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Be Sure to Read the Fine Print

Television* The reality is that as 'reality' shows get more popular, the contestant agreements get more complicated.

August 20, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rumors and Internet sniping aside, the producers of "American Idol" insist they have not already designated a winner of the Fox talent showcase and are not tampering with the rules to manipulate the outcome.

If push comes to shove, however, they can--or at least are allowed to under the phone book-thick agreements signed by contestants.

In what they characterize as a corporate necessity of so-called reality programming, producers say they must retain such options to protect themselves from litigation--the fear factor, in this case, being contestants who have demonstrated that they will do just about anything, from eating bugs to fudging on background information, in pursuit of a few minutes of fame and financial rewards.

This uncertainty has led to intricate contracts meant to forestall lawsuits on every conceivable level. So while Fox and "American Idol's" producers stress that the millions of calls logged from the public determine who advances toward the show's Sept. 4 finale, the producers reserved "sole discretion" in determining the winner if there are problems with the voting procedure.

Moreover, contestants agreed that the producers can amend the rules at any point along the way, though the producers say that provision exists to ensure the game stays fair, not to dictate who wins--as an example citing an earlier British version, which allowed a singer who became ill time to regain his voice.

"Whenever you do a contract, you have to try to anticipate every angle, because you can't tell what's going to happen," said Nigel Lythgoe, one of "Idol's" executive producers, adding that the show faced rigging accusations in Britain--a contention he unequivocally denied. "Why on Earth would we want to go against the public?" he asked.

Despite such assurances, Internet sites have second-guessed "Idol's" results, and rumors have even circulated that the winner has already been chosen. In addition, Fox acknowledged last week that overly eager fans have sought to skew the outcome by using autodialing and high-speed computer connections to submit thousands of votes from a single line.

Having endured a public-relations nightmare when embarrassing details surfaced about the would-be groom on "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?," Fox was quick to say that the volume of calls from "power dialers" is statistically insignificant and won't affect who wins; still, the report has fueled suspicions, particularly in online chat rooms, that the voting is tainted and, more generally, that "reality" programs can't be trusted.

Although scripted series yield their own headaches, the questions surrounding "Idol," whether real or imagined, underscore that such programs pose their own set of problems. Executives admit they are especially wary of those who appear on the shows--some of whom function as near-professional contestants, bouncing from one audition to another.

Given that contestants are willing to risk humiliation or even death, industry representatives say they must err on the side of caution legally. "You're dealing with a subculture that makes me, as a lawyer, antsy to begin with," said one entertainment attorney, on condition of anonymity.

Matt Kunitz, an executive producer on NBC's stunt-oriented shows "Dog Eat Dog" and "Fear Factor," has seen such concerns grow since he started out on MTV's "The Real World."

"The second season of 'The Real World,' the contract was 12 pages long, and every year it got bigger and bigger," Kunitz said, noting that the waiver contestants sign on his NBC series currently runs about 50 pages.

"Every show has a new obstacle ... [because] so many things are uncontrollable," added Chris Sloan, senior vice president of reality programming for the USA network. "You're always dealing with unpredictability."For all the contractual safeguards put in place, several disgruntled contestants have sued networks and producers--among them original "Survivor" player Stacey Stillman, who contends that producer Mark Burnett manipulated the voting to engineer her ouster. CBS responded with a $5-million countersuit last year, and that legal battle is still wending its way through the courts.

A couple featured on "Temptation Island"--kicked off the show because they had a child together--also filed a defamation suit against Fox, which stated that Taheed Watson and Ytossie Patterson didn't divulge the child's existence (the pair said the producers did know but chose to overlook it), violating the rules. "Big Brother 2" contestant Krista Stegall, meanwhile, claims CBS was negligent in failing to unearth assault charges against fellow housemate Justin Sebik, who was kicked off the program after holding a knife to her throat.

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