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Are reality TV shows subject to defamation law?

Reality TV is all about the drama. A lot goes on behind the scenes to make every interaction as nail-biting or over the top as possible. In post-production, editors may piece together separate sentence fragments to make it seem like a character has made an outlandish statement. A show may portray a character’s reaction shot as corresponding to an unrelated event—in order to make it look more extreme.

It may be called “reality TV,” but to a certain extent, we all know it’s fake. Audience members are happy to buy into this bent truth for the sake of entertainment. We’re willing to let a TV show paint some participants as “good” and others as “bad.” And contestants on such shows agree to certain conditions from the start.

But is there a line that a production company shouldn’t cross? Is there a limit to what a TV show can and cannot insinuate? At what point does artistic license become defamation?

Reality TV survivor

Cody Lundin is a former co-host the Discovery Channel’s reality TV show, Dual Survival. The show places two survival experts in extreme situations and documents their strategies for survival.

Lundin alleges that his co-host, Joseph Teti, threatened violence against him and other crew members. He claims that Discovery responded to his complaints by firing him from the show. In Lundin’s final episode, the production team spliced together footage to give the impression that Lundin was mentally unstable—and that this was the reason for his removal from the show. Teti then posted comments about Lundin’s alleged mental illness on social media.

Lundin sued Discovery from defamation.

Is there a case?

In federal court, Discovery referred the judge to the talent agreement Lundin signed for the show. Since the premise of the show is based on participants surviving dangerous situations, Lundin’s contract—expectedly—required him to sign away his rights to sue over personal injury.

However, the court found that intentional harm and extreme negligence are exceptions to the rule—and that documentaries and reality shows should not be held to different standards. It found that Discovery’s actions constituted intentional harm, and therefore a defamation lawsuit is permissible.

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