Many people think reality TV pays well and you’ll be an overnight celebrity. That’s not entirely true, although some people have made money from it or from the public exposure to their brands. Take a look at Bethany Frankel, who has published books and developed a booze line or Lauren Conrad, also an author with a net worth of id="mce_marker"2 million.
Last year, I worked with DiGa Vision, a production company started by two former MTV creatives, on a reality TV show about cults that never made it on the air. I learned a lot in those few months and I had to learn quickly. Since reality TV is all the craze lately, I feel like it’s important to talk about my experience so people can learn from my mistakes. I made plenty and you will make them, too, if you aren’t careful.
Here are some tips for those of you who want to avoid getting your story/intellectual property/research stolen from a production company/TV network:
Protect your ideas and story
The minute a producer comes knocking at your door (or email), you need to be very careful what ideas you share and how much of your story you share. Your own story may seem very insignificant and unimportant to you. I know I underestimated the power of my own story until it was stolen from me to create some of the characters of the CW show Cult.
You should never share your ideas with producers, because as I’ve learned twice now, they will steal them and will put themselves in a position where it’s very hard to sue them.
Don’t be deceived: Producers won’t pay you for your original ideas
The development of a reality TV show has already occurred or been discussed heavily with various creative staff at the production company, DESPITE what the recruiter/casting people tell you. They are looking for a few gullible people to tell them all their original ideas or life stories, though, to enhance the shitty ideas they have. What else could possibly make a reality TV show more authentic, than plucking ideas from genuinely unassuming people.
I asked for compensation for my ideas and/or consulting credit on the show to no avail. I still shared my ideas, assuming they would do the right thing in the end. Of course they didn’t.
Get a SIGNED contract before you film or record a thing
The one thing you need to know is that if they are interested in working with you at all, they will give you a contract to secure you as talent.
DiGa Vision’s casting director, Anthony Lucente, spent months over the phone with me (of course…there’s no paper trail via phone) getting my life story and a long list of the cults I investigate. Then, when he got a good idea of what kind of investigative journalism I did, he sent a video crew to my house to film me. I had no contract, and the film crew was going to leave without even telling me about the video release form I was supposed to sign.
When I called Melissa Rothschild to ask her where the video release form was, she presented me with a 16 page contract granting me no compensation, but securing me for a pilot and various other filming and appearances.
I should have ran when I saw that contract, but they already had my footage. I knew they were presenting it to the CW. What I didn’t know is that it might end up in the writers’ room of the show Cult.
The production company can and will sell your footage without your knowledge or consent. Do not go on camera for them without a contract in writing. Of course they’ll need a video interview and they will need to do screen tests, but there should be contracts in place to secure you as talent before this happens. Once you go on film, they can and will use that footage without paying you, crediting you or even hiring you as talent.
Production companies who won’t listen to your requests and won’t give you a contract are not interested in putting you on TV despite what they say. They are interested in screwing you over, though.
Reality TV isn’t about ethics
I often get contacted by journalists who want to know more about cults or who are interested in doing a story on survivors. I generally grant them interviews after reviewing their credentials and portfolio, and refer survivors to them for their story because journalists are in an entirely different business than reality TV producers. They are in the business of uncovering new and fresh stories for the public to digest. They often make the world a better place by exposing corruption of groups like mine.
I made the mistake of speaking to a producer just a few weeks ago without a contract. She interviewed me for two hours after wining and dining me at the Mondrian Hotel, asking about my life story, why I thought my group was a cult and got a good profile of the leaders of the groups.
She kissed me on the cheek and said she’d email me when she got back to London.
I never heard from her. So a few days later, I emailed her and she gave me lip service saying she’d get back to me once she settled in. It’s been weeks and I don’t expect to hear from her again despite the promises she made.
If you don’t get a contract in writing, do not interview with a producer, especially if you have a very compelling and marketable life story. If they’re looking for a sucker, they’ll find one. Don’t let it be you.
