Thursday January 26, 2006

The Reality of 'Reality TV' May Be In Fine Print

Entertainment law professor Dennis Greene, a former singer in ShaNaNa and Columbia Pictures vice president, discusses what you should know before searching for your 15 minutes of fame on reality TV.

"Survivor" winner Richard Hatch, who was convicted Thursday for evading taxes on his winnings, and other reality TV contestants probably faced the daunting off-camera challenges of writer's cramp or eye strain before trying to gain immunity or head of household.

University of Dayton entertainment law professor Dennis Greene said legal counsel is advisable before signing a maze of forms that include language about paying taxes on winnings, divulging the show's outcome or retaining the rights to your performance, among others.

Greene, a former singer in ShaNaNa and Columbia Pictures vice president, painted a picture similar to what contestants can face on the actual show.

"Contestants are dealing with a pretty intense and armed camp that is not concerned about you but rather their own success," Greene said. "It's important to ask yourself, 'What am I getting into?' The fantasy of stardom is intoxicating. Some questions fall by the wayside, and that's where problems begin. It could end up being a costly 15 minutes (of fame)."

Before audition tapes are made, networks and producers already have a labyrinth of legalese designed to keep contestants from seeking recourse against show creators, according to Greene.

However, there still have been cases regarding alleged tax evasion, unfulfilled promises, unfavorable portrayals, stolen show ideas and predetermined outcomes. Determining whether there was suffering, damages or intentional infliction of pain is tricky in such cases, Greene said.

In one case, five children accuse a couple - who took them in after their parents died - of driving them out of the family's new ABC "Extreme Makeover" house. The couple, ABC and the builder are named in the suit.

Greene said problems could have been avoided if it was predetermined the children were part of the deal or there was a three-way contract among the network, couple and children. Greene surmised that the children should be suing only the couple, but the networks sometimes become part of the case because they have deeper pockets.

Cases of unfair portrayal are difficult to prove, Greene said, because the person bringing the case more than likely participated in the process to its conclusion. Copyright cases are tough as well because "in reality TV, there is pretty much one idea. Many of them are retakes of other shows, just like when you have three movies with the same plot."

As with most investments of time and money, Greene's advice is to let the buyer beware.

"You have to recognize you are dealing with entertainment professionals," Greene said. "They have lawyers putting together their contacts. There's no reason a contestant should not have someone there, too."

For interviews, contact Shawn Robinson at (937) 229-3391.