By Bruce Shutan
When Chris Bailey reported to work on the set of the NBC reality TV show Dog Eat Dog on February 22, 2002, he couldn’t possibly have imagined what was in store for him. The special effects technician for Spectrum Effects Inc. in Canyon Country, Calif., was about to perform a 30-foot test jump at Los Angeles Center Studios Soundstage No. 1 —a seemingly routine procedure.
But something went terribly wrong. As he stepped off the scissor lift wearing a full body harness connected to a high tension line, two carabiners, web sling, bungee line, and decelerator device, Bailey fell to the ground —hitting the edge of a stunt pad on the way down.
He spent the next four days receiving treatment for a lumbar compression fracture in the L.A. County USC Medical Center. Several months later, Cal OSHA issued the first—and thus far only—serious violation associated with the burgeoning reality TV genre. The show’s $15,875 worth of fines is under appeal.
“I’d imagine as that genre grows, there may be more issues where we need to get involved if an accident occurs or an employee brings a complaint,” predicts Cal OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. “But keep in mind if the production companies that put these programs on are being diligent about providing a safe work environment, then there’s no reason for our involvement.”
Rebecca Marks, senior vice president of NBC’s publicity department, says, “A fine was assessed against a professional special effects company that NBC Studios contracted with to build and test stunts for Dog Eat Dog. The individual involved was not employed by Dog Eat Dog, NBC Studios, or NBC.” She would not elaborate.
As with low-budget features before them, non-union reality TV shows tend to cut corners in terms of on-set emergency personnel and security issues, observes Ken Bornstein, A.C.E., an offline editor who has worked on Spy TV, The Bachelorette, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Are You Hot?
From an insurance standpoint, the trouble with reality shows is that they’re not scripted—and, therefore, unpredictable enough that adequate and affordable coverage has proven difficult to secure.
“Right now we see carriers declining to write the risk because they fear injuries to participants or people below the line who are filming the action,” reports Winnie Wong, a senior account executive for Near North Insurance Brokerage in Century City, Calif., which writes insurance policies for the entertainment industry. “It’s hard for us to place this coverage. There are just so many things that can happen.”
The biggest sticking point is finding liability coverage—an issue that appears to have been glossed over by cultural differences. “A lot of these programs come from foreign markets where personal-injury lawsuits are minimal or don’t exist,” notes Bryan Ward, an underwriter for the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., the entertainment industry’s leading insurance provider.
“Most underwriters have to draw the line somewhere,” he adds, “and basically it comes about when the program moves from an educational purpose to a sensational-provocative-outrageous format.”
Wong says the crew community, particularly cameramen, run the risk of being hit by moving objects on shows like Fear Factor that incorporate cars, boats and helicopters into often harrowing but breathtaking stunts.
Fear Factor senior producer Perry Barndt says he carefully designs the show’s stunts and maps out safety precautions with a stunt coordinator. “We do a lot of research and homework,” he reports. “We’re an incredibly safety-conscious show.” He credits NBC with fostering an atmosphere that allows him to pull the plug on stunts he doesn’t consider safe enough to perform.
The show’s stunt department, which features about half a dozen full-time staffers, may swell to as many as 15 people depending on the degree of difficulty involved. Those who perform stunts include specialists who deal with aerial, water and car maneuvers.
Fear Factor categorizes stunts three ways: garden-variety feats such as walking along a raised construction beam, gross fare such as consuming insects or lying in a bed of worms, and more physically challenging maneuvers involving moving vehicles.
Producers deny a published report about a production assistant being rushed to the hospital after choking on a praying mantis. “We don’t rehearse stunts with PAs,” Barndt says. However, PAs and crew members are encouraged to voluntarily test stunts once they’ve been safely performed by stunt professionals.
The thinking is twofold: it allows them to share in the fun but also helps producers anticipate how contestants will react and make any necessary adjustments along the way. “Stunt men tend to be much calmer in a high-risk situation,” he explains, “but then you get a regular person and they react differently.”
