Eager TV contestants rarely waver at the waivers

Reality shows' lawyers churn out pages and pages of legal releases

Television

December 12, 2004|By Linda Shrieves | Linda Shrieves,ORLANDO SENTINEL

When Carl Bilancione auditioned for Survivor, he was willing to do almost anything to get on the red-hot reality show.

His wife, on the other hand, was worried - particularly when she examined the 92 pages of legal releases that network executives asked the Bilanciones to sign.

So Deborah Bilancione asked an entertainment attorney to review the contract.

It was too late: The Winter Park dentist already had signed the papers. "What do you think, I'm nuts?" he says now. "It was the adventure of a lifetime."

With the glow of the spotlight luring Americans onto reality shows, there's a harsh reality to face.

Eager to appear on television, many contestants readily sign legal waivers that appear - at least on the surface - to relieve the shows' producers of all responsibility.

For producers, the releases are imperative. Without signed releases, they cannot get insurance. And without insurance, the shows will never air.

But look at some of these releases and you have to wonder: Would any attorney let a client sign these things?

Although contestants wait days to audition for American Idol, most spend only a few minutes perusing the one-page release form.

Few notice a sentence that says, "I understand that ... other parties may reveal information about me that is of a personal, private, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, which information may be factual and/or fictional."

"That really jumps out at me," says Greg Galloway, an Orlando entertainment attorney, who has written releases for shows. "I certainly would never recommend to any client that they authorize someone to fictionalize their story and disparage them. This is absurd."

Absurd, maybe. But the legal releases attempt to cover everything imaginable.

If contestants get hurt on The Biggest Loser, an NBC show in which overweight contestants compete to lose pounds, the application they signed says the producer isn't responsible, even if the producer is negligent.

"Most of these releases are not worth the paper they're written on," says Orlando attorney John Morgan.

The release forms are essentially contracts. And contracts can be contested in court. Even producers and their attorneys acknowledge that. "You do have problems with the enforceability of releases," says Michael O'Connor, whose Los Angeles law firm has represented more than 20 reality shows. But lawyers write releases with blanket statements "so that contestants are aware what they are getting into."

The real question that a judge might ask, lawyers say, is this: Did the producers take precautions to prevent the contestants from getting injured?

Many shows do. Fear Factor hires stunt coordinators to figure out how amateurs can perform the stunts without getting hurt. And the show's insurance company often weighs in on the stunt in order to reduce the risk of injuries and lawsuits.

It's not clear how many people have been hurt during reality shows.

What has become clear is the changing nature of the lawsuits.

The first wave of reality-show lawsuits focused on injuries and accidents. Now, an increasing number of lawsuits cite embarrassment or humiliation.

To guard against lawsuits, every reality show produces its own releases. Some shows allow contestants to download the releases and application forms on the Internet. Other shows, such as NBC's Fear Factor, carefully guard their release forms. "It's about 40 pages long or so, but we don't give it out," says NBC spokesman Bob Meyer.

Yet waivers and releases have not protected reality shows from lawsuits.

When contestant Jill Mouser, a 28-year-old saleswoman from Los Angeles, was strapped into a gadget called the "harness of pain" for a reality show called Culture Shock, the idea was to stay suspended in midair longer than another contestant in hopes of winning $100,000.

When she was eventually lowered, screaming in pain, she says she was injected with morphine, placed on a backboard - a restraint used for people with spinal injuries - and driven to a hospital an hour away from the show's remote filming location. She is suing the producers of the show, claiming she felt pressured to sign a release immediately before the stunt.

And there's the rub. "If you get chosen as one of the 12 on Survivor, it's worth your time to talk to an attorney," Galloway says. "But if you're back of the line on American Idol, don't waste your time."

So most people just sign and hope they will become a star.

But contestants who want to sue should be wary, says Morgan.

"When you go out and do something stupid and reckless, there's going to be a very strong argument in court that you assumed this risk," Morgan says. "If anybody's crazy enough to eat bugs on national TV," he says, jurors tend to think "they deserve to be in a coma. Juries are not sympathetic to idiots."

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