getting, a whopping $30,000 per episode and up to $20,000 each for personal appearances, based only on her strategically placed bumps and willingness to get sloshed on cue, you can't help but think, "My friends/family/job (pick one) is so much more interesting! "Maybe I could become rich and famous as a reality star with my own show on TV."
The simple fact is, however, that you'd probably make more money in the long run behind the scenes in reality TV than you would being on-camera. A decent union camera professional's fee starts at about $65 per hour, and he or she can work in that profession and receive benefits for a lifetime. On the other hand, there is no minimum wage for on-camera "talent," and never benefits. As a matter of fact, most of the reality stars you see on TV are doing it for free -- for the promotion, exposure, experience or fame. Only a handful of people whose shows are huge hits wind up making more money than they would if they went to work on their regular jobs that day, instead of taking time off to film the show.
Only a percentage of the perks
And if you think that regardless of what you may (or may not) be paid to shoot the show, you'll make a fortune in fabulous appearance fees, book deals and enhanced business thanks to the fame the show brings you, guess again. The networks and production companies responsible for your show will try to see that your contract assures them a decent percentage of any additional revenue the show brings in. It's perfectly legal, and it takes a skilled (expensive) attorney to keep them from getting the lion's share of the proceeds.
"Look, we're not trying to steal or cheat," confided one network development executive. "The fact of the matter is, we're making an investment in these people and their businesses, and giving it priceless free advertising. How much would they be making if they weren't being featured on national TV? Zero. No publisher would pay them to write a book, and no one would buy their book if they weren't on the show we developed and aired. Of course we're going to get all we can out of our investment."
When you look at it that way, it doesn't seem so exploitative. You take your average repo man, pawn shop dealer or cupcake baker -- those shows are very hot right now and there are several on various cable networks. If not for the cable network show, those business owners would be relatively unknown, making whatever they would be without the lights, cameras and action. The network invests all the expenses of production, marketing and airing the show. They, in turn, want a piece of the revenue that wouldn't exist without their efforts.
The reality of show salaries
To break it down, in addition to the fees they're charging for the services that are being filmed, the repo men could be earning, say, $850-$3,000 per episode, which is not uncommon. Established professionals, like stylists, doctors, counselors, etc., make considerably more, starting at about $10,000 per episode. Also, those appearing on established franchises, such as 'Real Housewives,' make more than your average exterminator.
But, thanks to their new-found fame, their business takes off. Now everyone wants a confection baked and decorated by the Ace of Cakes. How much do you think Snooki would be making at a real job if she weren't starring on MTV? Of course MTV asks for, and gets, a portion of the celebrity they helped create.
This is not to say that reality stars are completely undeserving. Most work hard for their money. Episodes usually take from two days to one week to shoot. Shooting days can last longer than 12 hours, and a lot of that time is spent waiting around for the lights to be reset, the cameras to be repositioned, etc. This work can be exhausting, and, if the star is a regular working stiff, he or she is not at all used to the demands of television production.
The first cycle of a new show usually involves about nine episodes. If the show is a hit, like 'Jersey Shore,' a second, slightly longer cycle, (around 12 episodes) will be produced that same year. Otherwise, production will happen the same time the following year. The third cycle is when the major salary negotiations generally take place, although there are exceptions.
A cycle usually takes two to three months to shoot, so the stars have the rest of the year to concentrate on their businesses, which have received a huge boost from their show's publicity.
Those who work for free
It's the assistants, admins, outside experts, contestants or subjects on the show that generally come away with empty pockets. If they're periphery characters, like, say a housekeeper or a personal assistant, they usually are asked to do the first season for free, accepting their normal wages and compensation from the company being filmed, but usually working much longer hours. If they are popular and their roles continue or get bigger, they might be able to arrange extra payment in the second cycle.
Personally, I've been brought in as an expert on a number of reality shows, and I've never been paid a dime, but I'm happy to do it for the exposure. As an established author (part of what qualifies me as an expert), I have books to sell -- and, let's face it, my Amazon ranking improves every time I'm on the air. And, as a free agent, I get to keep all my proceeds, without turning any of it over to the network.
It's not that it's impossible to make money from a reality TV show, it's just that it's much harder than you might think, and your own show is hardly a one-way ticket to fame and fortune. Consider the fate of those who exhibit outrageous behavior or prove to be tremendously inept at their jobs. That makes for great "train wreck" TV, but once your show's publicity has waned, you're left with no clients and a bad reputation. Here's hoping you invested well. Otherwise, don't quit your day job.
Related Stories from Forbes.com