Economists like Tyler Cowen or Brad DeLong are too self-respecting to study reality shows. Fret not, this economist has no such self-respect.
Previously, we examined the economics of the reality show genre but just as interesting are the economics of the a particular reality show’s design.
To Hot Too Handle introduces of the most interesting examinations of communal property dynamics: a group prize is reduced when individuals act in their short-term private interest.
At a more practical level, the show gathers ten attractive 20 somethings into a villa in Mexico for three weeks. Cameras are littered around the villa with the exception of bathrooms (to be replaced with mics). The contestants are only informed of the rules once the cameras start rolling; if they masturbate, kiss, or engage in any sort of sexual activity the prize pool of $100,000 is reduced. It’s unclear to contestants how “expensive” each activity is or how the prize pool will be divided or won. Shockingly, interviews with the show’s producers reveal they didn’t have the rules or the costs figured out until they happened. While there’s no traditional contestant elimination process, producers will ask contestants to leave if they’re not invested in the “process”. Supposedly, the show wants to teach these singles how to form emotional rather then physical connections.
The spectacle for viewers is how hard it is for these contestants to keep in their pants – of the original $100,000, over $40,000 is lost. Seems like a lot, right? How could they give up so much money?
Well… It’s really not that much. On the face of it $100,000/10 = $10,000 per contestant. The tax situation matters greatly – U.S. contestants or those with residency in the U.S. will probably pay about 50% of that $10,000 in taxes. Interestingly, if the show took place in the U.S. rather than Mexico, all contestants would be subject to U.S. taxes. It appears to the case that the Brits and Canadians don’t face game show taxes.
On a expected payout basis, the costs are far less then they might appear:
- $3,000 for a kiss is only $300 on a per contestant basis. Only $150 after taxes.
- $6,000 for oral sex = $600 gross, $300 after taxes.
- $20,000 for sex = $2,000 gross, $1,000 after taxes.
The show filmed for 3 weeks, at a max payout of $10,000 this is a yearly salary of $173k. Not bad, but many of the contestants already out gross that. Francesca Fargo is estimated to have a net worth of over $500k alone. Almost all of the contestants make money off their likeness or brand. Like Francesca, they model, sell clothing or act. Thus, building an Instagram following is directly connected to their revenue stream. Breaking the rules can help the contestants build that brand – losing out on $300 now could be much more in brand awareness later. Those without brands seemed to leave early or not attempt anything “interesting” – see Madison – a late arriver who never coupled up.
But the rules weren’t clear on splitting the prize and contestants could have been under the impression only 1 or 2 would win. Under an expected value model the payout is the same: $10,000 ($100,000 *10% chance of winning). However, if you feel as though you’re a weak contestant you might estimate yourself at less than 10% probability to win. I think this was the case for sorority girl Hailey who broke the rules a mere two episodes in and had no interest in continuing.
I think there’s room for improvement in the show’s design. It was rather strange to reveal to contestants who the rule-breakers were so early in the show. This introduced social shaming as retaliation for rule breakers, speculation and investigation makes for far more drama. If the show was about temptation, why not focus more on the money or relationships? Maybe contestants can choose to eliminate their show’s squeeze – money AND sex as tests of genuine connection. Discounting seems like a great lever for drama injection – this week sex is 50% off! Adding new contestants didn’t seem to work, everyone had coupled up by the time they got there. Subtraction or an elimination is lot more fun.
Well, here’s to a solid season two. Hopefully, the show remains tongue in cheek. But not literally – that would be a rule violation.