CareerBae: Reality TV Contract Pitfalls!

So you just heard you or your client has been casted for a Reality Show!  While this can be exciting news and cause for celebration (reality television because of its huge platform, has made more self made millionaires than any other industry in the last 5 years), this should also be a time for caution. The producers of the show are going to want you to sign a contract and overwhelmingly it will favor the network and the production company. So don't be so quick to sign whatever they put in front of you!  You probably have more leverage to negotiate than you realize.  The contract they give you is just their first offer and so you owe it to yourself to make sure you know what is in the contract and to negotiate for better treatment.  

How Reality Show Contracts Work

Reality TV contracts typically have a jurisdictional provision that any disputes over the contract must be heard in a California court (other popular jurisdictions are Georgia since most reality shows are also filmed there). Unfortunately, California courts often side with the show and the producers when it comes to upholding the contract. You cannot count on the court to get you out of a bad deal.

Also music competition shows like "The Voice", "American Idol" etc. the Network will require your exclusive services for the duration of the series season in which you appear, plus "cliffhanger" period  (a period of time following the conclusion of the series).  You’ll be obligated not only to appear in the series but to also be available for promotional activities and sponsor-related commercials. In the case you or your client performs  original musical material, they will likely be required to assign a portion of your publishing rights, and the Network, of course, owns all you performances and the rights to your master recordings produced on the show. However, the likelihood is that you will retain your rights to material you wrote before being selected for the show; material that you write for the show will typically belong to the Network, as a "work for hire" (you relinquish ownership of anything you create to the show like an employee).

On cast series shows like "Love and Hip Hop" (LHH), production companies and networks own a percentage of any business you promote using their show and for a “cliff hangover period” (a time period after the series is over ). So yes a cut of  Rasheeda's "Pressed" store that is promoted on the Atlanta franchise of LHH is going to Mona Scott Young! (Unless she negotiated otherwise). Only if you negotiate to exclude this from your contract could you escape having to pay production companies and networks for a very long time a cut of your earnings from your business you worked so hard to build (I have a personal experience with this).

Lastly, in both a cast series or music competition series you will waive any recourse you may have for pretty much anything that happens to you while on the show, including the right to sue for damage to your reputation on account of how the Network presents you to the public.  Something to seriously consider. 

Contract Clauses to Watch Out For

Here are some clauses you should pay special attention to:

  • Termination Clause – Understand what happens when someone wants out the contract. 
  • Release of Liability – Make sure you understand what you are promising not to sue them over. If you are not comfortable with the release, it's time to negotiate.
  • First Right of Refusal – Production companies and networks will try to add this clause to force you to come to them first with any additional outside TV projects (like books, movies, plays etc.)  that use your likeness. 
  • Hold Period – Once you sign contract and your begin filming through some time after the last episode airs, you will need permission from the producers before you can appear on any other show. If the period is too long, you may want to negotiate better terms.
  • Life Story Rights – Producers often add an exclusive right to sell your life story not in conjunction with the TV show. This means that they can sell your life story for theatrical motion pictures, stage plays, radio, internet, or through any other media and you will not be compensated. You should never accept this term in your contract.
  • Right to Defame You – Most contracts will allow the producers portray you in any way they want, even if it is false and misleading. This clause requires you to give up your right to sue the producers for defaming you.
  • Royalties on Future Earnings – Producers will try and claim a percentage of all your future earnings outside of the show for a period of time. Be cautious with this clause. You don't know what your future holds. Both the percentage of future earnings and the time period should be negotiated.


An entertainment lawyer can help breakdown your contract and help you negotiate a deal that better protects your future rights without jeopardizing your current television opportunity. So don't be afraid to hire one!


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