Release protects shows from lawsuits

For the London Free Press - March 19, 2012 - Read this on Canoe Ever wonder why reality TV shows are not sued by contestants over their portrayal on TV?

It's because the releases they sign effectively prevent that. John Turmel, a contestant on CBC's Dragons' Den, found this out the hard way after suing CBC based on an unfavourable portrayal on the show.

The show features contestants pitching new business ideas to the dragons, who then decide if they're interested in investing in them. Turmel was approached by the show based on his public speaking experience.

The producers thought he would give an interesting pitch, although they didn't know ahead of time what idea he would be presenting. Turmel attempted to pitch his idea of a local currency based on poker chips.

The dragons were very confused by his 15-minute pitch and were not particularly kind when expressing this to Turmel. One dragon stated she had no idea what he was talking about while another invited him to burst into flames.

The pitch was edited down to a one-minute segment that was broadcast as a lesson to future contestants that a pitch must be clear and easily understood to attract the dragons' interest.

Turmel sued the CBC for breach of contract and defamation. The court dismissed his claims on a summary judgment motion as there was no genuine issue requiring a trial.

He appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal and argued the contract was unconscionable. Again it was found there was no issue for trial. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear Turmel's appeal.

The crux of the courts' decisions was the depiction release signed by Turmel. It provided that the footage filmed during his pitch could be used in any way CBC saw fit.

The release stated that Turmel consented to this and, more specifically, set out that Turmel acknowledged his depiction on the show could possibly be "disparaging, defamatory, embarrassing or of an otherwise unfavourable nature which may expose [him] to public ridicule, humiliation or condemnation."

The release also stated he could not sue for loss or damages, no matter how caused.

Turmel was given the release, along with material about the show, prior to his taping. He had never seen the show, but he chose not to despite the CBC's encouragement for him to watch a few episodes.

He was given the opportunity to obtain legal advice regarding the release; he chose not to. Turmel signed the release under his own free will. The release was clear and straightforward.

All those factors led the courts to decide that the release was binding and therefore Turmel had no grounds upon which to sue. Turmel was aware of the explicitly stated risks, and still chose to sign and participate in the show.

There's always a chance that reality show participants will not like the light in which they are ultimately cast, but that is the risk they assume to get their 15 minutes of fame.