Growing Rowdier, TV Reality Shows Are Attracting Suits
Tue Jan 7, 9:01 AM ET

By ADAM LIPTAK The New York Times

James and Laurie Ann Ryan's Las Vegas vacation last January was more exciting than they would have liked. Soon after they checked into the Hard Rock Hotel, they found a body in the bathtub. When they tried to leave, hotel security guards and a paramedic detained them.

Philip Zelnick was surprised, too, when he went to catch a plane at an Arizona airport. A security guard made him lie down on a conveyor belt and pass through the X-ray machine. It left him, he said, humiliated and "bleeding all over the place."

Both incidents were practical jokes, manufactured by television shows. But the Ryans and Mr. Zelnick were not amused, and they have sued the producers.

Lawsuits against the unscripted entertainment shows known as reality television used to be filed by people who got hurt imitating stunts on shows like "Jackass" or believed that the rules on shows like "Survivor" were applied unfairly.

Now, media lawyers and insurance executives say a new sort of lawsuit, involving claims of serious physical and emotional injury to the participants themselves, is on the rise.

These suits raise the question, as one filed last month put it, of how the law should address "the public's apparent craving to witness real-life physical and emotional turmoil." That suit was filed by Jill Mouser, who said she was badly hurt in a device called "the harness of pain" on a pilot for a CBS show called "Culture Shock."

Unlike the Ryans and Mr. Zelnick, Ms. Mouser had signed a release. But she says it should be disregarded because it failed to warn her about all of the show's hazards.

In addition to posing difficult legal questions, the suits are changing the economics of this famously cheap form of programming.

"The extraordinary growth of reality programs could only inevitably lead to an equally extraordinary growth in claims," said Sandra Baron, the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, which collects information about lawsuits against news organizations and entertainment companies.

"Insurance is going to soar," Ms. Baron said, "and litigation costs are going to go through the roof."

Bob Banner, who produced "Candid Camera" in the 1960's, said he could not recall a lawsuit against that show.

"We never tried to embarrass people or put them in a precarious situation," Mr. Banner said. "We did much gentler things."

Times have changed, said Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles lawyer who has represents plaintiffs in two other suits pending against reality shows. The reasons, Ms. Allred said, are cultural and economic.

"Humiliation TV sells," she said.

A new version of "Candid Camera," which appears on the Pax network, was responsible for injuring Mr. Zelnick at an airport in Bullhead City, Ariz., in the summer of 2001.

Mr. Zelnick, 35, a personal fitness trainer from Palm Springs, Calif., said he felt coerced into lying on the conveyor belt.

"My first reaction was that it had to be a joke," he said. "I asked if it was `Candid Camera.' "

Peter Funt, the show's host, was wearing the uniform of an airport security guard. He assured Mr. Zelnick that the request was serious.

"You can't joke about these things in an airport," said Mr. Funt, whose father, Allen Funt, created the original show.

Mr. Funt did not let Mr. Zelnick in on the joke until he emerged bruised, bloody and screaming in pain.

The segment was not broadcast, but similar ones have been popular as "a parody of security in airports," Mr. Funt said in an interview.

Mr. Funt said the idea was not representative of the show's usual approach. "It breaks my heart to find myself within the cesspool of reality TV shows," he said.

But he conceded that he felt pressure from newer approaches.

"It becomes harder and harder," he said, "to hold to standards you believe in when your competitors are fast and furious and footloose and are seeming to have at least some temporary success."

Mr. Funt, however, did not express particular sympathy for Mr. Zelnick.

"We accidentally hurt somebody," he said. "I was relieved that it wasn't worse and upset that it happened at all. We turned it over to our insurance company. He was offered a token amount, a few thousand dollars, and he turned it down."

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial this year.

Reality shows that do not involve hidden cameras can try to protect themselves from suits by insisting on releases from participants.

Jill Mouser and Marcus Russell, a Los Angeles couple, signed such releases before being flown, blindfolded, to what turned out to be the Arizona-New Mexico border for the pilot of a CBS show called "Culture Shock" in October.

Ms. Mouser, a 29-year-old saleswoman, said she suffered severe pain and lasting injury after being hung for 40 minutes with her back bent unnaturally in a harness.

She and another woman were competing for $100,000 in the final event of the pilot, held at an Indian reservation. The woman who lasted longest was to win the money.

The show added an element of emotional tension, too. Mr. Russell, a 33-year-old film director, held the line that kept Ms. Mouser suspended, making him responsible for her agony.

When she was eventually lowered, screaming, she was injected with morphine, placed on a backboard and driven to a hospital more than an hour away.

"When does it stop?" Mr. Russell asked. "When someone is going to die?"

Ms. Mouser and Mr. Russell said they had been pressured to sign a second release four days into the competition and immediately before she was placed in the harness. They said they were told they would forfeit their shot at the prize if they did not sign.

Lawyers for CBS and Rocket Science Laboratories, which is producing "Culture Shock," did not respond to requests for comment. The future of the show is uncertain.

James and Laurie Ann Ryan, whose Las Vegas vacation was ruined, have sued the Hard Rock Hotel and MTV, which is producing "Harassment," the show that arranged the stunt.

The host of "Harassment," the actor Ashton Kutcher, has described the show as "guerrilla `Candid Camera.' " The show will have its debut later this winter, but the segment involving the Ryans will not be used, an MTV spokeswoman said. She would not discuss the lawsuit.

Jonathan H. Anschell, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the defendants in the suit MTV, the Hard Rock Hotel and Mr. Kutcher declined to comment, citing the pending litigation and a confidentiality agreement.

Barry B. Langberg, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the Ryans, said that only lawsuits could moderate the conduct of the producers of such shows.

"Something like this is done for no other reason than to embarrass people or humiliate them or scare them," Mr. Langberg said. "The producers don't care about human feelings. They don't care about being decent. They only care about money."

Television executives love reality programming because it is cheap. But the recent spate of lawsuits may prove costly, and insurance companies have already raised the rates for reality shows significantly.

"Premiums have nearly doubled," said Chad Milton, a senior vice president of the insurance brokerage firm Marsh and an expert in media insurance, referring to insurance programs for large companies, "and deductibles have gone up in quantum jumps."

Mr. Milton emphasized that these increases had many causes and that insurance prices in general had recently spiked. But, he continued, individual reality shows not covered by a large company's policy can find it hard to obtain insurance at all.

Brian Grossman, who represents Ms. Mouser and Mr. Russell, said the producers of such shows were mistaken if they thought lawsuits were simply a cost of doing business.

"That's why God invented punitive damages," Mr. Grossman said.

Clay Calvert, an associate professor of communications and law at Pennsylvania State University and the author of "Voyeur Nation" (Westview Press, 2000), said other economic pressures must be considered.

"It's low-cost programming," Professor Calvert said. "Now the question is whether the costs imposed by litigation will start to make it less financially attractive. But it's still going to be cheaper than paying the cast of `Friends.' "