What are the legal rights of reality TV stars?

The path forward

While there are still many reality TV programmes on which alcohol plays a central role, others have been quietly adjusting their alcohol policies for years, often in response to issues of legal liability. Bachelor in Paradise and The Challenge instituted new alcohol limits after allegations of sexual assault during production: The entire Bachelor franchise now operates by a two-drink per hour limit, while The Challenge has producers on hand to cut cast members off if they at any point appear over-served. Contestants from Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle, BBC’s The Traitors, and ITV’s Love Island have all reported strict “one to two drink” limits during filming, and series such as Love Island and The Challenge have also launched more stringent mental health protocols. Love Island’s was implemented in the wake of the deaths by suicide of two former cast members and former host Caroline Flack between 2018 and 2020. Love Is Blind has never shared an official alcohol policy, despite alcohol-related allegations from former contestants.

In September, NBCU entertainment chairman Frances Berwick sent a message to production partners indicating a growing awareness of alcohol-related concerns on reality TV sets. The message, as reported by Vanity Fair, introduced a new requirement to “deliver an expanded alcohol-related training to the cast, crew, and production team”. It also mentioned “enhanced mental health support, including on-set psychological support during and after filming and at reunions, as well as care after filming.”

Smith agrees with McSweeney’s lawyer Adelman: What these lawsuits are getting at are a very basic enforcement of employment laws regulating the workplace. Though some Bravo stars’ lawsuits do include complaints of emotional manipulation or dissatisfaction with storylines that have played out from the show – complaints that fans are most likely to dismiss as occupational hazards – lawsuits like McSweeney’s and Manzo’s are addressing issues of protection during filming itself.

 “We would like [reality TV productions] to abide by these simple rules,” Smith says. “Don’t get the cast members drunk. Don’t encourage case members to sexually harass others. Don’t continue to hire people with a history of sexual harassment. Don’t put ratings and profit over people’s safety.” 

This is the underlying fear of many who criticise current legal actions – that “good” reality TV (and the ratings and profit that come with it) can’t exist without the drunken antics and shocking moments the genre has become known for. But this fear neither negates reality stars’ rights to a legally compliant workplace nor has much grounding in what fans actually tend to appreciate seeing on reality TV.

Vanderpump Rules’s “Scandoval”, perhaps the biggest reality TV sensation of the last decade, involved the real-time reveal of a longstanding affair between two cast members and saw the show reach its highest-ever ratings, no alcohol-fueled blowouts required. Love Island and The Bachelor have enjoyed intense fan fervour even after they imposed alcohol limits. And an August episode of Below Deck Down Under in which producers stepped in on-camera to remove a highly inebriated Luke Jones from a sleeping cast member’s bed suggested that, even in scenarios where things may get out of control, fans would vastly prefer seeing producers step into a scene that makes them question why they didn’t. 

Regardless of anyone’s personal preference for a certain brand of drama, reality TV productions may soon find that certain established practices are not worth the legal liabilities they create. “There are more lawsuits coming and there are more people who are going to speak out,” Adelman says. “It doesn’t matter what people say or think – that Andy’s a good guy, or that you should expect to drink, or that you should expect this behavior. What’s going to matter is what the law thinks of it. And we believe the law thinks this is wrong.” 

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