Pay an attorney to review contracts and emails
Attorneys will require a retainer fee up front and if you’re approached randomly, like I was, you may not have the money to pay a lawyer. Do not negotiate the contract yourself. Find the money and pay a lawyer to negotiate and communicate to the producers for you. It will save you a lot of stress and frustrations, and it will help you get a better overall deal.
Lawyers are trained to read these twelve to eighteen page contracts that are geared to screw you over. Let them do their job. If the deal falls through, yes, you’ve lost a few thousand dollars. But you didn’t lose rights to your life story, ideas and talent. The thousands of dollars in legal fees are well worth it.
Production companies don’t pay well
The job of a reality TV show or documentary production company is to produce a video presentation to pitch to a network with a very small working budget. Some production companies certainly have more money than others, but not all. If you are offered monetary compensation, it may be very little up front.
There seems to be some evidence that reality TV stars have negotiated for more money after their first or second season, but often at the risk of jeopardizing their place on the show.
I was never compensated for my work and when I was offered the first contract, my compensation was ZERO. Yes, $0. DiGa wanted to pay me nothing to be on call to film for three months. Then they bumped it up to id="mce_marker"500 per episode, which I wouldn’t receive until after the show aired and only if it aired. I had a well paying job, so while it was tempting to be on TV, it wasn’t tempting enough.
Their offer was an insult.
Even after weeks of negotiations, I wasn’t happy with the compensation they were offering.
(Figure 1, page 3 of the contract presented to me from DiGa Vision stating my work on the TV show was not a performance and is not employment and does not entitle me to wages, etc.)
The truth about reality TV
You WILL be a slave to the network starting from the day you film. See Figure 2 below.
(Figure 2, Screen shot of page 1 of the contract I received from DiGa Vision last summer for a six-year commitment to film)
Notice the last line in paragraph 1 that states “The rights granted herein shall also include the right to edit, delete, dub and fictionalize the Footage and Materials, the Program, and the Advertisements as Producer sees fit in Producer’s sole discretion."
You or someone else will be the villain
And as a reality TV actor, you agree to this. You agree to be defamed, embarrassed, and you agree to the terms below, allowing the producer to release personal, private and surprising information about you.
(Figure 3, taken from the pages of my contract with DiGa Vision)
If you watch reality TV, like me, you see villains like Teresa Guidice and begin to hate her. It starts feeling very Big Brother-like—peering into someone’s life at every waking moment and despising them based on what’s depicted to you under the guise that it’s real.
Reality TV is NOT real.
Take this Jezebel article that talks about the producers setting Teresa Guidice up to get framed for calling Melissa, her sister-in-law, a stripper:
Why doesn’t anyone point their fingers at the show’s producers? Because those producers can be (and often are) unethical assholes. They lock up the potential stars in low-paying, highly restrictive contracts that ensure the stars will be the producer’s puppets for the entire life of the show.
Recently, I was watching the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and noticed a very odd moment where something Brandi Glanville said was muted. I had never heard anything muted on that show or others like it before, so I was surprised. Come to find out, Brandi’s muted statement was that fellow cast member Adrienne Maloof used a surrogate to have her children. Later, I read that Adrienne’s lawyers made Bravo mute the statement Brandi made. Clearly, having money pays when dealing with a TV network. Otherwise, you're screwed.
Today my lawyer brought to my attention the lawsuit between David Hester and A&E, the network that produces the show “Storage Wars”. Hester’s lawsuit claims the show has been staged and valuable items have been placed in lockers to dramatize the show. He’s made a lot of heavy claims against the network including accusing the network of committing fraud on the public.
Considering that Hester’s lawsuit claims the network is violating a federal law, this could be a potentially game-changing legal battle for reality TV show actors.
After all, reality TV isn’t really real. Like Hester says, it’s fake.
Here are the links to two of the initial contracts DiGa Vision presented to me for the work I was to do with the CW:
Contract 1 (Pay special attention to page 7, paragraph 8 (f) in Contract 1 where they specifically do not care if I died. True story. Had I signed this agreement, I would be signing away the right to hold the producers or network responsible for my own death. Seriously, guys?)
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