Here’s A Reality Check: Maybe There’s More Than Enough Fault To Go Around?

So as promised last week, the “day of reckoning” against the reality TV industry, or at least the significant sector carved out by the NBCUniversal family of networks, came on Sunday, and yesterday the WRAP’s Loree Weitz broke the details of it to the rest of us:

Lawyers representing reality stars and crew of NBCUniversal subsidiaries are calling out the “unlawful” NDAs imposed by the entertainment giant that “hide civil and criminal wrongs” that occurred on reality programs on NBC, Bravo Media, E! and CNBC. 

“NBCUniversal has represented to the public that it requires its third-party production partners to comply with its own policies in an effort to stop harassment, discrimination, and other illegal conduct,” attorney Bryan Freedman wrote to NBCU’s general counsel… “Yet, for obvious reasons, it has turned a blind eye as these production partners enforce illegal nondisclosure agreements to hide civil and criminal wrongs.”

The letter, dated Aug. 20, alleged that the conglomerate’s “collective failure to comply with the law has caused hundreds or thousands of people to stay silent about unlawful workplace conduct they have witnessed or experienced, which has included: racism; sexism; sexual violence; revenge porn; child labor; forced intoxication; and psychological, emotional, and physical abuse.”

And as luck would have it, the set of another conglomerate’s series shut down yesterday as well, as Weitz’ comrade-in-arms Lucas Manfredi reported:

Production on Season 28 of Food Network’s “Worst Cooks in America” has shut down in Long Island City, New York, as crew members affiliated with IATSE go on strike.

In an X post on Friday, the union, which represents tens of thousands of crew members in film and television, said that Bright Road Productions “refuses to serve up fair wages and benefits!”

“For far too long, crews of unscripted TV have gone without industry-standard wages and benefits!,” the group added. “Now, they’re coming together to demand better.”

Let me upfront strongly reinforce that should any of these serious claims be proven in a court of law, then those who perpetrated and/or enabled them should be punished to the extent that a judge and/or jury will allow.  And those who indeed suffered as a result are entitled to whatever compensation said legal authorities might determine.

I have just one question for those so aggrieved.  What took you all so long?

I’m currently working on a very exhaustive and tedious project that involves in part cataloguing the entirety of NBCU’s streaming inventory in various genres.  Currently that number, which includes a few acquisitions from outside suppliers that makes up some of the shortfall from series that the named networks exploited that they don’t own such rights to, totals more than 250, series that have extended back into the beginning of this century.  That would mean literally thousands of competitors and tens of thousands of employees, collectively from the complete gamut of geography, socioeconomic status, education and moral compasses, who have been involved in this world for a long, long time before Freedman’s eloquently crafted rally for justice was delivered to both NBCU’s lawyers and, of course, a more-than-eager trade press.

I have little doubt that there has been likely an overwhelming number of those who would have been as intimidated and traumatized as Freedman alleges who would have been petrified to speak up.  But also in that group, one might think, would have been some lone wolf, someone who could have felt for either righteous or personal reasons motivated enough to come forward before Freedman, with the help of fellow attorney Mark Geragos and the urging of the aspirational Norma Rae of reality TV Bethenny Frankel, stepped up?

I’ve been an observer of the world of reality TV from an insider’s perspective for quite a while.  During its brief life, FOX Reality (Channel) produced an event called the Really Awards, which celebrated the “accomplishments” of talent attached to the genre.  I attended several of the red-carpet events.  I saw the jockeying for the camera, the pandering, the staged catfights, the winks.  I once had one of the most respected and personally upstanding producers of the genre describe in detail how so many of the moments of “reality” TV were brought around by what was termed “forced reality”, meaning a pre-established meeting or challenge that was designed to provoke conflict and “good content”.  As this producer continued, those involved knew something was coming and were more than complicit about it because, after all, money or something even more meaningful to them, fame was at stake.   And they were ever on the lookout for the kind of people who would be more than OK with that sort of arrangement.

This was much the attitude that their predecessors who produced the reality TV of the 1950s–the quiz shows–employed when their world was upended by a geeky brainiac from the hard-scrabble streets of The Bronx and Queens named Herb Stempel.  You may be familiar with his story from the award-winning movie QUIZ SHOW, where John Turturro portrayed an exaggerated version of the real Stempel–at least the one that was seen by millions on what was at the time one of the most popular TV programs around, the high-stakes TWENTY ONE.  As Wikipedia reported, Stempel was fully aware of what and why he was being given the chance to appear on the show that Jack Barry and Dan Enright concocted as NBC’s response to what was at the time the most popular show in all of TV, CBS’ $64.000 QUESTION.  Fully aware, as Enright later confessed in a dramatic end-of-life interview on the documentary that inspired Robert Redford’s movie. that at the behest of a very impatient and disappointed sponsor, that the show was rigged.

Enright paid Stempel a visit while his wife was out at the theater and he was looking after their young son, and posed the fateful question: “How would you like to make $25,000?” Stempel immediately understood the implications; Enright was not going to pay him just for appearing on the show, when he could be easily defeated.

Stempel was not only provided with coaching on the answers and directions on how to deliver them, but on his physical appearance as well. Stempel was married to a woman whose family had money and the couple was not suffering financially, but Enright decided that the image of an underdog, a penniless GI working his way through school, would appeal to the American public.[5] Enright personally selected his wardrobe: an oversized, baggy double-breasted suit that had belonged to Stempel’s late father-in-law, a blue shirt with a frayed collar, “terrible looking” tie and an old “Timex watch that ticked like an alarm clock”, the sound of which would be picked up by the studio microphone and thus help build suspense.

