The Truth about ‘Reality’ TV (Lessons for Bloggers & Creatives)

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.

Like me.

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.
image002 not performance
(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

You WILL be a slave to the network starting from the day you film. See Figure 2 below.
Diga Vision Contract (Figure 2, Screen shot of page 1 of the contract I received 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.

Diga Vision Contract defamation

(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:

Real Housewives New Jersey

(Real Housewives of NJ Producer Reveals Just How Far Reality TV Will Go to Manufacture Drama, Jezebel)

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.

hester lawsuit

(Lawsuit claims A&E’s ‘Storage Wars’ show is rigged, SF Gate)

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?)

Contract 2

 

Reza and MJ make me miss my gay bestie

It’s not often that reality TV makes me cry, but Reza and MJ’s fights make me miss my gay best friend.

A long time ago, before there were Egyptian pyramids, I fell in love with a man we’ll call Ted (not his real name). Ted was a writer like me and he was tall and yummy. One small issue: he was gay. Okay, so I’m not one to stay in love with someone who clearly doesn’t want me, so I moved him to the friend zone and he quickly became one of my best friends.

Ted and I hung out all the time. We he ate salads together and we got coffee together. And we talked about boys. All the time.

Shahs of Sunset

 

At some point even based a character in a play about me and I acted in that role. And so our friendship blossomed. I was writing poetry at the time and he was writing plays, but we worked around it. Coming from a small college, someone (not me) started getting a big head when his plays were being produced in our very small theater department.

quotesshahsofsunsetseason1galleryepisode10520

Unfortunately, besides writing, Ted and I also had the same taste in men. Exact. Same. I mean, down to the “Omg, Ted, you will never believe the hot guy I noticed in class!” and he would say “No way!” because as I described him, we realized it was the same guy.

Fortunately for me, the men we liked were usually straight, so I slept with them all (except for the gay ones). In my defense, they asked me out and I don’t think they knew he liked him. Except for one who made out with him and me in the same night and then denied making out with him the next day, but we won’t go there because I think I already beat that horse to death.

I’m not surprised, really, that our friendship unraveled considering all this. I mean, the men he went after all fell for me (and were terrible lays). It was bound to happen.

But the thing is, I wasn’t the only guilty party in this breakup. It seemed like Ted and me were both becoming divas pretty quickly, but I started taking my diva to the back of the bus when he was around so he could shine and that’s when it all went to shit. Pretty soon I started realizing he wasn’t really as concerned about me as I thought he was once. I noticed myself constantly making excuses for Ted to my other friends when he wouldn’t show up at parties I planned and they all told me “Lisa, you deserve better than that in a friend.”

Being a pastor’s son complicated things, too. I was going through my “I think I’m not a Christian” stage and his parents were telling him that they knew he was gay (even though he had tried very hard to hide it) and that his being gay was killing his father (true story). Obviously, it pissed me off when he would call me crying because that is so very damaging to a child. All the churches I knew were full of douche bags like that, but (deep breath), they were his parents and he was close to his family like I was close to mine. He was starting to go through his first gay crisis though. He was starting to out his actual feelings for men and loving it, yet his family was about to lynch him or sell him off to the first available fat chick at church.

shahsrezagaycrisis

 

With time it seemed like everything just started going to shit. It was like a really messy breakup. One minute I was giving him blow job tips and the next minute he was angry at me and always hanging out with our friends without me and I was of course, hurt. When he would forgive me, I would hold a grudge. The cycle continued.

Just like Reza and MJ, a wedge started forming between us. When I moved to LA, I started feeling resentful of him when he asked to hang out only when I said I was having drinks with my actress friend or my boyfriend  (at the time) whose father is a very famous songwriter. Not being one to feel comfortable with networking, I started feeling like he was using me and my friends. He was, in fact, just networking but I felt used. I wanted to hang out in our pajamas and have a sleepover. I didn’t want to plan big networking events just to get him to visit.

mj1-520x346

Watching Reza and MJ fight, I started tearing up and then I really lost it when MJ said that she knew, no matter how mean Reza was to her, he loved her. I guess I just don’t feel that way anymore. I doubt he does love me anymore. Ted and I haven’t talked in years, and he doesn’t look me up anymore when he comes home or comes to LA. I don’t know. I know things were a certain way when we were younger and in college and they won’t be that way ever again. I’ve changed. I’m old. I have a job. He has changed. He moved away to Singapore to get an MFA.

Either way, I still love him and I miss him. A lot.

 

How to get your life story stolen by a production company

My life story is all over the internet now, thanks to my bright idea of blogging. It’s created a thriving community of readers and friends and paved the way for me to begin to work toward social changes that are near to my heart, but it’s clear to me now how easily ideas can be stolen from you and how predatory producers will come in and steal your life story without batting an eye.

This is a long story about why I think a New York production company, stole my life story and sent it to the a major TV network for a scripted TV show named eerily close to my own blog name.

