A Reality Waiting to Happen
The ultimate stunt: avoiding a genre-killing accident
By Deborah Starr Seibel -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/13/2005 7:00:00 PM
I don't like spontaneous. You'll do the stunt exactly as we tell you and nothing more.” Perry Barndt, Fear Factor senior producer and head stunt coordinator, looks over the six ordinary men and women who are about to perform the kind of daredevil feat that used to be the exclusive domain of Hollywood stunt professionals. They stand, shivering, under a makeshift tent beside Lake Castaic, about 45 miles north of Los Angeles. “You will be put in a helicopter. You'll be rappelling down a rope attached to the helicopter,” Barndt says. Not sure he has captured the complete attention of any overconfident showboats in the group or contestants too dazzled by the fact they're filming a TV show to listen, Barndt—who has logged more than 20 years in the stunt business, working on such action-heavy movies as Air Force One and The Terminator—adopts the tough-love strategy. “Look me in the eye,” he says quietly. “I am here to tell you that you can die on this show. If you do not listen and do not do what I tell you, you can die.”
And then, as a cold drizzle drums on the tent in the silence that follows this sobering message, the contestants go back to the matter at hand: signing yet another Fear Factor release form.
The paperwork is critical to the viability of any reality show that puts contestants in physical jeopardy or under psychological duress. Personal-injury lawyers might scoff at the concept of an airtight waiver of liability, but the releases at least give the shows and their insurers a fighting chance in the event of a courtroom battle prompted by a contestant's catastrophic injury. Plus, the elaborate forms keep nuisance lawsuits to a minimum.
But that hardly means the shows are immune to the consequences of a stunt's going disastrously wrong. That is one reason reality TV shows pay twice the insurance premiums charged to scripted programs, as a hedge against forking over huge settlements. And it is why reality producers—even as they weather lawsuits for a variety of emotional and physical injuries (see box)—count their blessings that no reality-TV participant has yet suffered a catastrophic injury. Because the result could be the end of an entire genre of flirting-with-danger reality shows.
“All it would take,” says Jonathan Paulsen, chief underwriting officer for insurance giant St. Paul Travelers Entertainment, “is either a death or significant, paralyzing injury.”
For now, though, networks remain hooked on the big ratings the shows often bring, and a whole subsection of the insurance industry is willing to cover the attendant risks. But even with the best supervision and safety equipment in place, says television insurance specialist Brian Kingman, senior vice president at Los Angeles-based Aon/Albert G. Ruben, “there are no guarantees.”
As far as Barndt is concerned, there is one guarantee, and it is a grim one: “I tell everybody on this show: 'It is not a matter of if. It's a matter of when and how bad. It's inevitable. It doesn't matter how good you are or how careful you are. Somebody can get hurt.'”
So far, NBC's Fear Factor has lived up to its reputation among many insurance professionals as the gold standard in reality-stunt safety. After five seasons and more than 200 spectacular stunts, contestants so far have been sent home with nothing worse than bumps, bruises and a sprained ankle.
CBS' Amazing Race, which sends contestants careening across the globe in pursuit of a million-dollar prize, reports a similarly trauma-free history. “We haven't had one incident of anyone getting seriously hurt—contestant or bystander,” says co-executive producer Evan Weinstein. Executive producer Bertram Van Munster points out that challenges—like the tandem skydiving in the recently completed sixth Race—are vetted by the production's safety crews “multiple times before contestants arrive.”
Not every danger can be anticipated, though. Shola Richards, who was teamed with his identical twin, Doyin, on Race's second season, somehow escaped serious injury when a taxi ran over his foot. Survivor fans well recall Michael Skupin's exit from the show's Australian outback camp in 2001, after he fell into a campfire and suffered second-degree burns. (Thanks to those trusty release forms, neither Richards nor Skupin filed lawsuits or were compensated for the accidents.)
It is the near misses that can keep producers awake at night. Fear Factor executive producer Matt Kunitz shudders at the memory of the contestant who was supposed to jump, feet first, from a helicopter into a field of U-Haul boxes floating on a lake. “He thought he was going to be this big hotshot and do this big swan dive into the boxes. Luckily, nothing happened, but he absolutely could have broken his neck.”
To Martin Ridgers, director of underwriting for Los Angeles-based Entertainment Brokers International, it is all a matter of probabilities. “A good production company,” he says, “will put out a waiver and release form that says, 'You could die. You could be injured.' And that's whether you were doing something dangerous or not.” Meaning? “Is the production company driving you to various locations? Because the most likely reason you're going to die or become disabled is by getting in a car.”
$100,000 per episode
Just ask the latest Bachelor, Byron Velvick. Last July, just before beginning production on ABC's sixth installment of the reality dating series, he was being driven to one of the show's locations in L.A. when the car was hit broadside by an electrical-utility truck. “I got out and staggered to the curb,” Velvick says. “I pretended that I was in better shape than I really felt because I didn't want them to find a replacement.”
He was checked out in a hospital emergency room and was deemed fine, Velvick says. Even so, say insurance specialists, he could have sued because the waivers that contestants sign, no matter how thorough, are never considered lawyer-proof. Courts can and do reject signed waivers if producers are found to be negligent. “Underwriters and producers and their lawyers do their best to make them enforceable,” says Kingman, “but they can always be contested. That's why producers need general-liability insurance—an umbrella liability insurance—in case some judge or court throws the contract out.”
All of which costs money. Producers of scripted shows typically budget 3%-5% of total production costs for insurance. That can balloon to 7%-10% for reality shows. For Fear Factor, which costs upwards of $1 million an episode to produce, insurance can run $100,000 for every completed hour.
