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Reality TV's extreme stunts demand extreme insurance protection

"One death. One dismemberment. That's all it could take to end reality television," said Kenneth Wefer, owner of LMC Group, an engineering company that helps insurers evaluate stunts. "That's why it's crucial that insurers are involved.... Without them, reality TV might not exist."

A reality television producer's dream can be an insurance underwriter's nightmare.

In one episode alone, for example, the contestants of NBC's Fear Factor were dragged through the mud by galloping horses, lowered into a pit where hundreds of rats nibbled on them, and clambered over a wet, slippery car that was hoisted hundreds of feet in the air.

Experts say reality shows might not exist were it not for a few big insurance companies, including St. Paul Travelers, American International Group of New York and Fireman's Fund Insurance Cos. of Novato, Calif.

Experts say reality shows might not exist were it not for a few big insurance companies, including St. Paul Travelers, American International Group of New York and Fireman's Fund Insurance Cos.
of Novato, Calif.

Before Fear Factor contestants can leap from helicopters or Survivor participants can paddle up a muddy jungle river in Brazil, producers must find companies to insure them in case someone breaks a limb, returns home with mental scars, or worse.

The potential rewards are high for insurance companies. Insurance rates on a reality TV show with physical stunts can be 20 to 50 percent higher than a standard program shot in a studio, Paulsen said. Last year, St. Paul Travelers collected about $110 million in premiums from its entertainment unit, with a portion of that from reality programming, Jon Paulsen said. "For now, reality TV is the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment insurance industry," he said. Paulsen is chief underwriting officer of the entertainment division at the St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc., which insures Fear Factor and several other popular reality shows.

It wasn't long ago that some media analysts predicted the genre would fail because it would be too difficult to insure. But few incidents have occurred, partly thanks to insurance companies working behind the scenes to remove risks, the analysts say.

But you can bet this reality show, and others like it, wouldn't make it to prime time unless the producers had backed their productions with beefed-up entertainment insurance packages. According to the Insurance Information Network of California (IINC), as more reality shows rely on extreme stunts to build drama, typical entertainment insurance packages aren't extensive enough to cover the increased risks.

In addition to normal entertainment coverage for such occurrences as delays in shooting due to poor weather conditions, a reality program must purchase larger general liability insurance policies, as well as insurance for several types of vehicles and accidental death and dismemberment policies for the show's participants.

"The more reality shows rely on risky stunts to build ratings, the more they rely on insurance not only to protect them financially, but also to provide safety guidelines," says Candysse Miller, IINC's executive director. "Insurance protects not only the producers, but also the participants by requiring that the shows take extreme safety measures before a policy is written."

However, underwriting such a TV show can be a tricky business when the program's participants are not stuntpeople, but "average John Does doing what they normally wouldn't be doing," says Wendy Diaz, an executive entertainment insurance underwriter with Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. Fireman's entertainment insurance division has been in business since the 1920s, when the company began insuring motion picture props and sets.

Diaz says Fireman's Fund is extremely selective about which reality shows and stunts it will insure and assigns a loss specialist to consult with the shows' producers to minimize the risks as much as possible. "We're picky because we could stand to lose a lot of money," she says.

According to IINC, most movie insurance packages cost between 3 and 5 percent of the project's total budget. But with their increased risks, reality shows use this cost as a starting point and the price climbs based on the severity of the exposures. Besides the usual danger added by the elements of fire and water, "height adds a whole new dimension of risk," according to Diaz.

Bruised egos and psychological harm

"Right now, I feel [the producers] have engineered out most of the risks. But if this push for bigger, better means someone gets significantly injured, then
all bets are off."

But broken bones aren't the only worry to reality TV producers. Bruised egos have the potential to cause hefty losses. Philip Zelnick is suing Candid Camera for persuading him to go through an airport X-ray machine. Zelnick claimed he suffered bruises and bleeding after he got stuck. James and Laurie Ann Ryan are suing MTV's Harassment for emotional distress. They checked into a Las Vegas hotel to find a fake body in their bathroom, and a guard and paramedic who stopped them from leaving. Other popular reality shows, including Survivor on CBS and MTV's Road Rules, are being sued by former contestants for character defamation.

While it is too early to tell the outcome of these lawsuits, industry experts say such litigation is bound to increase as more reality shows like NBC's Spy TV make it to prime time. On an episode of Spy TV, for example, a man introduces the new love of his life to his best friends, only to find out that "she" is really a he.

This subject matter has already sparked entertainment industry lawsuits. The Jenny Jones Show, its producer Telepictures, and its distributor Warner Bros., were sued for $50 million by the family of Scott Amedure, a gay man who was murdered three days after appearing at a March 1995 taping of the show to confess his "secret crush" on his killer, Jonathan Schmitz, a heterosexual. The jury awarded the family $25 million.

While companies that issue entertainment insurance packages can't know ahead of time exactly how each reality TV scenario or stunt will play out, they do have behind-the-scenes ways to minimize the risks. Take the rat pit into which Fear Factor contestants were lowered, for instance. John Kozero, a spokesperson for Fireman's Fund, says he bets "those were the cleanest, raised-in-a-sterile-laboratory rats" the producers could buy under the direct advice of an insurer's loss control specialist.

Despite these safeguards, there's little doubt a pre-stunt tetanus shot was also ordered.

Paulsen states the risks in another way, "Right now, I feel [the producers] have engineered out most of the risks. But if this push for bigger, better means someone gets significantly injured, then all bets are off."

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