On the first show host Joe Rogan taped, he got into the act by eating sheep’s eyes once contestants had completed the stunt. “It was like a half-cooked, hard-boiled egg that was dropped into ink and snot,” he frankly recalls on the show’s Web site. “The texture was so bad your body just violently rejected it.”
Those who work on reality television shows run into some of the same hazards of others in TV and motion picture production, according to Cal OSHA’s Fryer, citing accidents involving set construction and heavy lifting as well as electrical and power equipment.
“When you’re talking about reality TV shows,” he adds, “there might be situations where animals are on the set or remote locations where the climate is different than what they’re used to.”
Which is why he says crew need to be trained in injury and illness prevention. Examples include knowing whether snakes are poisonous as well as avoiding heat exhaustion and other hazards indicative of the work environment.
Another concern: the implications of contestant confinement. Wong recalls how one angry Big Brother housemate brandished a knife, sparking fear over the safety of staff and people living on the set in isolation of world news and loved ones.
And then there are the hidden-camera shows, whose main challenge is “not having the person you’re trying to fool guess that they’re being taped,” Bornstein explains. Striving for an authentic reaction means cool heads must prevail so that cast and crew aren’t put in harm’s way. He notes how Jamie Kennedy was a master at deflecting the attention of skeptical participants who’d recognize the host or spot lipstick cameras so that in the end they were truly surprised.
The union label
As Bornstein notes, non-union sets can be cause for alarm. But where they are not a curse, they may be a blessing. With each of Fear Factor’s three seasons, new unions have come on board as the show expanded and the demands became greater (stunt work always has been done by card-carrying professionals).
The only non-union craft Barndt knows of on the show involves on-site medical services, a critical area that he hand picked. “We’re very proud of our safety response team and probably have one of the better medical-safety staffs of any television show today,” he says. “We use trauma medics and have a medical coordinator. They’re extremely qualified and trained by the fire department.”
Rana Platz-Petersen, the business representative for Motion Picture Studio First Aid Employees, IATSE Local 767, and a registered nurse, says she’s concerned about reality TV shows employing non-union workers as well as violating Cal OSHA regulations.
Adds Fryer: “All workplaces need to have first-aid materials available and someone who’s trained to deal with injuries and get injured people to nearby hospitals and have a contingent plan to deal with injuries.”
Ratcheting up risk
If reality TV programmers keep ratcheting up the risks, Ward of the Fireman’s Fund says they may have to self-insure the cost of liability insurance. Other solutions include paying a higher deductible or surcharge. For a typical season of episodic television, Ward says a surcharge might cost anywhere from $375 to $1,200 per episode, depending on the series duration and whether or not it’s shot in a studio or on location. By comparison, he says, the cost could run 50 to 100 percent higher on a more provocative reality-based show.
It could take a few more years to get a better mathematical handle on managing the frequency and severity of loss in this nascent genre, which Ward notes hasn’t been around long enough for insurance actuaries to pin down more accurate risk projections.
Bornstein isn’t sure the genre will be able to rise above the safety concerns. “I don’t see any precautions being taken anywhere in the raw footage,” he says, “and it can be scary sometimes if somebody thinks this is the road to stardom and then they’re disappointed that they’re not in the final version. I’ve had phone calls with people asking me when the show is going to air, and I don’t know how they got my number.”
He’s concerned about the direction of reality TV. “There’s going to come a point when someone will get hurt,” he believes. “No one takes the time to look ahead, and I think it’s a very careless way to look at things. Regardless of whether it’s features, reality or episodic TV, the minute you’re into some kind of action sequence or risky endeavor that you’re trying to capture, you’re taking a chance.”
Will crews take a stand if the boundaries of good taste fade? In a difficult economy, many craftspeople are grateful to be working and would rather not rock the boat. “There’s a willingness on the part of a lot of people not to ask questions or back away for fear of not being hired again,” Bornstein observes.