The Grim Reality Behind Reality TV: The Legal Rights of Contestants

Collier Curran

Hollywood has been turned upside down by the recent SAG-AFTRA strikes, in which thousands of actors have joined the picket line to protest pay and working conditions.[1] The work stoppage noticeably does not include reality and other unscripted forms of television, which operate under the separate Network Television Code.[2] However, reality television contestants are not without their industry qualms.

Last year, Love is Blind contestant Jeremy Hartwell sued Netflix and production company Kinetic Content, alleging “inhumane working conditions,” including dehydration, long hours, and isolation.[3] Similarly, late last month, YouTube star and Food Network host Rosanna Pansino spoke out on a podcast about her alleged mistreatment on the VH1 show Scream Queens.[4] Pansino claims she was verbally abused on set and forced to self-isolate for three days prior to filming with no contact with friends or family.[5] While these working conditions may seem harsh—or even potentially abusive—are they illegal?

Reality television producers and networks typically avoid liability in suits brought by contestants through the lengthy and complex contracts signed prior to filming.[6] Such contracts commonly include clauses requiring the contestant to fully participate in the show (doing almost anything that the producers request), release the production from any liability upon the contestant’s serious injury or death, and acknowledge that defamatory and/or offensive opinions about them may be included in the show.[7]

While the signed contract is legally binding, a contestant may bring an argument under the unconscionability doctrine.[8] A court can refuse to enforce a contract if it is deemed unconscionable.[9] In other words, if “no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand and as no honest and fair man would accept on the other.”[10]

Typically appearing in consumer goods contract cases, the doctrine of unconscionability, as applied by courts, requires that a party entering a contract have (1) little choice or bargaining power, (2) an inability to understand the contract terms, and (3) a lack of fairness in the agreement.[11] A reality show contestant is unlikely to succeed on the first requirement, as they are free to decline the contract and choose not to participate in the show. Similarly, as to the second requirement, a contestant may not understand the contract terms on their own, but they are able to hire an attorney to go over the specifics with them.

As to unfairness, it may seem clear that these contracts are unfair due to the freedoms that are limited during filming. However, courts typically look for contract terms that “shock the conscience” with their unfairness.[12] These provisions may be surprising to an outsider unfamiliar with what goes on behind the scenes of reality TV, but they have largely become boilerplate in the industry and are not (legally) shocking given the nature of these television programs.

Reality television contestants rarely have legal recourse through contract law. However, with the increase of lawsuits like Hartwell’s bringing awareness to the conditions on certain sets, we may begin to see a change in how contestants are treated and compensated.


[1] Matt Stevens, What To Know About the Actors’ Strike, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2023), [] [].

[2] Alison Durkee, SAG-AFTRA Strike: Here’s What Isn’t Affected by Actors’ Work Stoppage, Forbes (July 14, 2023), []. [].

[3] Marianne Garvey, ‘Love Is Blind’ Contestants Forced To Film Drunk, Hungry and Sleep-deprived, Lawsuit Claims, CNN (July 16, 2022), [] [].

[4] Just Irish Podcast, Rosanna Pansino Reveals She Was Betrayed by MrBeast & Reality TV Producers | Just Trish Ep. 26, YouTube (Oct. 26, 2023), [] [].

[5] Id.

[6] Jennifer L. Blair, Surviving Reality TV: The Ultimate Challenge for Reality Show Contestants, 31 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 1, 18 (2010).

[7] Pitt Entertainment Law, What Are Reality Television Contestants Agreeing To?, [] [] (last visited Nov. 4, 2023).

[8] See, e.g., Catherine Riley, Signing in Glitter or Blood?: Unconscionability and Reality Television Contracts, 3 N.Y.U. J. Intell. Prop. & Ent. L. 106 (2014).

[9] Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208 (1981).

[10] Hume v. United States, 132 U.S. 406, 406 (1889).

[11] Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co., 350 F.2d 445 (D.C. Cir. 1965).

[12] Osgood v. Franklin, 2 Johns. Ch. 1, 23 (N.Y. Ch. 1816); see also California Grocers Assn. v. Bank of America, 27 Cal. Rptr. 2d 396, 402 (Ct. App. 1994).