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Columbia Panel Goes Behind the Scenes for Reality TV Check
From left to right: Margo Crespin, assistant director, Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts; Lee Straus, vice president of business affairs, NBC Universal Television Network and Cable Group and adjunct professor of law, Loyola Law School; Bill Rancic, first-season winner of The Apprentice; Marci Wiseman, president, Wiseman & Associates and business affairs consultant, NBC Universal Television Group; and Bob Kusbit, executive producer of MTV's Made, Boiling Points and Camp Jim and NBC's Home Intervention and The One That Got Away.

The Business School Media Management Association and the Law School Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts welcomed reality television's leading executives in November for a panel titled "Reality Check: The Legal, Business, Financial and Creative Aspects of Reality TV."

The panel explored the challenges that reality television -- the fastest-growing genre of television programming -- has placed on traditional business models. Unlike traditional sitcoms, shows such as The Apprentice and The Bachelor have limited syndication potential. Once Donald Trump barks, "You're hired," on the finale of The Apprentice, the suspense is gone -- and consequently, so is the desire to rerun such shows in syndication, a major source of income with traditional business models. The panelists, who included prominent executives and consultants from NBC, MTV and FOX, indicated that programmers are therefore becoming more reliant on product placement opportunities as an alternate source of revenue.

Executives also lamented the liability concerns of reality television. To protect themselves, networks require extensive testing of prospective subjects. Panelist Bill Rancic, the first-season winner of Donald Trump and Mark Burnett's The Apprentice, said he was subjected to "every test imaginable, short of a full body cavity search." If contestants refuse the rigorous mental and physical tests, he continued, "There are 100 people in line waiting for your spot." Contestants also are expected to sign tome-length documents essentially relinquishing all rights. But the influx of candid camera type shows, such as MTV's Boiling Point or NBC's My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé , where some parties are not aware they are being filmed, has increased the potential for liability.

Additionally, executives expressed concerns over failed background checks. While some contestants' past indiscretions are overlooked in the hopes that, if discovered, they may generate publicity, other contestants with troublesome pasts slip through the cracks despite intensive background searches. Marci Wiseman, president of Wiseman & Associates and a consultant to NBC Universal Television Group, FOX Broadcasting and 20th Century FOX Television, noted that because there is no national criminal database, networks are reliant on state records. As a result, if one of a contestant's past addresses is omitted, the network may not know to review criminal records in the omitted state. This has caused tremendous embarrassment for certain shows, particularly Fox's wildly popular American Idol, where a contestant was eliminated after it surfaced that he had an arrest record and another was asked to leave for posing topless on a Web site.

Despite news reports indicating that the popularity of reality programming may be waning, the panelists concurred that it will be an important component of the network and cable broadcast industry for the foreseeable future. Discovering solutions for the legal, ethical and economic problems posed by this new form of entertainment will remain a central challenge for these executives in the years to come.

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Published: Jan 05, 2005
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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