Reality show producers aren’t legally required “to stop a crime that’s in the works”

How can reality show producers and camera crews stand back and film while the stars of their shows drive drunk or commit crimes of varying degrees? They do it because they’re not legally responsible.

“The law in the United States doesn’t require you to step in and save people. And it doesn’t require you to stop a crime that’s in the works,” A&E lawyer David Sternbach tells The New York Times.

Lawyer Michael J. O’Connor, who represents various reality shows, agrees. “Television producers are not policemen. On a moral level, you get to the point where stepping in seems like it would be something you’d want to do. But from a legal standpoint, third parties causing injuries to other third parties is not something a television program is really responsible for.”

While “legally, producers are treated like witnesses: they bear no responsibility to intervene,” the Times notes that “they have good business reasons not to: people on the edge make for good television.” A&E VP Robert Sharenow says that there is a point at which they’ll intervene. “Our first position is that this is a documentary series, we are there capturing real people in their real lives. If there was an immediate danger, that was sort of our line. If the person was putting themselves or anyone else in immediate danger, then we’d cross the line,” he said.

Beyond their ethical or moral obligations, producers bear some responsibility. Reality show contestants who want to prove “negligence, legal experts said, … would need to prove that the reality program created a situation that put its subjects in jeopardy.” That might explain why, after Big Brother 2‘s Krista sued CBS after Justin held a knife to her throat, “CBS settled the case for an undisclosed amount,” according to the Times.

When Reality TV Gets Too Real [New York Times]

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.