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Way back in the earlier days of television in The Fifties, a man named Herb Stempel competed on the Game Show Twenty One. After it was discovered that he intentionally lost to Charles van Doren upon instruction by producer Dan Enright, the entire game show industry was nearly brought down. Although the genre regained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, 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 he or she can stay as 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 1950s rigging far in the genre's past, 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 had since 2002. Further, contestants may not participate on more than one game show within a one-year period, or three in ten years.
- 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 game 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). The cap increased to $50,000 in 1984, $75,000 by 1986, then $125,000 sometime in the 1990s. Come 2006, with The Price Is Right having long since been the only CBS original game show, the winnings cap was done away with entirely.
- NBC put a limit on the number of games a returning champion could play, but did not cap winnings. 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.
- 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.
- 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 Jokers Wild — you could literally stay on as long as you kept winning. However, there was a brief period where the shows imposed winnings caps (at the network owned-and-operated stations' insistence). There was no winnings limit at the time when Thom McKee (the most famous contestant on Tic Tac Dough) appeared, and he went on to win $312,000 in cash and prizes.
- This refers to the syndicated versions. The versions that ran on CBS had the $25,000 limit (although nobody on the CBS version of TTD reached the limit).
- 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.
- Jeopardy! also used to limit contestants to $75,000 in winnings, with the balance donated to charity. The cap was gradually raised over time and abolished entirely in 2003. 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.
- 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 only been won once so far.
- Break The Bank (1985-86) limited the winnings to $75,000. 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).
- In the United Kingdom, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (which oversaw pretty much everything that wasn't The BBC) imposed a £6,000 per-episode cap in 1982. 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 since the prize was accumulated over several weeks, they got away with it. When the IBA was scrapped in 1992, pretty much the first act of its successor, the Independent Television Commission, was to remove the cap, though it was still a few years before the really big money shows started to turn up.
- 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 1990 (at about £16,000 and £32,000) than the top prize of the then-new revival.
- Japan has a nationwide cap set at 2 million yen (currently just under US$25,000 / £15,000 as of April 2011) per person and 10 million yen total for a prize split among five or more players. 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.