Stempel: “The whole idea was to make me appear like an ex-G.I. working his way through college. The reason I had been asked to put on this old, ill-fitting suit and get this Marine-type haircut was to make me appear as what you would call today, a nerd, a square. … . On the first program I was on, I was on for approximately four minutes and I won approximately $9,000. I had never had that much money in my life and I was absolutely flabbergasted.[4]

Stempel eventually worked his way up to $69,500–$758,107.36 in 2023–before he was supplanted by who Barry and Enright had identified as a far more watchable personality, the handsome young Columbia University producer Charles Van Doren.  Then, as Wikipedia further recalled, his own reality check set in, and it didn’t take a fellow on-air personality nor a couple of fame-hungry attorneys to motivate him to seek what he considered justice:

After his loss, Stempel overheard one backstage technician say to another: “At least, we finally have a clean-cut intellectual on this program, not a freak with a sponge memory.” Enright’s promise to find Stempel a panel show slot after his college graduation went unfulfilled. When Stempel, who by then had gone through his winnings, later demanded Enright follow through on his original promise, Enright demanded he first sign a statement affirming he had never been coached on Twenty-One. Again, no show materialized. 

When Enright subsequently told him the promise could not be kept because he had sold his shows to NBC itself, Stempel called Jack O’Brian, a columnist who covered television for the New York City Journal-American. Although O’Brian found the story hung together, the paper’s syndicate, fearing a libel suit, refused to print the allegation without further corroboration. Stempel later testified to Congress that in February 1957 he had spoken with a reporter from the New York Post, but that paper had the same reservations as the Journal-American. There were no corroborating witnesses or hard evidence to back up Stempel’s accusations, and Enright dismissed them as being rooted in jealousy over Van Doren’s success.

It took Ed Hilgemeier, a contestant-in-waiting who found a notebook full of answers belonging to Marie Winn, another contestant on the new quiz show Dotto, airing on CBS,[8] to convince authorities and the Journal-American that Stempel should be taken seriously.

That then prompted Congressional investigations that ironically began 65 years ago on the same weekend that Freedman’s letter to NBCU was delivered. ones that ultimately changed the way quiz shows were produced forever and derailed Barry and Enright’s U.S. careers for more than a decade.  Stempel went back to the same “obscurity” that Enright’s death-bed confession in the documentary that inspired QUIZ SHOW saw him offer, becoming a teacher at my very own John Bowne High School decades before both he and Van Doren would go more public with their recollections in the wake of the movie’s success.  He told his students, many of which were personal childhood friends of mine, that he felt that he had to let the world know he was wronged.

A cynic could challenge Stempel’s motivation as being tinged by bitterness, greed or a combination thereof.  But certainly those qualities could describe many people both in front of and behind the cameras of the world of 21st century reality TV that Bethenny Frankel has decided to stand up for.

Someone had to at least have had the same level of fortitude and righteousness as Herb Stempel did, wouldn’t you think?

Amidst all this tumult, of course, NBCU is tight-lipped and defiant.  In response to two previous letters sent by Freedman and Gallegos, Weitz reported their response was that they were committed to maintaining a safe and respectful workplace for cast and crew on our reality shows…If complaints are brought to our attention, we work with our production partners to ensure that timely, appropriate action is or has been taken, including investigations, medical and/or psychological support, and other remedial action that may be warranted such as personnel changes.

As one of their more successful scripted shows once said, yada, yada, yada.

Of course NBCU has to maintain this sort of attitude.  They do need something to populate their networks this fall.  In fact, one of their more eagerly anticipated new series. E!’s HOUSE OF VILLIANS,  is one that will feature a whole bunch of the more notorious personalities of recent years, as Danielle Valente described in YAHOO! LIFE:

(In)famous faces from your favorite reality dating shows are joining forces to “outsmart, out-manipulate, and out-scheme” each other for a chance at a $200,000 cash prize, so if you thought tensions were high before, just wait. There’s more cookin’.  According to E!, “Each week the contestants compete in a battle-royale challenge that tests their physical, mental, and emotional strength. The winner of the challenge is safe from elimination and at the end of the week, one villain is sent home. It’s the battle of the century as alliances are made, trusts are broken and the villains scheme their way to the top.”

Incidentally, this show will debut in October with a “supersized” 75 minute episode that will be simulcast on four NBCU cable networks and, I suspect, eventually could find its way onto NBC itself.  And of course, it will eventually add to that 250 and counting inventory on Peacock.

I kinda wonder how the crew and the participants on that show were treated.  If any of them will speak up amidst these allegations.  Maybe give some teeth to some of what has been alleged.  Possibly even join in making this emotional and eloquently worded plea for owning up to their sins which Weitz quoted from Freedman’s letter:

“We are left with the inescapable conclusion that NBC and its production partners are grappling with systemic rot for which sunlight is the first necessary remedial measure,” Freedman wrote in the letter’s opening. “To date, that has been impossible owing to the draconian terms of NBC’s contracts with its cast and crew, which contain onerous confidentiality provisions coupled with ruinous penalties for breach.Noting that the company is “on notice that these nondisclosure agreements are unlawful,” Freedman cautioned that the “reprehensible practice must end now.”

Ahem…Bravo, Bryan. Well said.  But perhaps reprehensible practices have been evident on both sides?  Is there no Herb Stempel lurking amongst you?
Until next time…



Leave a Comment