So how do network executives, show producers and insurance specialists assess how much risk they're willing to take? It is all about comfort level. “We used to have a saying on the set: It's Fear Factor, not Danger Factor,” says Chris Palmer, director of risk control for Aon/Albert G. Ruben and the insurance specialist on location for Fear Factor's first three seasons. “This is supposed to be about people facing their fears, not putting their lives in jeopardy.”
Says St. Paul Traveler's Paulsen, “I use my 13-year-old son as my guide. If I'd let him do it, then I'd go with it.”
At St. Paul Travelers, potential stunts are vetted for four essential elements: What exactly are they doing? Do they have enough time to do it? Have they done it before? And do they have enough money to do it?
About this last consideration, Paulsen says, “It's one thing to go buy a junker car from a junk yard and ram it into a wall. It's another to build a true stunt car that's using a fuel cell instead of flammable liquid, a five-point harness with roll cage and another harness around the neck.” Paulsen's company also won't sign off on any car stunt where participants top 30 miles per hour. “With camera angles, they can make it look like they're going a lot faster.”
Car stunts are considered unsafe at any speed on Fear Factor—if they involve, say, standing on the roof or any other potentially hazardous trick that “some dumb 12-year-old” will try to imitate, Barndt says. That aversion to inspiring copycats is also why the show abandoned one stunt in the planning stages that would have set fire to contestants wearing protective clothing.
Sometimes, the vetting process slips. In late January, Washington lobbyists for the Edison Electric Institute sent a letter of protest to NBC after seeing a promo for a Fear Factor episode that would involve contestants' racing through a maze of electric wires in a Los Angeles-area substation while being zapped with jolts of electricity. “Copycat pranksters could face serious injury or death from electrocution,” wrote organization President Tom Kuhn. “There is no such thing as a safe shock.”
The stunt had been vetted by safety experts and aired as scheduled, but in retrospect Barndt has had second thoughts. “Their complaint was valid,” he says. He prefers stunts involving “cranes, helicopters, submarines—things a kid wouldn't have.”
But the kind of shock that some insurance companies worry about isn't electrical. St. Paul Travelers won't deal with shows that feature hidden cameras or involve some sort of hoax. “It's definitely a risk we are afraid of,” says Paulsen, “because you do the shot and then, afterward, go back and try to get a release from the person you just scared or embarrassed. Recent lawsuits along those lines are exactly what we feared.” Insurance insiders point to what is believed to be the biggest payout so far: a low-seven-figures settlement recently paid to a woman who was terrified on Sci Fi Channel's Scare Tactics by what seemed to be an abduction by aliens (the network declined to comment on the case).
St. Paul Travelers also won't take boxing shows like Fox's The Next Great Champ or NBC's upcoming The Contender “because the intention is to do damage,” Paulsen says.
At Lake Castaic, Fear Factor's intention clearly is to avoid damage. As contestants dangle in pairs from a Bell 212 helicopter, just off-camera two jet skis carrying emergency divers are at the ready. An L.A. County medic boat staffed with EMTs is on standby. And an ambulance is parked at lakeside. This is Fear Factor's final episode of the fifth season—and 18 stunt professionals wait, fingers crossed, for the six contestants to get home safely.
|Some of the lawsuits filed against reality shows|
|THE SHOW: Fear Factor (2005)|
|THE PRODUCER: Endemol for NBC|
|THE COMPLAINT: A Cleveland man charges that the emotional distress caused by watching a gross-out stunt in which contestants put rats in a blender and drank them caused him to throw up and prompted a rise in blood pressure, dizziness and lightheadedness. Austin Aitken is suing for $2.5 million.|
|THE SHOW: Culture Shock (2003)|
|THE PRODUCER: Rocket Science Laboratories for CBS (series never aired)|
|THE COMPLAINT: Jill Mouser flew to New Mexico to compete in a stunt that could win her $75,000. Producers, doing a takeoff on a Native American rite of passage, rigged Mouser—upside down—to a chair called the “harness of pain.” Mouser and her partner, Marcus Russell, claim the excruciating back pain she suffered was far beyond what they had bargained for. Mouser is suing for unspecified damages.|
|THE SHOW: Scare Tactics (2003)|
|THE PRODUCER: Tri-Crown Productions for Sci Fi Channel|
|THE COMPLAINT: Kara Blanc believed she was on her way to a Hollywood industry party when the limo she was riding in stalled, the car's radio malfunctioned and a voice came on saying the United States had been taken over by aliens. She bolted from the car and came face to face with an actor in an alien get-up, who she believed was going to kill her. She was hospitalized. Her lawsuit charging severe physical and emotional injuries recently brought a low-seven-figure settlement.|
|THE SHOW: Punk'd (2002)|
|THE PRODUCER: MTV Networks|
|THE COMPLAINT: James and Laurie Ann Ryan, vacationing in Las Vegas, discovered what appeared to be a dead body in their room at the Hard Rock Hotel. They were prevented from leaving the room by hotel “security guards.” Police and EMS workers arrived, followed by Punk'd host Ashton Kutcher, but the couple is suing for $10 million for invasion of privacy and emotional distress.|
|THE SHOW: Candid Camera (2001)|
|THE PRODUCERS: Candid Camera and host Peter Funt for Pax TV|
|THE COMPLAINT: When a Candid Camera crew made Philip Zelnick climb through a phony airport X-ray machine in Bullhead City, Ariz., he claims, he injured his leg and suffered severe emotional distress, anxiety and humiliation. Last month, a jury awarded him $300,000 ($150,000 apiece from Funt and the show). The producers plan to appeal.|
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