Special To The Times

Millions of dollars in cash and prizes are awarded to lucky contestants on shows such as "Jeopardy!" "Wheel of Fortune," "Price is Right" and "Family Feud."

Sounds like easy money? Well, yes and no.

The shows do offer the prospect of a big payoff, and with the exception of "Jeopardy," most require little real knowledge or skill. Living in Southern California is especially helpful because it means that you won't have to shell out air fare and hotels to go to a show. (Most shows expect contestants to pay their own expenses).

But hitting the jackpot on the shows is a long shot. Many contestants come away with only modest prize money, and since Uncle Sam and California treat your winnings as regular income, a chunk of it goes toward taxes.

And it's not easy to get on the shows. Most audition many more people than they use.

In other words, don't seek a game show expecting to win enough to pay off your debts, retire and spend the rest of your days lolling in Tahiti. And don't quit your job to audition.

"You could go home with $20,000," says "Wheel of Fortune" producer Nancy Jones, "or the Rice-A-Roni."

For those who do win big, life can be sweet. "Jeopardy" winner Jerome Vered, a Studio City script writer, plans to use his $96,801 to pay off school and business debts. Joan Harrow, a retired schoolteacher from Chatsworth, is using $16,000 won on "Wheel of Fortune" to help her oldest son refinance his house. Other champions have used winnings to travel, send children to college or retire early.

Big money and prizes are especially enticing during the current economic downturn.

Producer Roger Dobkowitz of the "Price is Right"says the recession has influenced the kind of contestants his show has drawn. At the start of the housing slump, Dobkowitz noticed alot of unemployed carpenters lining up outside the studio to compete for some of the $7 million in cash and prizes the show awards each year.

When the real estate market took a turn for the worse in Southern California, "we saw more real estate agents than you could shake a leg at," Dobkowitz says.

Few recession victims can match the game show success of 27-year-old Leslie Miller of Reston, Va. Although she is fluent in several languages and has a graduate degree in art from Yale University, Miller couldn't find a job.

She went on "Jeopardy" and found herself $64,300 richer after winning five consecutive shows. Now she has a shot at the $100,000 grand prize in "Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions"next year.

Being unemployed helped. Miller spent four to five hours a day for five weeks studying everything from history to literature. Her bible: "Secrets of the Jeopardy! Champions," a book by Chuck Forrest and Mark Lowenthal.

She watched "Jeopardy" at least twice a day and practiced hitting the buzzer quickly by clicking a ball point pen.

The key to success on the shows--even the brainy "Jeopardy" game--isn't necessarily brilliance, insist contestants and producers.

You may be a genius, but you'll be a game show failure if your head isn't filled with the necessary trivia, you're slow punching the buzzer, you're a nervous wreck or just lack enthusiasm, say contestants and show producers.

On "Wheel of Fortune," a word-puzzle program that is the world's most popular TV game show, successful contestants are usually avid viewers of the program who know all the nuances of playing the game--such as knowing when to buy a vowel, producer Jones says.

Just getting on a game show can be tough. For "Jeopardy," the most cerebral of the shows, about 20,000 people a year take the qualifying test but only 450 appear on the show. That's about 1 in 44.

Even if you make the cut during the auditions, you may have to wait as long as two years before you get on a show.

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