Top 5 ways reality shows can get sued

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Top 5 ways reality shows can get sued

Fri Apr 10, 2009 @ 03:44PM PST

By Eriq Gardner

In theory, producing an unscripted television show should be cheap. After all, producers don't typically have to open their checkbooks to high-priced acting and writing talent. But reality TV can get extremely expensive thanks in part to the legal costs and insurance premiums that producers must pony up. Here's a look at five things that make reality TV producers very nervous:


1. Stunts: Perhaps nothing gives producers the heebee jeebees more than putting contestants through an elaborate obstacle course ala "Wipeout" or making a contestant eat worms ala "Fear Factor" or "Survivor." Producers are regularly sued for ensuing injuries. Take the woman who suffered a herniated disk after a cast member on MTV's "Jackass" launched himself like a missile into a nearby lectern. She sued. Insurance premiums can be as much as 50% higher on reality TV programs than a standard show produced in the studio, and a recent article in Insurance News indicated that reality TV producers often have a tough time covering the risks involved with big stunt shows.


2. Defamation and Invasion of Privacy: Reality shows often feature participants who haven't yet been deemed celebrities. For the purpose of law, they are known as limited-purpose public figures. They may not enjoy the same right to privacy as private citizens and may have to show malice in defamation claims, but that doesn't stop people from suing, such as the contestant on MTV's "Road Rules" who sued for character defamation. Having people sign waivers doesn't stop the litigation, as we've seen by the rash of "Borat" lawsuits. And even contestants who don't get on the show have been known to throw a legal salvo, such as the "Apprentice" reject who sued Mark Burnett after the producer allegedly said some hurtful things about him in front of the casting crew.


3. Discrimination and Retaliation: Shows that feature contests are ripe for gripes about unfair treatment. For example, Fox TV is planning a new reality series called "Someone's Gotta Go," allowing employees at a struggling company to review confidential details about their co-workers, including salary and job evaluations, before deciding who gets the axe. Fox says the show will be vetted by attorneys, but some employment lawyers have expressed concern that a show like this could invite retaliatory lawsuits from humiliated laid-off workers. Bruised egos invite legal trouble. For example, in 2001, an unsuccessful contestant on "Survivor" argued in court that the show was rigged.


4. Emotional Distress: Putting private citizens in emotionally sticky situations can also pose a challenge. On A&E's "Intervention," producers constantly straddle the line in how far to go in letting characters self-destruct. When a drug addict overdoses on camera, is it the film crew's responsibility to step in and do something? Or take MTV's predilection for "punking" people in massive "Candid Camera"-type set-ups. In 2002, a couple checked into the Hard Rock Hotel and found what appeared to be a dead human body covered in blood. Turns out it was a prank affiliated with a show called "Harassment," which later became Ashton Kutcher's hit MTV show "Punk'd." The couple sued for $20 million for "severe and extreme emotional distress."

5. Property Damage: Some reality shows have interesting characters involved on set, and it's not always predictable what they'll do. Take former Poison singer Bret Michaels of VH1's "Rock of Love." Last year, the owner of a $9 million home sued Michaels and producers of the show for breach of contract, alleging that he totally destroyed his house in the process of making the second season. 

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to [email protected]

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