Are Reality-TV Actors Professional?

Do the contestants on a show like Survivor count as working actors?

The new CBS reality show Kid Nation

Kid Nation, the CBS reality show in which 40 children live in a New Mexico ghost town without their parents, has been accused of possible child abuse and violation of labor laws. Reports say the children, who ranged from 8 to 15, were working as many as 14 hours a day—something that wouldn’t be allowed if these kids were professional actors. Do reality-TV participants count as professionals?

Only if they’re using a talent to entertain the audience. Hanging out with your fellow housemates in Big Brother doesn’t count as talent, and neither does outmanipulating everyone on Survivor or even wowing the judges on American Idol. If a show contains a performance of some kind, like dancing or modeling, participants would be considered talent as long as they’re not amateur competitors out for the cash. If you’re booted off American Idol but get invited back to entertain the viewers, for instance, you’d be considered professional talent. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists decides who fits into which categories. Everyone on Last Comic Standing and Dancing With the Stars counts as a professional. So does William Hung, who became famous for his cringe-inducing rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs“; he qualified as a talent once he started making the talk-show rounds.

Most reality shows treat their participants a bit like game-show contestants in requiring confidentiality agreements. But reality-TV contracts are especially strict and designed to protect the producers. In many cases, people sign away practically all their rights just to appear on camera. They’re sworn to secrecy; on Kid Nation, confidentiality agreements extend for three years after the show ends—that’s the entire series, and not just the 13-episode cycle. The kids who finish get a stipend of $5,000 and have a chance to win $20,000 each episode, but the show can withhold the money until after broadcast. Participants usually have to promise not to sue for anything, like humiliation, physical injury, or even (as Kid Nation parents discovered) sexually transmitted diseases. Handing over the rights to your life story is also common—this means only the production company or network could make a movie about you.

As amateurs, reality-show participants have relatively few legal protections. On the other hand, professional talent work under union rules that specify how much you get paid, how many hours a week you can work until overtime kicks in, how many weeks in a row you can work, and what kind of health and retirement benefits you get. According to AFTRA rules (PDF), a performer who speaks five or fewer lines on a one-hour variety show, for instance, must be paid at least $422. If the children on Kid Nation were treated as professional actors under Screen Actors Guild guidelines, most of them could only work nine hours a day, and that includes time for school or tutoring. Being part of a union also means collective bargaining is on your side; to win a pay increase in 2000, 135,000 commercial actors under AFTRA went on strike for six months. So, what rights do reality-show participants have? Well, they can always walk off the set. But they might not get any money if they do.

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Explainer thanks Stephen Sheppard of Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard and Steven Sloane Newburgh of FowlerWhite.