In an attempt to condense it, I’m going to summarize a hell of a lot of conversations. And then I’ve written THIS post for those of you who want some advice on how to avoid getting your story/intellectual property/research stolen from a production company/TV network. You should also read this post by Toni at Fashion Cloud if you’re considering working with a big brand to hear her story.

Here’s the rundown between me and the company and why I think they stole my life story:

Early 2012 I was in touch with a production company who was recruiting for a documentary for TV about cults. Well, my blog is named My Cult Life and I have a pretty fantastic story, so of course I was interested. I actually had been working with some cult survivors who wanted to be on TV, so I wanted to suggest some of my reader’s stories to the company in an effort to get more visibility to the damage cults can do.

Fast forward a few weeks and the casting director perks up when I talk to him about the work I did exposing Mercy Ministries, which operates like a cult (although that term may not best describe them, they do some very scary stuff like exorcise demons out of anorexics and the mentally ill). This person got excited when they heard that I was a blogger turned investigative journalist and wanted to hear more.

For several more weeks, we discussed the details of how I investigate cults and high-demand groups, and bits of my own cult story but I insisted I wouldn’t follow through without a contract stating I would get credited for all the expert consulting work and research I was doing; not to mention writing and developing an entire show. I got a verbal promise from them and I had an entire paper trail stating my ideas were my property and not to be shared without my consent. I left a very hefty paper trail.

All of a sudden (*eye roll*) things start moving quickly. They already had a network committed but the network wanted to hear more about my story, not the other people they had interviewed. I started wondering what the hell was going on. Why would I be the star of a TV show? I’m not famous; although I would make a great “Dog the Bounty Hunter”. Ha! Why weren’t they asking to interview the several other people I had suggested, some of whom had very compelling stories. Those people didn’t even get a phone call back. It made no sense.

So the casting director interviews me extensively via Skype and that was sent to the ‘executives’ at the network. They loved it. Now they wanted to film what they called a presentation, which the network was supposed to use to decide whether they would purchase the show–at least that’s what production company told me. Had I listened to the couple of lawyers I spoke to early on in all of this, I would’ve backed off then. I was star struck, unfortunately. All the lawyers I talked to said you should never go on camera for a production company without a written agreement or at least a signed consent form, and they suggested this production company sounded very shady and dishonest.

Enter the Head of Casting & Talent for the production company who was supposed to send me the contracts and review legal with me. I still didn’t have a contract at this point and now I was getting switched to a new person in the company. I expressed that I wouldn’t move forward without a contract and payment for my work for the presentation/pilot. After all, up to this point, I’d worked for months giving them ideas, information and research. I started emailing lawyers (having never had the need for one, I jumped in headfirst to all this) and finally found one.

My lawyer and the Head of Casting discussed the situation and my lawyer started handling all communication between her and me. She kept calling me and emailing me, but I let my lawyer handle it.

I got a contract in hand the day we filmed. It was shitty. It was 16 pages of shit. I got it partially reviewed by two high-profile lawyers in LA and they said that was one of the worst contracts they’d ever seen. I had no idea. I’m not an actress or a celebrity. I’m a writer and an English major. Negotiations were never my strong suit. At some point someone pointed out the shitiness of the contract by one of the paragraphs that said if I were to die while filming, they weren’t going to be held liable. Um, death? By reality TV show?

I rejected the first contract and they sent a second. It was also shitty. Again, I got it reviewed by two lawyers, plus my own. We decided to make it work and build on it from where they had it.

Weeks of negotiations started and then the production company’s lawyer stepped in. My lawyer, the Head of Casting, and their lawyer went back and forth for days. We ended up with a much better version of the shitty contract but still a piece of crap.

I was getting ready to sign. Although the pay was low, the network wanted to secure me for six years so I was sure I could renegotiate after the second year. My dad’s friends had recently wrapped the first season of Bering Sea Gold and I knew quite a bit about the money/negotiations and how they had been able to renegotiate.

The casting director and Head of Casting told me their production company had a huge role in creating Lauren Conrad’s career, as well as Snooki. They were both extremely famous and their brands were huge. Of course I was flattered that they thought (and told me) I would be the next big brand.

I was incredibly naïve. Looking back, I can remember certain moments when I caught the both in lies. I often confronted them on this, and I thought I was relatively safe because of the paper trail I’d left, the video footage I had at home, and the trail between my lawyer and theirs with the contract.

But what happened later threw me for a loop and I’m still not sure how this all happened to me.

After weeks of negotiations, I was happy enough with the contract and the opportunity to sign. The day I was going to accept their offer, my lawyer called and told me the deal was off. Apparently and all of a sudden, he was told that the network backed out because it was too dangerous. This didn’t make sense to me, since we’d planned this for months and they knew months prior that certain plans would be risky. Why back out now? Filming was supposed to start in mere days.

I knew I’d been taken for a ride and my story had been stolen right then and there. I was devastated, but I was in denial that people would be this shitty, especially after I’d shared my deepest, most painful life experiences with them. Talk about having your vulnerabilities exploited.

