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When A Game Show Contestant Almost Won Too Much Money


People in the business of giving away money say a casino or an insurance company have to follow a simple rule - take in more money than you give away. That applies to game shows as well. And Keith Romer from our Planet Money podcast has this look at one that may have miscalculated.

KEITH ROMER, BYLINE: Vin Rubino is the executive producer on ABC's "$100,000 Pyramid." He's worked in the game show industry a long time, and he knows what makes a good show.

VIN RUBINO: Tension, comedy, drama, simplicity and play along so you can see yourself in it, screaming, shout at the TV kind of stuff.

ROMER: One way to manufacture some big drama - big prizes.

RUBINO: You could walk away winning $10 million.

ROMER: That was the top prize on the "Power Of 10," a game show Vin produced back in 2007. Of course Vin didn't actually want to give away $10 million. His prize budget for the first run of episodes was barely more than $3 million. The game was designed to feel like anyone could win. All contestants had to do was guess how Americans responded to a series of pretty unusual poll questions. David Levinson Wilk, the show's first writer, cooked up the questions and then sent them along to a polling firm. He remembers one in particular.

DAVID WILK: And it was the only question that we ever wrote where we ever got a response from them saying is this actually what you want us to be polling? And we said yes. And the question was - we were going to ask people, have you ever been decapitated? They were sure we had made a mistake, and we had not.

ROMER: As far as David remembers, 4 percent of Americans said they had been decapitated. The very first contestant on the very first episode of "Power Of 10" was a teenager - 19-year-old Jamie Sadler.

RUBINO: Good looking kid, his parents are both in the audience, sitting on opposite sides. He had so much promise, and you could see it in his eyes. Like, he wasn't afraid of anything.


DREW CAREY: Ready to play, Jamie?

JAMIE SADLER: I'm ready to go.


ROMER: The prize values on the show went up very quickly, by the power of 10 in fact. Jamie got past the $1,000, $10,000 and $100,000 questions. And 40 minutes into the very first episode...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You won a million bucks.

ROMER: Jamie won a million dollars. But even worse for the show, he could still try for $10 million. Vin, he had to face some very basic truths about his new show.

RUBINO: You could potentially give away a lot of money. There was really no way to control winning.

ROMER: To build up the drama for viewers at home, game shows need to look risky. But like casinos and insurance companies, it is still hugely important for them to control their actual risk. As he watched from the side of the stage, Vin realized he had gotten that balance wrong. His very first contestant was on the cusp of winning $10 million Vin could not afford.

RUBINO: If he goes for it and gets it, I'm going to be walking home because I'll be out of a job.

ROMER: Other big-money game shows like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" protect themselves against these risks. They build in extra levels between $100,000 and a million dollars, essentially exit ramps for contestants. In the end, the contestant Jamie chose not to risk the million dollars he had already won. He walked away, and Vin kept his job. "Power Of 10," though, it only lasted for one season.

RUBINO: "Power Of 10" was a great idea at its core, but there were some flaws to it that ultimately those financial flaws can really shut something down.

ROMER: Vin seems to have caught on. On his new show, no huge prize jumps and the top prize, just $150,000. Keith Romer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.