Neil Siskind, Lawyer: Reality TV Personality Contracts

Neil Siskind, Lawyer, New York
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Reality TV actor contracts are unlike scripted actor contracts in that reality television is not “character based”- in the traditional use of the term. This to say that an actor on a reality show is not a made-up or contrived name and personality, but the actual name and personality of the actor is used (though, such actor’s personality may be slightly or significantly embellished or amplified for entertainment value). An “actor” in a reality show is not what is technically known as an “actor” as the industry intends such term, but is a “personality”. “Personality” is the word used in such contracts, rather than “actor”.

Reality TV personalities most often make anywhere from no money at all to very little money in order to appear on a reality TV program. The personalities are often either people who are highly desirous of being on TV, or who believe that their businesses can be enhanced by being on a TV show- or both. If a reality show does well in the ratings and reaches a certain level of popularity, then, just as in traditional scripted programs, the characters can re-negotiate their contracts and compensation. Examples of such successes are The Jersey Shore and The Hills. The Lead personalities on such shows made impressive per-episode salaries in low to high six-figure ranges. Some reality show characters aggressively pursue business endeavors while they are on TV including starting their own clothing lines, radio shows, and consumer product lines, and attempt to get more traditional broadcasting and media work.

In exchange for the opportunity to be on a program and experience the resulting notoriety or to have a chance to create business opportunities through the doors that get opened to people in such positions, the personalities virtually sign their lives away to the production companies. The reality show personality contracts, in general, require the personality to allow the exclusive use of the personality’s name, image and appearance and allows for the production company to use, alter and manipulate their words and conversations to create fictional storylines from actual words and actions. In traditional scripted programs, the actor does not give up the rights to his or her own name and likeness, he or she simply allows his or her likeness to be used on a program under a different name with scripted dialogue. The character is owned by the production company or studio that created or bought the rights to the program. On reality TV, however, the characters that are owned by the studio are actually real people. The character and the actor are one and the same. Thus, a reality TV show personality gives away his or her rights to their own respective identity. This is a very strange phenomenon.

In practice, such a harsh result is not the actual outcome. As explained above, these personalities go on to do many other things in most cases, whether in their own private lives or in more public works. No production company seeks a cut of their incomes based on the initial contracts giving the production company ownership of their identity. The main thrust of such contracts is that the production company can do what they chose with the footage they produce, as if the personality is a creation and character made up and contrived from their own intellect, as opposed to being real person. In any event, no such contract should ever be signed without an attorney’s review. Call Neil Siskind to get a thorough review of any entertainment contract you may be asked to sign for your services. Neil Siskind is an experienced business and licensing attorney.