Documenting Reality TV

Q:  I’m going to produce a reality television series for a cable network.  It’s a competition type of series like “Top Chef”.  What type of contestant documents do I need?

A: There are many documents you (or, hopefully, you in conjunction with your lawyer) will need to create.

First, you’ll need a contestant application.  You can quickly see contestant applications for other reality series by simply going to one of the television network web sites or a cable network web site that broadcasts reality programming like Bravo.  Most of these applications are similar in that they ask for the potential contestant’s name, birth date, address, telephone, etc.  But these applications also ask non-statistical information.  For example, the contestant application for Fox Television’s “Master Chef” series asks “What is something that we would not know by looking at you?”, “What personality traits are you annoyed by in other people?”, “Have you ever hit someone in anger or self-defense?”, “Have you ever been arrested or had a restraining order placed against you?”.

Why would the producer of this series ask those questions?  Remember that this is television you’re producing.  You want to determine to the extent you can from an application whether the potential contestant has a personality that will be interesting to viewers of the series regardless of any professional/educational qualifications they may have.  The last two questions noted above also attempt to weed out those who may cause you legal problems

Once potential cast members are chosen, they will be required to execute a much more detailed agreement and release.  That document can total 50 or more pages.  There’s not enough room in this column to review all of the provisions in that document but here are some highlights:

– Requirement that contestant return all prizes received if any information provided by the contestant about herself is false or if the contestant breaches the agreement and contestant will pay producer all costs associated with contestant leaving the show prematurely or resulting from contestant’s breach of the agreement

– A warranty that contestant meets all series eligibility requirements

– A grant to producer of all ownership rights in and to the contestant’s “performance” in the series in all media and markets now known or hereafter devised or discovered in perpetuity throughout the universe (yes, the “universe”; the series could be broadcast to the space shuttle!)

– Contestant agrees to make herself available for series-related publicity and promotion activities

– Contestant agrees that producer may conduct a background check on her as well as review her medical records (releases that allow the producer to do these things are attached to the agreement and must be signed by the contestant)

– Contestant acknowledges that producer may edit the show even for the purpose of getting a humorous, unforeseen or satirical effect

– Contestant releases producer from all liability for injury during production (even death) acknowledging that contestant has assumed the risk of participating in the series

– Contestant agrees to keep the terms of the agreement and release confidential as well as all aspects of the series’ production including the ultimate outcome of the series (i.e., who won);

– Contestant additionally agrees that if she breaches the confidentiality provisions or any other material provision of the agreement that producer will have suffered $5 million (or any other large number you can think of) in “liquidated damages” ($5 mil may seem like overreaching but what if a contestant reveals the ultimate outcome of the competition before the series even airs; $5 mil in that situation probably isn’t enough to cover the damages the producer/network will suffer)

– Contestant represents that she is not a member of a talent union and that her performance in the series does not constitute a performance under any guild or union agreement

– Contestant agrees not to participate in another reality television show for at least 6 months (or longer) following the broadcast of the final episode of the series

– Contestant acknowledges that the production is not a union shoot and contestant warrants that she is not a member of any talent union.

This is just a capsule summary of the reality show participant agreement.  Although producers are reluctant to change the language found in this document, you can expect some contestants to ask their attorneys to review the document.

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