I had worked day and night for over two years building my brand and my platform because my childhood dream of being an author required you develop an online presence to be more appealing to publishers. After two years, my platform building was where I wanted it to be (Platform being audience, readership, and maintaining a social media presence). A TV show would only help to get publishers interested, and would help sell books. Most writers don’t have the luxury to sell books that way, and I felt fortunate to be able to do so.

I should’ve known it was all a scam. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

 

***

Earlier in the year, I had a Google alert pop up for a new TV show named eerily similar to my own blog name. I got sick to my stomach. There wasn’t much information out there on the show…just that it’d been greenlit. I knew nothing about scripted TV or how the industry worked but I confronted the person I’d dealt with the next day. He blew me off with an air of confidence: “No, that’s a scripted show. This is a docu-series. They’re entirely different.”

I got aggressive and demanded to know if he was sending my footage to them for research. Again, he assured me I had nothing to worry about.

Judging from the head writer’s Tweets and the timing of my work and filming, the “executives” who loved me and my ideas could very well have been the writers from show. When I recall certain conversations about the network—like really interrogating the casting staff about the network’s lack of reality TV shows on the air and the inconsistencies that popped up constantly—there’s just so much evidence that this happened. Or the day the writer Tweeted about some exciting new story lines falling into place with my own videos arriving at the network—it’s just all very suspicious.

Now, of course, I could be entirely wrong. Maybe I really was going to be the next Snooki or Lauren Conrad as they said said. But seriously? Probably not.

About a month after the network backed out, I read the synopsis of this TV show, Cult.

cult synopsis

 Skye, one of the main characters, is a researcher and blogger (ahem, that’s what I do, ironically enough) and the other lead, Jeff, is an investigative journalist (I spent twelve hours talking on film about my investigative journalism, oddly enough). Oh and the line, “cat-and-mouse game between charismatic cult leader[s]” was verbatim what I said on my video interview. Wow. Isn’t that coincidental?

You hear that this happens all the time. I know now that it does. I feel a lot of guilt for not seeing this coming; for getting caught up in the dream of having my own TV show. I feel duped and robbed.

Mostly I feel angry. I feel angry and naive.

My life story is all over the internet now, thanks to my bright idea of blogging. It’s created a thriving community of readers and friends and paved the way for me to begin to work toward social changes that are near to my heart, but it’s clear to me now how easily ideas can be stolen from you and how predatory producers will come in and steal your life story without batting an eye.

I’ve definitely learned some significant lessons about ideas and intellectual property and I’ve posted some detailed advice (and the contracts presented to me) here.

If you have any questions or are going through something similar, please feel free to email me at info [at] mycultlife [dot] com.

 

A Dichotomy: Public and Private Lives

The more public I’ve become (on my blog) and recently with some TV stuff, the more private and isolated I find myself. I set out to tell my story in hopes that others would read it and listen to what I had to say, having wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but now I am somewhere between being a dreamer and the one living her dream and I’ve been somewhat terrified of that success and the loss of privacy that comes with the territory.

In some ways, I think I’d cope rather well, having developed a thick skin and a public persona different than who I am (yet, rather the same). I can let a lot of hateful remarks and stupid arguments go, letting them roll off my back. I rarely think about them too much anymore, whereas a year ago, that stuff crippled me and made me cry just thinking about it.

In other ways, I want my privacy back and I think it’s too late. I don’t want to be obligated to social media updates like publishers insist we writers must be, but I am. I’m also obligated to blog posting, but as you can tell, I rarely do that anymore. At first, blogging was fun, but now my blog is something people DO read and that makes me uncomfortable from time to time. Has my boss read it? Has my landlord read it? Have my parents read it? I’m an extremely private person even to these people who are in my life daily. I only tell everything to one or two friends, and sometimes not even to them. So imagine my horror if those in my office, say, knew my innermost thoughts and personal issues.

Perhaps it’s just a little insecurity or perhaps it’s a true need for privacy. One of the surest ways to be famous in your lifetime (if you are my age or younger) is to put your whole personal life on display, the good, bad and ugly. If you have an interesting story and are unafraid to tell it, you have a good chance at fame. Fame relies very little on talent anymore, except that you must be good (really good) at marketing your personality (and marketing IS a talent). We’re in a personality driven world, which may not have been all too different from “the good ol’ days”, but it’s certainly an interesting phenomenon.

 

Kim K Splits from Hubby

Kim Kardashian filed divorce papers today from Kris Humphries stating “irreconcilable differences”. I keep up with the Kardashians, so this was surprising. Not that I’m really surprised, because I think money and fame (and insanely perfect looks) can really make it difficult to have the kind of uncomplicated relationships us normal people have (in comparison).

The sad news? Kris Humphries on the divorce: “I love my wife and am devastated to learn she filed for divorce. I’m committed to this marriage and everything this covenant represents. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make it work.”

Aw, I feel bad for the guy.