Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When Contracts Stop Being Polite, and Start Getting Real

With the explosive growth of reality TV over the last decade, it’s increasingly likely that you already know someone who has participated in one of the many competitions or candid programming out there (in fact, a Duke Law 2L and Simpsons superfan put in a winning appearance on a 2009 Food Network Challenge). But for the rest of us, we can only speculate about life behind the scenes...that is, until Monday night. That’s when the Village Voice Runnin' Scared blog published a copy of MTV's standard participant contract for its long-running Real World series, and highlighted the blogger's favorite clauses in the 30-page document. Among the explicitly-assumed risks: you might die, and it's not the producers' responsibility. Your new roommates could assault you (sorry, engage in "non-consensual physical contact"), and you have only yourself to blame. And if the show completely misrepresents your life story, unjustly casting you as its major antagonist? Totally within their rights. Oh, and you’re also paying for your own long-distance calls on that miked house telephone.

Given these drawbacks, it's hard to imagine anyone willingly signing up for such a deal, but thousands of young adults still dream of being one of the "seven strangers, picked to live in a house" (if any intrepid law students still want to try before their 24th birthday, the show accepts applications online). In fact, many of the contract's clauses have appeared in response to events on past seasons, as outlined by the blog Jezebel. Avoiding potential liability is clearly a moving target for the makers of reality television.

Interested in researching more about the legal issues in reality TV production? Try a search of the Duke Libraries’ online catalog for subject heading for "Television--Law and legislation--United States" or "Artists’ contracts -- United States" to find titles like Hollywood Dealmaking: Negotiating Talent Agreements for Film, TV, and New Media, which provides a slightly less terrifying standard "Form of Reality Series Participant Agreement" as well as a chapter devoted to the genre. And as always, be sure to Ask a Librarian if you need assistance.