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 $12 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 bloggers:
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 for years.
You should never share your ideas with producers, but you need to know that if they don’t offer you a contract or money for consulting, then you might be feeding their creative process but will never end up getting paid. Don’t offer or accept interviews ever until something is in writing.
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. If I could tell you one thing–don’t follow my lead. Learn from my mistakes.
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.
The casting director 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 the VP of casting 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. Wait? A TV pilot without getting paid? Are you fucking out of your mind?
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 would all end, leaving me with questions about whether my footage was shared with other people in the same network. It was all too coincidental.
Do not go on camera for them without a contract in writing, reviewed by your lawyer. 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. In fact, one journalist I’d spoke with last year ended up winning a prestigious award from USC for her stories on groups I work with. Journalists 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, and on a personal note, some of the journalists I’ve met are damn good people.
I made the mistake of speaking to a producer just a few weeks ago without a contract. My new policy is: No interviews with TV producers without a written deal and signed contract. Oh and that line they’ll give you, “Well what do you want? How much do you want to get paid? Tell me and we’ll see if we can work it out.” Um, no. You’re not in the industry, they are. Tell them to fuck off and come back with a proposal in writing with numbers or you’re not interested.
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 on attorney fees. But you didn’t lose rights to your life story, ideas and talent. The thousands of dollars in legal fees are well worth it because one day, your story might be worth a hell of a lot of money and your lawyer will have helped you keep all the rights to 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 $1500 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. These numbers were a total joke compared to what I was making at my office job.
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 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
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)
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 presented to me for the work I was to do:
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?)