15 Minutes of Fame: Reality TV contracts
by Sally Helppie
So you want to be a reality star! All you have to do is sign a “standard” contract and you will see your face on television, with a chance at fame and fortune. No problem, right?
Before signing on the dotted line, you should know that people appearing onscreen are referred to as “Talent”—whether they have any or not—and those standard contracts are not written in favor of said Talent.
Broadcast and cable networks regularly hunt for shows with Talent that have enough charisma to hold viewer attention. Think about it: how many people would tune in to look at houses on the verge of collapse or overstuffed storage units? But throw a Mike Holmes or a group of bickering characters into the mix, and the ratings rise. Reality programming is popular with network executives because it does not cost as much as scripted television and the Talent is non-union.
Reality television shows generally fall into two broad categories: competition and personality-based. So, for example, America’s Got Talent, The Bachelor and Storage Wars all are shows driven by competition, while Jersey Shore, Undercover Boss and anything starring the Kardashians are shows driven more by personality.
While some Talent just want to be seen on television no matter how embarrassing they are made to look, more often Talent is lured in by the hope of showcasing skills or winning a prize or finding love or having a business promoted. Be aware, however, that most reality show contracts state that Talent might not actually appear onscreen even after elaborate application and audition hurdles have been cleared. It is disappointing for someone expecting to compete for fame and fabulous prizes to be told at the last minute that she is an alternate who will not participate, will not be seen and will not even get a consolation prize.
Networks cannot always predict which shows will become hits and which will flop. So they cover their bases by tying down unsuspecting Talent either directly or through the company producing the show.
Remember that television is part of the entertainment industry. Reality shows are meant to entertain. That often entails distorting reality. Consequently, nearlyall contracts give the network the right to mislead, set up confrontations and edit the captured footage so that the original meaning is nowhere to be found. While a network is not going to give up its editing rights, for some shows it will allow revisions to its standard agreement to provide that the Talent will not be shown in a defamatory, fictionalized way.
But distortion alone does not always deliver enough excitement. So the agreements typically allow producers to gather information about Talent from numerous sources—from medical records to credit reports to the kid who claims the Talent was mean to him in the fifth grade. All of this data can then be edited and presented to entertain the viewers.
Rather than blindly signing off, Talent should consider what is truly needed for the particular show and delete inapplicable provisions. Medical records might be relevant for programs involving strenuous conditions or close quarters. Similarly, after certain misrepresentations by participants proved embarrassing in recent seasons, contracts generally allow a network to conduct needed criminal and financial checks.
When a network lands a hot Talent, it does not want him or her sneaking off to one of its competitors. So the Talent may be tied down by the network with little or no compensation. For example, the Talent may be prohibited from appearing on other shows for a set period of time without network approval. Talent could also be compelled to use network-approved companies as career managers, to give up exclusive rights to his/her life story, or to participate in live tours or subsequent “reunion” and “making of” episodes. But my personal favorite remains a “standard” network agreement that gives the network a one-sided option to require Talent to participate in “any future unscripted reality-based programs” the network chooses! Imagine signing on for Cake Boss and somehow ending up on Survivor.
So before accepting a reality television offer, potential Talent should consult an entertainment attorney. Not everyone wants to give up his privacy or the story of his life. Not everyone wants to accept public disparagement. Not everyone wants to commit to appearing on future reality programs. When Talent is burdened with a one-sided “standard” contract those 15 minutes of fame may feel like an eternity.
Sally Helppie practices entertainment law and litigation at Vincent Lopez Serafino Jenevein, P.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.