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A Reality Waiting to Happen

The ultimate stunt: avoiding a genre-killing accident 2/13/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

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.”

“No Guarantees”

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.

Trauma-Free Race

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.”

Four Questions

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.”

Second thoughts

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.

Legal briefs
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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