Personal Injury

Pulling Stunts to Get On TV

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When you think about it, stunt people make Hollywood work. For decades, we've watched movies and television shows with exciting car chases, dramatic falls from cliffs and buildings, and fiery explosions that nearly kill the hero or the villain.

Stunt people are still around, and they still do those great feats. But there's a new breed of stunt people taking over Hollywood - or at least trying to. They're the ones who stage events  to get on or stay on a reality TV show.

The Phenomenon

Watch it or not, everyone knows what reality TV is and what some of the most popular shows are. You've heard of American Idol, Fear Factor, and Dancing with the Stars, haven't you? Some say that the reality TV phenomenon began with another show you've heard of - Survivor.

Reality television shows involve "everyday," ordinary people - not actors. And usually they're doing not-so-ordinary things. Like eating a cup of maggots, negotiating a treacherous obstacle course, and running through a burning building. You know, the types of things that made stunt people the rulers of Hollywood.

Not all shows involve dangerous stunts or antics, though. Some involve singing and dancing competitions, and others deal with dating and marriage.

Today, the stunts aren't limited to the "stars" of the show. Recently we've seen people pulling quirky stunts not as part of a show, but in order to get onto a show. For example:

  • In October 2009, "Balloon Boy" was born. Falcon Heene, the six-year old son of Richard and Mayumi Heene was reportedly inside a renegade homemade helium balloon. The balloon traveled a distance of about 60 miles and reached an altitude of more than 7,000 feet before it returned to Earth. Falcon wasn't in it. It was later discovered that his parents concocted the scheme to land themselves their own reality TV show
  • In December 2009,the "party crashers" Tareq and Michaele Salahi somehow made it into a social event at the White House where they personally met and had their pictures taken with President Obama and Vice President Biden. It's been rumored that they pulled the stunt in effort to get their own reality TV show, and it's been confirmed that they recently auditioned for an upcoming reality show, "Real Housewives of D.C."

Unexpected and Sometimes Tragic Results

There are times when the stunts backfire or participants or contestants in a reality show get hurt or even die. For example:

  • The Salahis have yet to land a reality TV show, but they will be subpoenaed to appear before Congress and testify about how they breached White House security
  • The Heenes faced criminal charges over their stunt, and Mrs. Heene faced deportation if convicted of a felony. Ultimately, Mrs. Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of filing a false report and Mr. Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of falsely influencing deputies.

In addition, the couple may be forced to repay the $62,000 bill involved with the "rescue" efforts of their son

  • In August 2009, the reality show "Megan Wants A Millionaire," a romance-based show that tried to conclude with the marriage of a female contestant, was taken off the air after one of the show's finalists, Ryan Jenkins, was charged with the murder of his ex-wife. The show, apparently, didn't know that Jenkins had a prior criminal conviction for assaulting a former girlfriend and had been arrested for hitting his ex-wife not long before she was murdered
  • Tom Sparks died in November 2009 after briefly trying to negotiate an obstacle course on the reality show Wipe Out
  • A nine year old boy from India hanged himself to death while trying to replicate a dance move he saw on Dance India Dance

These unfortunate happenings aside, even the upside of participating in or even winning a reality TV show or contest is often short lived. Only the most avid of fans can tell you who won Survivor or American Idol last year.

Who's Responsible

When someone gets hurt or dies during a reality TV show, who pays the bill? Many reality shows carry some type of insurance, especially the ones that involve dangerous stunts and tricks. But that insurance is getting harder to find. Some companies, like Fireman's Fund which is one of the largest insurance companies involved in the entertainment business, refuses to issue policies for reality TV shows that involve dangerous stunts.

The shows' makers are getting wise, too. It's not uncommon for television producers and networks to talk to their attorneys and insurance companies before they make the first show. That way they know that the stunts are as safe as they can be to help make sure that no one gets hurt.

Also, it's not uncommon for these types of shows to have a disclaimer telling the viewers "Not to try this at home," or a message warning parents to talk to their kids about the show. And of course, participants are usually required to sign a waiver or release in which they agree not to sue the makers of the show in case there's an accident.

Sometimes no one's responsible other than the stunt people involved. Those who do something outlandish in the hopes of getting a TV show or 15 minutes of fame will be responsible for their actions and deeds.

Steps You can Take

First, if you're dreaming up a stunt to get yourself on TV, think twice. You don't want the legal problems faced by the Heenes, and you certainly don’t want the US Secret Service and other federal authorities looking into your affairs, like the Salahis.

If you and your family watch these types of shows, take some time to explain to your children that what they see on TV isn't always safe for them to try on their own.

If you're thinking of going on one of these shows, there are several things to do:

  • If the show involves any type of physical activity - whether it's dancing or obstacle courses - get a check-up from your family doctor, even if the show offers to give you a physical examination
  • Call your insurance agent. Some health and life insurance policies won’t give coverage if you willingly and voluntarily place yourself in danger and get hurt
  • Get a lawyer to read over any waiver or release you're required to sign before you sign it
  • Weigh the costs and benefits carefully. Sure, you may win some money, even a lot of money, but is it worth risking your health and safety?

Reality TV is entertaining; that's why it's so popular. Be careful not to get lulled into the prospect of easy money or fame, though. Often it doesn't work out that way.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Can I sue the television network even if I signed a waiver before I appeared on its reality TV show?
  • Will I get paid if the network reruns the episodes of the reality show I was in?
  • Are television networks legally required to run "parental discretion" or other warnings before airing reality shows? What about cable stations or networks?
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