Thursday, June 22, 2017
An article on CNN Media posted on June 21 reads, in part: “A contract for the current season of ‘Bachelor in Paradise,’ which CNNMoney … has confirmed as authentic, provides a rare window behind the scenes of reality shows, in the ‘Bachelor’ franchise and beyond, revealing how they are able to manipulate ‘reality’ and create drama where none actually exists….” Shocker! More surprising, perhaps, is the extent to which the companies producing these types of TV shows seek to avoid liability in potential legal proceedings.
Whereas the “Bachelor in Paradise” contract requires participants to “refrain from unlawful behavior or harassment” and to acknowledge that the producers “do not encourage intimate or sexual contact with other contestants on the show,” the contract also tries to free the producers from any responsibility if a contestant is injured, even if that injury comes from “unwelcome/unwanted sexual contact or other interaction among participants.” Participants will also have to agree that the producers are not liable for almost anything that happens to them in the course of filming, whether they are injured, suffer emotional trauma, or catch a sexually transmitted disease.
Furthermore, the producers of the show can do nearly anything they want to the participants and their reputation, including filming them naked, airing the details of any part of the life they think is relevant, or flat out lying about them and things they have done. Nicole Page, a New York-based entertainment attorney with Reavis Parent, said that the contract means, from the producers' perspective, "I can basically take your image and do whatever I want with it and I own it and you have no recourse." Contracts like these are common in reality TV, she said. They "have been around since reality TV began," she added. Needless to say, should participants wish to pursue civil legal action, they will have to arbitrate.
Why would contestants want to agree to such far-reaching contracts? For their chance at 15 minutes of fame, of course. If a contestant tries to renegotiate the contract, plenty of other people are ready to take their place.
The contracts, however, may be so broad that they are not legally enforceable, according to one CNN/HLN legal analyst. Another commentator says that these contracts are “so one-sided it seems absurd, but this is the price people are willing to pay to be on television for whatever it is.” “It's not a two-sided contract," the CNN/HLN attorney says. "A contract is supposed to be what they call 'at arms length,' which means there is leverage on both sides and it's freely entered into and freely negotiated. But this is clearly a contract that is one-sided.”
With all due respect to the CNN/HLN attorney, the mere argument that the contract is “one-sided” is, of course, not very strong unless the contracting procedure reaches the level of unconscionability. Yes, this might be a “take-it-or-leave-it” type of contract, but those are, as we all know, also widely used in numerous other industries and companies where courts have upheld them. I think it highly unlikely that contestants on a famous TV show will prevail on an argument that their contracts were so one-sided as to reach the level of unconscionability under contract law. After all, the TV contestants really don’t need to be on these shows at all; they choose to do so on their own free volition, typically for a rather vain chance at fame and fortune (I know that that is not a legal argument, but we all know what this would look like in court…).
Much worse are the alleged attempts by the companies to have the participants sign away their rights under criminal law. That they might very well not be able to do. "If the contract requires you to release any claims you have that you were sexually assaulted, which is a crime, then the contract may or may not be enforceable under the public policy of the state of California [where this contract was drafted]," said entertainment litigator Josh Schiller of Boies Schiller Flexner. "Law enforcement could get involved and bring charges ... would we want to enforce a contract that no one would be liable if they were filmed being sexually assaulted? That would create a real problem." No kidding. In other cases, contestants should closely consider what this type of deal really involves.
For the rest of us, we live in times when lines between fact and fiction are blurred significantly. It seems that an increasing amount of people are comfortable dismissing facts as “fake” when the converse is true. I’ve encountered that numerous times after the most recent presidential election myself, both in South Dakota and even “liberal California.” In addition to the usual climate change denial in the Midwest, I encountered a “crazy cat lady” in Los Angeles the other day claiming that highly established Audobon studies and Smithsonian studies demonstrating how feral cats kill numerous birds and other small wildlife is “not true”! Sigh.
We should consider how we best teach our students to account for this new reality in contract and other law. I think we also need to increasingly point out to them that what they see in the media is not necessarily true. Granted, with reality TV shows, that is obvious, but I have had to undertake rather serious discussions with my own students recently about what “news” really is and what it is not! What we have taken as granted as law professors even in recent years may no longer be the case or may be changing.