During the six-year run of "Fear Factor," insurance broker Paul Jones saw a lot of weird stuff.
Jones, recently promoted to co-managing director at the Los Angeles office of Aon/Albert G. Ruben Insurance Services, handled policies for every episode of the show, which ended production last year. He estimates that his office in Westwood insures more than 100 reality TV programs every year, including the NBC hit gamer "Deal or No Deal."
Calculating the risk of people eating cockroaches or bungee jumping from helicopters is both fun and lucrative, according to Jones.
"I've been involved in some of the most difficult shows in reality television, and I enjoy insuring the difficult shows," said Jones. "But I can tell you the premiums are for four, five, seven, even 10 times what a regular show can be. Our job as a broker is to get the best coverage at the best price."
Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the trade group Insurance Information Network of California, estimates that for scripted films and TV shows, insurance costs run between 3 percent and 5 percent of the budget. Jones said that for reality shows, the premiums range from 20 percent higher than normal "to way, way up." Given that some of these shows cost well over $1 million per episode, insurance costs can run to six figures.
Coverage usually includes physical safety during the stunts and any resultant lawsuits or claims of damage to property, equipment and participants' legal rights, including their privacy, emotional stability or reputation. To limit risk, producers make sure the non-professionals in every episode sign waivers and releases. Professional stunt coordinators direct the dangerous action.
"If you can't insure it, you can't do the stunt," said Lehman. "That's where camera angles come into play they can make it look more dangerous than it really is."
But even before the action goes before a camera, insurers must vet a synopsis (there's no script in reality TV) and evaluate the risks. Jones and his staff of 12 people spend much of their time shuffling information between show producers and the big carriers that underwrite entertainment policies. According to Aon/Albert G. Ruben, the company "focuses on minimizing risk for the entertainment industry without sacrificing creativity."
For stunts, the actuarial types scan the biographies of the participants, compare the stunt to similar ones from past productions, and then figure the chances of a mishap.
"In all likelihood, all the stunts you've seen have been done before," said Jones. "The main difference is that the participants who perform the stunts are not actors in these programs; they are members of the general public and they carry a very different risk than a professional actor."
But how do you quantify the risks of someone eating a bowl of maggots?
"In the case of someone who's going to eat a bug, we want to know where they get the bug," Jones explained. "Most of the bugs used in production are raised in labs and they're as sterile as a bug can be."
Uncertainty and the labor-intensive nature of entertainment insurance mean only a few large carriers work in the field. St. Paul Travelers Co. Inc. ranks as the biggest name in reality television, followed by Clarendon Insurance Group and Berkley Insurance Co. While Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. handles regular entertainment, it won't insure reality shows.
Considering the edgy material of most shows, the reality genre has faced few major court cases.
In 2003, the SciFi Channel's show "Scare Tactics" was sued by a woman for an alien abduction scenario; her settlement was more than $1 million. In 2001, a man won $300,000 for a "Candid Camera" episode that pushed him into a phony airport x-ray machine that hurt his leg. Even "Fear Factor" was once hit with a $2.5 million suit from a viewer sickened by watching contestants eat rats in a blender but a judge threw out the case.
Besides reality TV, Jones manages Aon/Albert G. Ruben's TV advertising line of coverage. The Blanket Television Insurance Program allows advertisers and ad agencies to buy one policy that covers all of their television commercials for a year. The advertiser or agency extends the coverage to the independent production companies that actually film or tape the spots.
While Jones specializes in reality and commercial insurance, the L.A. office's other co-managing director Brian Kingman handles the motion picture studios and independent films. Jones estimates that the 81-person office in Los Angeles underwrites 75 to 80 percent of Hollywood's output.
"They are the predominant player in that market," confirmed Susan Murdy, a spokeswoman for Fireman's Fund.
The local office has backing from Aon Corp., a Chicago-based insurance behemoth with annual revenues of $9.8 billion. The company maintains about 51,000 employees in 600 offices around the world.
But for Lehman at the Insurance Information Network, the future looks riskier than ever. The genre has progressed a long way from the funny hoaxes in the original "Candid Camera."
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