Well into the second season of "Survivor," the reality TV show taped months before its airing, nothing has been leaked about who will win the contest in the Australian Outback. Furthermore, the contestants who survived the first show filmed last year on a remote island are still mum about the particulars of that show's production.
What makes these and other reality shows so airtight from blabbermouths?
Killer contracts, which force contestants and technicians on the show to sign away virtually their entire public persona. Violating provisions of those killer contracts could be more painful than falling prey to a hungry croc they call for millions of dollars in fines.
The labyrinthian legal documents ensure that producers and networks maintain iron-fisted control over contestants, restricting both their public appearances and potential revenues.
"We were so trained not to say anything," said Joel Klug, a current Los Angeles resident who survived to round six before being voted off the infamous island in the first "Survivor."
As a look at the contract for the first season of CBS's hit "Survivor" reveals, contestants agreed not to derive any monetary value in connection with the "Survivor" series except "as authorized by producer and/or CBS" until three years after the initial broadcast of the last episode of the series.
In addition, "all contact with the media regarding the series must be authorized by the press officer of the producer or a duly appointed representative of the producer or CBS."
The "Survivor" confidentiality agreement puts the price of violating the contract at a minimum of $5 million. The agreement goes on to release to the producer, "in perpetuity and throughout the universe," exclusive rights to contestants' images and life stories in fact to all incidents and exploits either on or off the program and to depicting contestants "either accurately or with such liberties and modifications as producer determines necessary."
In effect, signers give up control of their entire public persona.
"The contracts are part of the consideration (for joining the show)," said Leigh Miller of Miller & Eisenman in New York, who has represented reality TV clients looking for ways around their contracts. "They're legally valid and binding. A clever lawyer could find a loophole, but the costs associated with the legal fees would be prohibitive."
Threatening participants drawn from a cross-section of America with seven-figure penalties seems absurd to some industry observers.
"A poor man is not very threatened by (losing) $5 million," said Pierce O'Donnell, a prominent Los Angeles entertainment attorney with O'Donnell & Shaeffer, LLP.Powerful threat
But while it might be impossible to sue for money that a contestant doesn't have, Miller said that the contract is "a hell of a threat" and the dollar amount "puts real teeth into the agreement."
Both CBS and SEG Inc., "Survivor" Executive Producer Mark Burnett's production company, refused to comment for this story.
But the legal ramifications made little difference to Klug when he signed on for the first season of "Survivor."
While keeping within the bounds of his contract, he has parlayed his exposure to the show's 71 million viewers into appearances on "Baywatch" and auditions for movie roles.
"The contract is very, very comprehensive," Klug said. "I was worried when I signed it. CBS has stopped me from doing some appearances, but then again, without them I wouldn't be in this position at all."
During and before the first "Survivor" aired, Klug estimated that he received two to three calls a week from tabloids sniffing around for clues to the winner. But he never found out what the going cost for the information would be.
"I wouldn't let (the conversation) get that far," he said.
Klug added that now, with each new season's contestants fully aware of the hype that would surround them until the final episode, he is certain that "it's just a matter of time before somebody sells out."
However, although he has been told that his contract is unenforceable because it's so broad, he sites the $5 million price tag for loose lips as "scary" enough to prevent him from "slipping up."
Other shows have followed "Survivor's" lead, hoping to engender similar gag-inducing fear. Participants in ABC's recently concluded "The Mole" where contestants scrambled across Europe for a $500,000 prize for uncovering which one among them was a planted snitch are bound by similar terms.
"There are lots of levels in the contracts," said Matthew Marcus of Stone Stanley Entertainment, which produced "The Mole." "But basically, it means you can't talk about the show."Forbidding interviews
Stone Stanley's confidentiality agreement put the value of blowing the mole's cover at $10 million. The company to which ABC defers in all contractual matters, according to an ABC spokeswoman went so far as to bar the entire cast from all interviews until the show finished airing.
"These are normal people," said Marcus of the contestants. "They're not trained actors. They could make mistakes. We don't want them to be liable for the terms of their confidentiality agreement."
Of course, it's not only the non-unionized contestants off the street that have to sign confidentiality agreements. Everyone behind the camera also has to sign.
"Any person involved with the production, any person with any information about the show," Marcus emphasized. "You can't work here if you don't sign the confidentiality agreement."
On ABC's well-known game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," both contestants and support staff must sign non-disclosure agreements.
"We weren't allowed to talk about our involvement in the show or our duties or activities without management's written consent," explained D. Benjamin McLean, a former writer for the show. "It was understood that, if we did, we'd be discharged or, at least, summarily flogged."
Brian Monaco's World Wide Talent Agency has made a cottage industry of representing former reality TV participants. Monaco represents more than 50 former cast members from MTV's "The Real World" and "Road Rules" series, both produced by Bunim/Murray Productions. Monaco books the majority of cast members on the college lecture circuit, where they can each make $2,000 per appearance on so-called "reunion tours." He says it's hard to find other means for his clients to cash in.
"The contracts prevent books and any other way that the kids can make money off the show without giving some of it to them (MTV)," Monaco said. "The kids don't understand that, when they sign, they're giving away their rights, and they don't get a piece of anything. No agent would let their client sign those contracts. That's why these reality shows don't use actors."
Monaco also pointed out that the networks have leverage over publishers and journalists, who usually ask for permission to work with former contestants or cast members rather than risk a contract violation.
"No one wants to p,- off Viacom,," he said, referring to the entertainment conglomerate that is MTV's parent company.
But one "Real World" cast member was able to circumvent the contract. It took Joe Patane four and a half months of daily badgering, but MTV's legal counsel finally signed off on the waiver that allowed HarperCollins Publishers to publish "Livin' in Joe's World," a none-too-favorable memoir of his time on "The Real World: New York City."
However, fear of a lawsuit led Patane to change the title from "Livin' in the Real World," to spend a good deal of his own money making sure that all references to the show were in a "legally gray area," and to take out a $10 million indemnity contract for legal protection.
Patane called the MTV contract "whacked" and "ridiculous."
"It was 24 pages, giving up your (rights to your) entire name, likeness and self in perpetuity and throughout the universe. They could rip off your head and put someone else's on it. It's pretty amazing that I signed it."
Yet Patane signed. And he's still bound by its terms so much so that he will only show his contract to others in person. Further proof that these contracts are the powerful tools that keep reality TV's secrets under wraps.
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